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Tory councillors called in to scrutinise mayor on major transport plans snub meeting

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Combined Authority mayor James Palmer
Combined Authority mayor James Palmer

Combined Authority has 'serious constitutional problem' after 'wilful blockage' of scrutiny panel by Conservatives.

The mayor is pushing for a CAM Meto and has budgeted £1.5billion for it in 2021
The mayor is pushing for a CAM Meto and has budgeted £1.5billion for it in 2021

There was “shock” as councillors “disrespectfully” snubbed a meeting, leading some to fear there is no proper scrutiny of major decisions being taken by the mayor and the combined authority.

Today (June 15), the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority’s scrutiny committee was due to meet to discuss, among other things, a call in of the mayor’s transport statement.

The committee had concerns over Mayor James Palmer’s recent call to pause transport projects (like the Cambridge to Cambourne transit route and the A1307 improvements) being brought forward by the Greater Cambridge Partnership, and had hoped to overturn the decision. But, apparently concerned that the call in was “undemocratic”, many councillors did not attend or send substitutes.

Only six members, Cllr Lucy Nethsingha, Cllr Peter Topping (standing in for Cllr Grenville Chamberlain), Cllr Philip Allen, Cllr Katie Thornburrow (standing in for Cllr Mike Sargeant), Cllr Markus Gehring, and Cllr Barry Chapman (standing in for Cllr Tom Sanderson) attended. This made the meeting inquorate, meaning that they could not make decisions as 10 members are needed for the committee to be quorate.

This has led to accusations that the scrutiny committee is “dysfunctional” and claims that the combined authority is operating without any proper scrutiny.

Cllr Nethsingha, who chairs the committee, said she was “shocked” by the number of absences and apologies received from absent councillors. She said the call in of the mayor’s plans could now not take place, as such a move would need to be discussed within 10 days of the initial decision, making a follow-up impossible.

“I think it is disappointing that so many councillors didn’t come,” said Cllr Nethsingha. “These people were chosen to hold the mayor to account.”

Cllr Nethingha later said she was concerned there may have been “some kind of deliberate policy not to turn up” to stymie the call in of the transport statement. Her Lib Dem colleague Cllr Markus Gehring said the “wilful blockage” of the discussions highlighted a “serious constitutional problem” with the way in which the combined authority is scrutinised. He said the failure to attend was “disrespectful”.

Other councillors had similar fears for the implications of the move on transparency.

:: Scrutiny committee calls in mayor’s transport plan

Labour’s Cllr Thornburrow said: “I was shocked about the lead up to the call in, and now I am even more shocked. We were expecting transparency and for the councils to work together on this in residents’ best interests. I am really concerned about the ongoing delays in the scrutiny process.”

Mr Palmer had apparently intended to attend the meeting, but was contacted in advance and told not to as the meeting would be inquorate. He said councillors’ decision to stay away might have been due to frustration and a feeling that the call in was “not lawful”.

Mr Palmer said: “I was happy to go and always happy to answer any questions. I believe the problem today stemmed from frustration at the way this was called in. I believe it was felt that the call in was not democratic. No vote was taken, therefore I believe some members felt that it was not a lawful call in.

“I am not a member of the committee of course so do not have any involvement in how decisions are taken.”

Conservative Cllr Peter Topping said he was “disappointed” as he had been looking forward to getting a better understanding of how the combined authority and the GCP were going to work together. Lib Dem Cllr Philip Allen said the decision for councillors not to come was “contemptuous”.

The committee heard that transport problems were mounting as major developments sprang up in the county, and that transport solutions needed to be accelerated rather than paused as the mayor has suggested. Cllr Nethsingha said that even popular schemes like the proposed Cambridge metro would take a long time to implement, and that action was needed now.

Cllr Nethsingha will now be writing to councillors, and some of the items from today’s agenda will be discussed at future scrutiny meetings. It will, however, be too late to enact the call-in of the transport statement.

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