Rob Hann reflects on how studying for the Law Society's Diploma in Local Government Law and Practice became a pivotal moment in his long and varied local government career.
As we all emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, I imagine I won’t be the only person who has had more time and opportunity than usual to ponder and reflect on career pivotal moments?
Now, the thing about career pivotal moments is that they will not always be obvious as pivotal at the time.
Last week, in the Local Government Lawyer, there was a banner headline urging suitably qualified applicants (e.g. solicitors, trainee solicitors, chartered legal executives or barristers working in or for local government or related areas) to apply to undertake the Law Society's Diploma in Local Government Law and Practice (‘DipLG’). Applications need to be in by the 14th August for this year’s cohort.
As I read this ‘call to action’ I found myself transported back in time - to 1992/1993 in fact - which was when I studied for and eventually secured my DipLG.
John Major was Prime Minister, Ken Clarke succeeded Norman Lamont as Chancellor of the Exchequer; Manchester United became the first champions of the New Premier League and Take That had their first top ten hit.
I was, by that stage, several years into my local government career, having started as a trainee at Sheffield City Council in 1984 (see my earlier article on my experiences there). My first post as a solicitor was at Rotherham MBC, followed by a few years at Nottinghamshire County Council before I joined Eversheds to get some company and corporate law experience. In 1993, I found myself back in local government having worked for both Leicester and Nottingham City Councils. It was during this period that my then employing authority kindly approved my application to undertake the DipLG.
From the look of the content of the new course, it seems the structure hasn’t changed from my day.
To quote the old adage ‘if it aint broke don’t fix it!
The DipLG then, as now, is made up of two parts:
- submission of three written projects
- a written exam on local government law and practice
The projects cover legal, administrative and political issues and, in my experience, these ‘set problems’ are grounded and based on real life events or scenarios typically faced by local government. Extensive research and reading around the subject will be necessary. Advice and mentoring from more experienced colleagues may also be desirable. In my case this was readily forthcoming from my then NCC Head of Legal, Tony Austin, a hugely respected and knowledgeable local government lawyer.
The submission of the three written projects was followed by an open book exam (now changed to ‘internet access allowed’!)
Why am I now able to look back and say the DipLG was pivotal to my career?
One of the three projects I was given was based around the problems and difficulties local authorities were having at the time when seeking to raise more income through charging end users and others for accessing council services. The seminal case (both then and now) is the House of Lords decision in R-v-Richmond-Upon-Thames BC ex parte McCarthy and Stone Developments) Ltd (1991) 4 All ER 897 where Lord Lowry, delivering the leading judgment stated that:
“…the rule is that a charge cannot be made unless the power to charge is given by express words or by necessary implication”.
This was a very restrictive and problematic judgment for local government (and remember this was before charging and trading powers were, to an extent, clarified and extended by the Local Government Act 2003 and the Localism Act 2011). The UK (as now) was in the midst of an economic recession. Many local authorities were exploring ways of mitigating funding cuts and trying to act more commercially which included seeking to generate more income through charging.
I began to research the whole question of charging, trading and acting commercially and what it meant in a local government context. I soon had sufficient material for the purposes of the DipLG project, but I didn’t stop there. I was (frankly) appalled and surprised at the lack of clear information and guidance on charging for services. There didn’t seem to be any centrally produced ‘compendium’ of charging powers which local government lawyers could easily reach for to see what the law already permitted by way of charging.
In 1992/3 the internet and the World Wide Web were very new and were certainly not widely or readily available for use in my council. Google searches, LexisNexis and PLC etc were similarly yet to appear as research facilities. However, I was permitted access to the law library and to Halsbury’s laws and statutes. NCC let me borrow Halsbury’s for private research and I spent many a fascinating (!) weekend searching through each volume of Halsbury’s to pluck out any mention of LA charging powers.
Eventually, this research became the essence of the first book I published on local government law. FT Law and Tax (then part of the Sweet and Maxwell empire – now Thomson Reuters) published the first edition of ‘A Guide to Local Authority charging Powers’ as a ‘Special Report’ in February 1995. Over the intervening years I have republished the book and added to it as the law has changed (A Guide to Local Authority Charging and Trading Powers 2020 is the most recent edition). Other books followed including A Guide to LA Companies and Partnerships 2020.
It is only now though that I have realised looking back, that the DipLG really helped me to shape my approach to writing in particular. It helped me to be thorough when undertaking research; to set things out in a clear and concise manner and to boil complex issues down to their simplest form so that the important lessons can be extracted quickly for all.
The DipLG therefore was pivotal to me not just in my career as an author and editor of many local government law books but also as a learning tool which really helped me in my day job as a local government lawyer.
I would thoroughly recommend the Law Society’s DipLG to any lawyer serious about a long-term career in or involving local government. Good luck to all who undertake the DipLG and who manage to secure a place before the 14th August deadline. I am sure the qualifications will prove similarly helpful to a new generation of local government lawyers.
Rob Hann is a local government lawyer, consultant and author for 35 years and ex-head of legal at 4ps/Local Partnerships,