Kent County Council’s launch of a quasi-commercial legal arm has been delayed once again, the Gazette understands, in what could be a sign of the diminishing allure of alternative business structures for local authority legal teams.

More than a year has passed since the council began the procurement process for a commercial partner to form a groundbreaking joint venture ABS, into which Kent Legal Services staff would transfer.

The council, which was expected to make a decision on the final bidder this month, has concluded its scoring of the bidder’s submission. But planned reports to the policy and resources committee last week and to the cabinet today have been postponed to allow further discussions.

A spokesperson for the council told the Gazette the procurement process ‘has included a range of complex and confidential discussions with potential partners’. 

‘This will be taken for a cabinet decision in the autumn, and it would be premature for [Kent County Council] to make any further comment at this time,’ the spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, other local authority legal teams are looking at new ways to generate income without going down the ABS route.

Norfolk’s public sector legal services organisation nplaw has won a two-year contract to provide services to Maldon District Council.

Nplaw already carries out work for eight Norfolk councils and several public sector organisations.

The contract, worth £100,000, will involve drafting and negotiating section 106 agreements with developers for large-scale and strategic planning applications submitted for sites allocated under Maldon’s local development plan.

Maldon District Council said it was not shrinking its legal team. ‘The council has always sought independent legal advice on section 106 agreements as we only have a small in-house legal team and [section 106 agreements] is a specialised area,’ a spokesperson for Maldon said.

Chris Skinner, assistant practice director of nplaw, said his organisation was in the ‘early stage’ of considering whether an ABS ‘might be appropriate in the future, [but] we already feel that we have got opportunities to do a lot of trading without having to do that’.

Skinner said there is ‘tremendous scope’ for innovation with existing arrangements under the Local Authorities (Goods and Services) Act 1970.

‘In the last few years we have seen more and more shared services being set up,’ Skinner said. ‘I think most of them, like us, see external income coming from services to other local authorities.’

Lewes District Council and Eastbourne Borough Council, which combined legal services earlier this year, have no plans to seek ABS status ‘at present’, a spokesperson said, ‘although we’re not ruling that out for the future’.

‘We’re satisfied that existing local authority powers presently give us sufficient scope to undertake all the external work which is coming our way.’

The two East Sussex mid-tier councils are in ‘early discussions’ about extending services with two more local authorities.