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The state we’re in

One of the lessons of previous periods of austerity in local government is that cutting back on training budgets can create skills shortages in local authority legal teams. It is more important than ever, writes Dudley Lewis, for lawyers to have the right tools to succeed.

Let’s not pretend the next few years are going to be anything other than tough for those of us who have what should always be the privilege of serving our communities.

And let’s just face up to the fact that local authorities – the nucleus of public service delivery – will be, at turns, consolidator, protector, pioneer and, yes, bogey-man.

As for the rights and wrongs of how we arrived at the country’s most challenging crossroad since the end of the Second World War? Well, we should probably leave that to those who will wake up on May 7 with a cocktail of euphoria and hangover in their systems.

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But before we all go running for the hills with a sense of collected dread, it really is worth taking stock. We live in a country in which it has become sadly fashionable to major on the negative, fuelled by parts of the media and ultimately transferred to a public who we can hardly blame for having become increasingly disengaged and disenchanted.

I heard a well-known national commentator say recently that “people in this country have switched off” (when it comes to politics and the political system). How sad, how worrying and, if true, how dangerous.

Our local authorities and those who have worked in them over the decades have made them, in many respects, beacons of what can and should be achieved by collective working within the public arena.

I am not for one minute saying everything is perfect. It’s not. But in numerous areas, our councils are centres of excellence, employing gifted, talented and dedicated people, and delivering services that are often thought to be world class.

However, the job ahead is daunting, the obstacles will be numerous and, if we thought we had seen speed of change under New Labour well, as the man said, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet”.

Professor Tony Travers of the London School of Economics said recently that councils nearly always emerge stronger from periods of change. But where does even more change and uncertainty position the public sector lawyer? And what has happened to the lawyer in local government?

The quick answer is they are still there and providing a crucial legal role, but 20 years ago between 70 and 80% of council chief executives came from a legal background. Today, I would guess that figure languishes somewhere around the 20% mark and, it would appear, is declining. Coupled with that, it would appear there are far fewer council lawyers who are even members of their authority’s corporate management team.

With chief executive or director-level positions now just as likely to be recruited from disciplines other than the law, the local authority solicitor has been sidelined. Is that too emotive a view? I don’t think so.

The main reason we now face a problem is the lack of vocational and personal development. Of course we need career lawyers, that goes without saying but we urgently need to find a vehicle for those who may want to move away from pure specialisation. Sadly, those individuals are probably less well equipped to seize opportunities than at any time I can remember.

Many of the current skills shortages in local government are the result of council cuts to training budgets when funding was tight last time around. The focus now has to be on correcting what is wrong, developing that which is right, and having the proper talent and skills in place to address both challenges and opportunities.

In the end, our profession in the public sector has simply not responded to change. Now, regardless of whether this is our fault or the fault of a culture that demands more and more with fewer resources is open to question. What is sorely needed is a framework for the development of the local authority lawyer.

This is about attaining management skills on various levels – crucially the development of the individual, the leadership of people and teams, and in addressing the culture and demands of the political environment. There are skills within this framework which, I am sad to say, are now sorely lacking from those within our profession who aspire to their place at the top table.

There are certain functions, certain disciplines that always seem prone to greater scrutiny when times are tough. But there are also the types of business tools that if neglected during a recession, invariably make recovery all the more difficult. Training is undoubtedly one of those – and I make no excuse for being one of its most vehement champions.

This really is no time to scrimp on training budgets.

Dudley Lewis was city clerk and director of legal services at Bristol City Council, and is currently director of training at LGG – a provider of training courses and conferences to lawyers and others working in local government.




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