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Cambridgeshire Mayor’s intervention slammed as an 'abuse of power'

By Josh Thomas, Local Democracy Reporter

Cambridgeshire's mayor has been slammed for allegedly “abusing” his power when questioning a scrutiny boss who voiced concerns over a major combined authority restructure.

Mayor James Palmer (5147876)
Mayor James Palmer (5147876)

A staffing restructure at the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority is looking to reduce their staffing budget by nearly a third. The move comes following widespread criticism after it emerged the authority’s operational costs were close to £7million a year when Mayor James Palmer had initially promised the authority could be run for as little as £850,000.

In February, the Combined Authority’s employment committee found ways to reduce the staffing budget to £4.5 million, a 29 per cent reduction on the £6.3 million which was the anticipated staffing budget in the summer of 2018.

A number of posts have been removed, with some new ones being created, notably for staff in the mayor’s office in Ely. Discussions about the restructure were held in private, leading to criticism from Board members Lewis Herbert and Bridget Smith.

Mr Palmer and fellow Conservative Coun Anna Bailey defended holding the discussions in private, saying it was right people’s employment situations were not public.

At the combined authority’s board meeting on Wednesday (27) Coun Herbert tabled a motion in a bid to freeze spending on the mayor’s office, as well as to address other concerns he had with the changes.

Tempers flared, though and, while hearing comments from the authority’s overview and scrutiny committee (O&S) which were brought to the board by Coun Lucy Nethsingha, Mr Palmer made reference to discussions at the overview and scrutiny committee, saying Coun Nethsingha’s “neutrality had been called into question”.

Mr Palmer said he had to be sure the points being raised were the concerns of the O&S, rather than Coun Nethsingha’s personal views.

Coun Bridget Smith, Lib Dem leader at South Cambridgeshire District Council, responded angrily to Mr Palmer’s intervention, slamming his “completely inappropriate” line of questioning.

“It is an abuse of power of this committee and of the mayor in particular,” said Coun Smith. “We should not be questioning our members like this.”

Coun Nethsingha pointed out the criticism she had received had been over a separate item, the scrutiny of the mayor’s ball in aid of social enterprise PTSD999. Coun Nethsingha defended the scrutiny the ball had received, saying it was a matter of public interest that spending was given proper attention. She also said the comments on the restructure came with the approval of the O&S.

Lewis Herbert, leader of Cambridge City Council, who sits on the board, said: “When you are restructuring and deleting a lot of posts, there needs to be scrutiny. I do not accept we are on the right governance trail if we are having these discussions behind closed doors.

“We know we have a big challenge. We know we have got to make a change to that but I think we need to look at wasteful consultancies and the costs of the mayor’s office.”

Coun Bailey said members had spent hours discussing the restructure in a closed session.

“We have an employment committee that has the power to discuss these things so they don’t take up the time of a busy combined authority board,” she said.

Speaking about the proposed restructure, Coun Smith said there was a “shocking lack of evidence” to support some of the measures.

She said she was surprised that, while cutting back in many areas, the authority would be increasing the size of the mayoral office. She said she did not understand the rationale of having the mayor and his staff in Ely while the rest of the combined authority staff would be concentrated in Alconbury.

Coun Herbert’s motion called for the authority to:

1- Retain the posts of directors of transport and finance reporting with their teams directly to the chief executive (given that the calibre, leadership and impact of the two roles is vital) but at lower salaries than planned, and the two recruitments already underway be continued to a conclusion.

2- Retain the post of inward investment manager as a role which will be vital in creating new jobs and in new investment in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough and also to address the potential risks of Brexit to the whole area.

3- Retain the post of a corporate head of sustainability to align with the Government’s emerging ambition to raise the profile of the environment along the OxCam Arc and to exploit opportunities for developing green technologies and in greening of the area’s economy and extra jobs generated. And to fund this and further savings by reversing new proposals and making the following changes to the restructuring plans:

4- Freeze the already large mayoral office staff of four, saving at least £100,000 a year.

5- Require the Mayor to move the mayoral office to Alconbury given the significant savings and increased efficiency this will generate.

6- Cut the number of extra legal staff by two.

7- Cut the extra strategy team staff by two.

8- Cut the planned budget for adult education staffing by a quarter.

9- Given the filling of full time positions following the end of the recruitment freeze, cut the excessive and poorly controlled authority's consultancy budget for 2019 and future years by at least £500,000 a year, and instructs officers to bring forward a report to achieve this.

Coun Herbert’s motion was defeated.

Mr Palmer, who said he had not spoken before the vote to avoid prejudicing the decision, said it was a good idea to invest more in a “strong” mayor’s office while making savings elsewhere.

Mr Palmer said: “We need a mayor’s office. I believe Cambridgeshire and Peterborough should be prepared to be as strong as possible.”

Mr Palmer also said there were other mayors of devolved authorities in the country who spent more on staff.

“Two Labour mayors spend much more public money on their staffing than I do,” he said.

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