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Cabinet at Buckinghamshire to consider HB Public Law integration plan

The Cabinet at Buckinghamshire County Council will later this month (25 April) consider plans for further integration of its legal services team with HB Public Law.

A report prepared ahead of the BCC Cabinet meeting said the proposal “builds on successful partnership working to date and the existing Shared Head of Legal Services arrangement between the two authorities”.

Hugh Peart, Director of Governance and Legal Services at Harrow, has acted as Buckinghamshire’s head of legal since April 2015. On his appointment he was tasked with exploring the benefits of greater collaboration between the two organisations.

The BCC Cabinet report noted that: “In a continuing climate of financial austerity BCC’s internal legal services face a number of challenges including:

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  • Retaining the depth of specialist knowledge and experience to support BCC when demand in some areas is not consistent;
  • The increasing complexity and vulnerability to challenge of decisions it advises on;
  • Predicted increased demand in some specialist areas;
  • The increasingly complex local government landscape as multi-agency partnerships and new commercial arrangements proliferate; and
  • Difficulty in recruiting to some specialist posts caused by a national focus on regeneration.”

Key features of the deal, which was backed by Harrow’s Cabinet at its meeting on 18 February, are:

  • Buckinghamshire would direct demand for all its legal work to HB Public Law, which is headquartered in Harrow. This arrangement would work in a similar way to the current trading account between BCC Business Unit services and the legal team at the county.
  • Legal staff at BCC would transfer to Harrow under TUPE. Harrow would then be responsible for delivering the service in accordance with standardised key performance indicators. Buckinghamshire’s legal team is understood to have 49 staff. If the deal goes ahead, HB Public Law will increase in size to around 160.
  • The following BCC services areas are in scope of the proposals and will transfer to HB Public Law: children’s legal services including education; adult social care legal services; property, planning and contracts; employment advice and litigation.
  • The follow services currently within legal will remain out of scope and be subject to alternative arrangements: monitoring officer role; complaints (stage 2); school appeals; and insurance claims.
  • The monitoring officer role, delivered by the Director of Strategy and Policy at Buckinghamshire, will remain an HQ function. Legal support will be provided to the MO by the transfer of a senior lawyer (from the existing BCC legal team) to give corporate governance advice, act as deputy monitoring officer, and support the legal contract management and legal services commissioning.
  • The agreement with Harrow will be for five years with a review point at year 4.
  • The shared services arrangements will be documented in an inter authority agreement to be entered into by BCC and Harrow.
  • An on-site presence in the form of a ‘branch office’ will remain at Buckinghamshire’s headquarters.

The report revealed that a number of other options were also considered in addition to the preferred model of integration with HB Public Law. These were: pursing the current strategy of incremental commercial growth for the Buckinghamshire legal team; market testing of its legal service; development of a partnership arrangement with HB Public Law; and joining one of the other emerging regional local government legal practices.

“It should be noted that in considering closer working for legal services experience elsewhere has shown that the realisation of maximum benefits is dependent upon more than simple consolidation of activity. Only complete integration will drive out economies of scale, improve core processes and deliver sustainable business benefits,” the report suggested.

Buckinghamshire expects cumulative savings of £600,000 by 2019/20 from the proposals.

The deal, if implemented, would represent the latest phase of growth at HB Public Law, which was established in 2012 with the merger of Harrow and Barnet Councils’ legal teams.

This was followed by the London Borough of Hounslow joining HB Public Law on 1 June and Aylesbury Vale District Council becoming part of the shared service on 1 September.

HB Public Law and Buckinghamshire were also the first teams to set up local authority-owned ABSs.

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