It is no great surprise that all seven Tory MPs within Northamptonshire were so publicly critical of their Tory-led local council and in favour of it being split into two unitaries. Perhaps you couldn’t expect Tory MPs to acknowledge that the root problem was a Tory government’s budget cuts. However most chief executives of local authorities would tell you (off the record) that the political colour of the council wouldn’t make much difference; local MPs are quick to criticise and slow to praise.
This has more to do with how much influence MPs think they should have locally and how they see their role rather than party loyalty. Some MPs have no reservations about using the local media to criticise the council. Across the country there are MPs engaged in running battles with the leadership of their local authority undermining officers and members with their allegations of mismanagement and poor leadership.
Of course most MPs seek a positive relationship with their local council and both sides accept that a MPs constituency role will inevitably mean that they may be championing the opposition to the councils proposals to close libraries or children’s centres and taking up issues on behalf of individuals who feel that the council has acted unreasonably.
Having worked as a senior manager in one of the largest unitary authorities and two big county councils, I have worked with MPs who quite rightly were well respected for their advocacy on behalf of individual constituents. However I have also come across MPs who were antagonistic towards the council, which was reflected in the way they pursued the perceived grievances of their constituents. For example they always accepted their constituents’ account and assumed the council had acted inappropriately, insensitively or wrongly. Guilty until proven innocent.
Another example would be MP’s letters sent to a director. Typically the request for a response would be passed down to the frontline manager to investigate and draft a reply. A relevant senior manager would check the draft and if satisfied sign and send the response. In large authorities that is usually an assistant director. However, in very large authorities with up to 12 MPs within the authority’s boundaries, the MPs would contact the area manager for their constituency direct. Thus cutting out some of the bureaucratic delays and establishing a working relationship with the key manager in their locality. However I remember one MP who thought this was an affront to his status, saying: ‘I wrote to the director and I expect the director to reply’. He was also the one who complained most about delays in responding to his letters. The tone and attitude were antagonistic.
In my experience many MPs think they should have more influence on their local council. Often these MPs think large councils should be broken down into smaller councils ideally with just one MP (them) coterminous with the council. It doesn’t surprise me that the MPs in Northamptonshire would like to see the authority split into two local authorities.
While officers certainly take a great deal of notice of an MP’s involvement on behalf of a constituent, your local MP, much to their frustration, has very little influence on your local council irrespective of whether they belong to the same political party. That and their constituency role may explain why some are so quick to criticise and slow to praise.
Blair McPherson former local authority director, author and blogger at www.blairmcpherson.co.uk