Council legal teams are being urged to ‘lead from the front’ to ensure they do not lose out on work related to the government’s local devolution programme.
New devolution deals with the west of England, East Anglia and Greater Lincolnshire were announced in last month’s budget. Following devolution deals with Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region, Sheffield City Region, the north-east and Tees Valley, more than half of the population of the north of England will be represented by an elected mayor.
Essex Legal Services (ELS) interim director Angela Hutchings told the weekend school that combined authorities would ‘almost certainly’ be part of the programme.
Combined authorities take about 12-18 months to set up, Hutchings said: ‘The bigger and more complex the combined authority, the more complex the landscape. The process for agreeing what that combined authority looks like will be difficult in politically volatile areas.’
ELS assistant director Shirley Jarlett added: ‘There is going to be a lot of governance, all of the issues around consultation, statutory duties remaining around various roles, what happens if there is a conflict of interest…if it goes wrong, accountability.
‘That’s our bread and butter. It’s the space we need to be playing in and thinking about.
‘A lot of advice will be needed. We need to make sure we’re the people giving it, not an outsourced model.’
Hutchings urged lawyers to ‘lead from the front’ and develop a ‘panoramic’ view of their business.
‘We have spent a lot of time focusing on our own bottom line,’ she said. ‘As [a] legal business going forward, we have got to be thinking about business. Where’s that bread and butter coming from?’
Meanwhile, former treasury solicitor Sir Paul Jenkins QC pointed to research by public sector specialist firm Browne Jacobson to highlight concerns that legacy contracts inherited by a combined authority may be unsuitable for use in the new arrangement.
He advised lawyers inheriting such contracts to consider due diligence reviews ‘sooner rather than later, so issues can be addressed within the restrictions imposed by the law.
‘New contracts being entered into by public sector bodies need to be sophisticated and flexible to meet future structural and organisational changes, to the extent legally permissible’.
Jenkins warned that ‘inherent’ conflicts of interest were likely to occur ‘when members wearing two hats, representing both their local authority and the combined authority, are asked to make decisions which may be incompatible with both parties’ interests’.
He added: ‘This can be further complicated by existing collaborations. This needs to be recognised and addressed, not swept under the carpet.’