Who has more power? A council chief exec, council leader or a local MP?

One former Council chief executive is much in the news just now – Christine Laird, former managing director of Cheltenham Borough Council, is being sued for £1m by the authority, which claims she concealed her depressive illness. The BBC reports:

Her time at the council was marked by a series of disputes with the authority and its Liberal Democrat leader, Andrew McKinlay, with allegation and counter-allegation of inappropriate, unhelpful, obstructive and bullying conduct. Mrs Laird filed 25 official complaints to the watchdog Standards Board for England, of which only one was upheld. She also filed an application for a restraining order banning Mr McKinlay from entering the first floor of the council headquarters, where she had an office, but this was later withdrawn.

I know nothing about the case, and don’t intend to comment on it. Clearly any such breakdown in working relationships will always have a destructive effect, both for the organisation as well as the individuals concerned.

What it does highlight is how fundamental political leadership is to the success of a council – and it poses the question, who has the most influence on your local area?

The council chief executive is operationally responsible for enacting the will of the council and its cabinet (or the mayor) – in that sense they have responsibility without power. By contrast, many council leaders find themselves in positions of power without responsibility, trying to pull a lever which often seems unconnected to the council’s machinery.

The chief executive enjoys two key advantages not available to many council leaders: they are full-time and well-paid. The council leader has a democratic mandate, and the pressure to make a visible difference pending re-election (whether by their residents or their party group).

And what of the local MP? A Lib Dem MP whose constituency is within a Labour/Tory-controlled authority might find themselves excluded from real involvement, with the council fearing any inside information will be used for campaigning gain.

A Lib Dem MP within a Lib Dem-controlled authority will almost certainly have significant influence, the more so if they have previously served on the authority. But does that influence, together with their work in Parliament, actually give them more power than the local council leader or chief executive has? The fact that so many Lib Dem council group leaders choose to stand for Parliament suggests that it’s seen as a pretty attractive option, whatever the actualite of the power exercised.

A lot of course will depend on local circumstances – whether there’s a mayor, if there’s two-tier local government, who the MP is, etc. But, given the choice, which of the three roles would you most like to occupy? And why?

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8 Comments

  • Chris Stanbra 28th Jan '09 - 11:08pm

    Easy one. Who’d be a back bench MP when you could lead the council instead? Not me for sure. In a well lead (politically) council it will be a team effort between leader and CE with the CE taking his/her cue from the leader. In a poorly lead (politically – form an orderly queue with those suggestions please) the CE will step in and do the leading.

  • Matthew Huntbach 29th Jan '09 - 9:49am

    A good CE presents the leader with options, and careful explanations of the pros and cons of each. In the mayoral system, the leader chooses from these options and members “scrutinise” the choice. In the conciliar system, the leader acts as a conduit, passing on the choice of options and passing back comments which will help inform the CE as to which options to pursue further.

    A poor CE doesn’t make the choice clear or doesn’t do a good job of explaining the pros and cons, and of course the fault may lay further down the line with officers working out the options and passing them up to the CE. The leader and the council need enough wits to be able to tell when the wool is being pulled over their eyes.

    One way of being a poor leader and council is not to do the questioning. A good council consists of a range of people with outside knowledge and experience which the good CE treats as a valuable source of feedback. Another way of being a poor council and leader is to ignore the professional advice of the CE.

    So there’s the lazy council where the officers do all the work and the members treat it as a social club. And there’s the over-politicised council where the members try to take on management roles for which they are woefully underqualified.

  • Between them Council leaders and chief execs certainly have more day to day power than any backbench MP.

    Where the balance lies between the two will vary from council to council. In a well-run authority, it’s a constructive partnership.

    The leader has a clear vision and agenda and can will the means to deliver it; the chief exec has the organisational ability and leadership skills to deliver that agenda and to advise the leader on future developments.

    As 85% of council budgets and programes are effectively determined by national legislation, it’s important to have MPs in all parties who understand local government; both to make the system locally work for their constituents and to have less or better direction from Westminster.

  • The answer to the question is a chief constable. He/she can put the precept up as the one here did by 156% over 5 years and run a successful political campaign resisting a democratically elected government, despite the obvious conflict of interest. The force should have been merged, but his campaign kept him his job. how many others could say that?
    While he was playing at politics a gang caused terror to the area by ram raiding manor houses and the total haul was more than £80m (yes eighty million quid). It took years to catch them.
    Watch CH4 on the 5th Feb at 9.00pm. the Suffolk Murders. Why did Suffolk Constabulary fail?

    RLW

  • It’s easy. Chief exec has power without responsibility. MP has responsibility without power. Council leader has power and responsibility but no money to do anything with either of them.

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