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

by Stephen Tall on January 28, 2009

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Mr McKinlay from entering the first floor of the council headquarters, where she had an office, but this was later withdrawn.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?