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Local government chiefs express ‘increasing concerns’ with Combined Authority

James Palmer, Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. Pic - Richard Marsham RMG Photography
James Palmer, Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. Pic - Richard Marsham RMG Photography

In an “extraordinary” and “unprecedented” intervention, top local government figures wrote of their “increasing concerns” with the Combined Authority, the very week its chief executive resigned.

A letter from top local government officers expressed “increasing concerns” about the way the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, the government body which oversees major transport and housing plans in the area, was being run.

The letter, which expresses worries from chief executives of local councils, the police, and the local clinical commissioning group, was sent to then-chief executive Martin Whiteley on the same week he handed in his resignation.

There have been many questions raised about the conditions behind Mr Whiteley’s resignation, with some asking why a “severance payment” was awarded to him, and why he did not serve out a notice period.

The letter was sent by Joanne Lancaster, chairwoman of the Cambridgeshire Public Service Board (CPSB). It was sent on behalf of Antoinette Jackson, chief executive of Cambridge City Council, Alec Wood, chief constable of Cambridgeshire Constabulary, Gillian Beasley, chief executive of Cambridgeshire County Council and Peterborough City Council, Chris Strickland, chief fire officer at Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service, and Jess Bawden, director of corporate affairs at Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Clinical Commissioning Group.

The letter is also sent on behalf of Paul Medd, chief executive of Fenland District Council, Rachel Stopard, chief executive of the Greater Cambridge Partnership, Dorothy Gregson, chief executive of the Police and Crime Commissioner’s Office, and Beverly Agass, chief executive of South Cambridgeshire District Council.

The letter reads: “We have discussed a number of times the need to be involved at an early stage on significant issues coming before the CA, but the lack of on-going productive engagement and the way some decisions are being handled is now causing real concern.”

Worries were raised over the way public money is spent.

“It is still a public body,” the letter reads.

“And so has fiduciary duties relating to the spend of public money and the principles of good governance relating to decision making, including properly defined checks and balances.

“There is an increasing concern that the rules of operation that you are using are not clear or widely understood.”

There were also worries the mayor was making “unconstitutional” decisions.

The letter reads: “We are concerned that decisions are being made which do not align with the requirements of the CA Constitution.”

The chief executives worried about a lack of transparency.

“As we have all acknowledged the informal strategy sessions are not working effectively,” they wrote. “Most Leaders prefer to have papers in advance so that they can properly reflect on the issues that they are being invited to have a view on, and where necessary seek advice of their respective officers; in spite of repeated requests the practice persists of on the day presentations.

“The informality of these and the fact many have not been minuted, makes it very hard to see the audit trail of what Leaders have said and agreed to and what they have simply been shown, but not necessarily given agreement.”

What does the mayor say?

James Palmer, mayor of the combined authority, said the letter had arrived at the combined authority after Mr Whiteley had handed in his resignation.

Mr Palmer said: “I did not see it for a long time after. I saw it on the 27th or the 28th of August (The letter is dated August 24).

“The letter was sent to Martin and Martin resigned his post before the letter came through. I believe the review we are having will address the issues.”

Mr Palmer said an internal review, which is currently being undertaken by newly-appointed joint interim chief executive John Hill, would address the concerns raised. He said he believed the chief executives were “happy” with this.

“I believe the chief executives are happy with the direction we are taking. I don’t spend all of my time speaking to chief executives, but my information is they are happy with the direction we are taking.”

Mr Palmer said it was “frustrating” that the situation had got to the point where the chief executives had had to write.

He said many of the major issues were being addressed, and said a lot of the problems had arisen after the Combined Authority took on powers from the LEP (Local Enterprise Partnership).

Scrutiny committee “blocked” from seeing letter?

However, Lucy Nethsingha, who chairs the authority’s overview and scrutiny committee, said she had been trying to gain access to the letter for a while, but had been “blocked” from doing so, being told it was “confidential”.

She expressed her frustration that the scrutiny committee had not been party to what she said was an “extraordinary” and “unprecedented” intervention.

Cllr Nethsingha said: “The efforts by the CA to keep the contents of this letter from members of the scrutiny committee, and the refusal of the mayor to support an independent review of governance do not give confidence that they are responding constructively.”

Mr Palmer said he had “no problem” with the letter now being in the public, but said he had not “been in ownership” of the letter, and had not felt it appropriate to pass it on.

“It was not addressed to me, and it was not sent to me,” said Mr Palmer.

“My job is to make decisions about and for the people of Cambridgeshire.”

Mr Palmer said the combined authority had a lot of good work to do, and said he was not about to be “off-roaded” by the resignation of Mr Whiteley.

Read the letter in full.

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