Council legal departments are buzzing with survival strategies in the face of continued cuts.
‘Conference of local government lawyers?’ my taxi driver observed, as he turned in to York University campus at the weekend. 'I bet that’ll be a laugh.’
Perhaps I've been in this job too long, but when I agreed I wasn't being sarcastic. The annual weekend school of the Lawyers in Local Government group is generally a jolly occasion, and this year was no exception.
Which is remarkable, given the sector's parlous position.
The title of one plenary session summed it up: 'Sleepwalking into oblivion? Is time running out for local government lawyers?' At a time when local authorities have already cut their budgets by an average of 30%, and face a period of continued austerity to 2020 or beyond, the answer to the second half of the question was certainly yes. At least in the sense of each district, county and unitary council maintaining its dedicated legal team on the rates. (Sorry, council tax.)
However the delegates in York didn't strike me as sleepwalkers. The event was buzzing with survival strategies. They range from pooling teams with neighbouring authorities to large-scale outsourcing to plunging headlong into the market with commercial ventures.
Here, the big news is the imminent arrival of the first local authority-owned alternative business structures. Despite the fears elsewhere in the market, the first wave do not appear to be driven by commercial ambition but by survival: ABSs are seen as the way for council legal teams to continue providing services in areas that the authority as a whole has outsourced.
North London's HB Public Law , for example, is aiming to set up an ABS venture initially to serve the planning function of its host authorities.
It won't be long, however, before these local authority-led ABS's become more overtly entrepreneurial. Kent County Council, for example, already a substantial supplier of cross-border services, has made no secret of its ambitions in that direction.
The prospect raises interesting challenges. One problem, which applies just as much to conventional 'shared services' schemes, is that everyone sees themselves as the centre of excellence, selling services rather than buying them in. Certainly the proliferation of councils handing out brochures promoting their services gave that impression at the weekend.
Obviously, the teams represented at York were a self-selecting bunch - we're not going to see 478 council ABSs scrabbling for market share - but, statistically, some of the new ventures are bound to fail. We need to be ready for the prospect.
I hope that next year's weekend school will be as jolly as this one, but I somehow doubt it.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor