Top chief executive urges local government lawyers to provide early input into decision-making

Local government lawyers should 'pick up the baton' and ensure they provide early input into councils’ decision-making, a high-profile chief executive has said.

Speaking at the 2019 Weekend School, Tim Shields, chief executive of the London Borough of Hackney since 2008, said: “In my time, I have experienced a whole flavour of legal input into processes. That can be from silence to negative to 'here are all the barriers'. Who I actually love working with are solution-based people that come forward and say, for example, 'okay. So your objective is to achieve a ULEZ [ultra low emission zone]. What do we want to do? Why are we doing it? What are the time scales? What's the process?’

“And they start to feed into the formation of that at a very early stage. They then think about ‘well, yes, there are pitfalls, but how can I make this happen and how can I make it work well?’”

Shields said that, in the absence of this early input, quite often what happens is that authorities get part way through the process and encounter a glitch, sometimes ending up in litigation or judicial review.

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“So my preference is to get that input really early because it's much easier to work through that together, rather than mopping up a mess. What the people that are trying to get something done don't do is recognise the fact that, actually, if they get this input early, if they get that view, they get that advice, this will all work,” he suggested.

“When I started as Director of Finance, I very much wanted my accountants to understand the business, to be at the beginning of the forward plan of something that's going to happen in six months' time.”

Shields suggested that there needed to be a meeting of minds. “Both sides have got to reach out to do this and see the benefit of it. But how do you do that? I think it's probably up to you. I'd put that baton back to you. Go back, pick up your cabinet forward plans, pick up your community strategy, pick up your manifesto and then go ‘Ok, fine, let's do an assessment of risk and assessment of legal issues’ and actually go to that service and go 'right in a couple months' time you are going to start this off. I'd like to input into that. I'd like to help. Here are my ideas.’

“So I think it's got to be a bit of that and you pushing your nose in the door and being really proactive because I don't want to mop up the mess at the end. I'd rather have that interaction at the beginning.”

Also in his speech Shields acknowledged that there had been a lot of debate in recent years about the position of lawyers in the structure of their authorities, and whether or not they should be at the top table.

“I don't think it's about what table you're at and where you are in the structure,” he argued. “It is about you guys being in the room, in the space, making an impact and being there. That is imperative because you're going to push into some really difficult spaces, whether it's member and officer relationships or whether it's something happening within the financial world or legal world or whatever it may be.”

On the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’, Shields said that he was together with the Section 151 officer and the monitoring officer "quite a lot, discussing some really tricky, knotty issues”.

He argued that all three post-holders must be experienced. “All three of them need to be….confident in this space - confident with members, confident of their position and we all need to be saying the same thing because people will look to pick holes in it.”

Shields said the relationship between these individuals could be tested when faced with the most complex and difficult areas. “This is when you need to make sure that you hold your heads. We hold a top-level view between the three of us of risk, the risk of the whole local authority. We hold that view and we need to think about how we treat that and how we look after it.

“Essentially, we are the guardians of governance, we are guardians of finance, we are guardians of standards, we are guardians of behaviours across the whole organisation. So, for me, this is critical, but we do need to think about how we deliver that and as far as I'm concerned all of you in the room that are lawyers are monitoring officers. When you're out there at meetings, when you're out there discharging your duties, when you're out there doing things, you need to be in that mindset.”

Leadership in local authorities is becoming more difficult as resources diminish, Shields suggested. “The stresses and the strains of agreeing to make cuts or change services or reshape things or come up with innovation pushes people into difficult places and strains relationships….

“So it's tough. The term ‘leaders’ is used a lot. I think all of us in this room are leaders. We need to make sure we're in that mindset all the time, setting standards, setting behaviours. You must not be wallpaper. You must be active. You must be there. It's no good getting to the end of a process, and something goes wrong......Let's get ahead of it, let's do the work at the beginning and give that input because everybody wants it to keep us safe, to keep me safe, to keep an organisation safe, but I recognise it is stretching your skill sets.”

Shields also paid tribute to those working as lawyers in the sector. “You probably don't get thanked much, people go 'oh, bloody lawyers, they are being difficult'. Actually, I hugely value what you do day in, day out because what you're doing is help form policy, implement things, help us do it well, taking account of all of those angles, protecting me, making sure the organisation is well run - all of those things you'd expect.”

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