LGC’s essential daily briefing.
Today’s top gossip: Questions surround combined authority chief’s departure
Today’s finance fears: County could axe almost 900 jobs as it seeks to save £33m
Today’s big think-piece: Quirk and Taylor: Four priorities in the age of illiberal democracy
First introduced in those halcyon pre-Brexit days of May 2015, the Cities & Local Government Devolution Act 2016 heralded a new age of devolution, headed by elected mayors.
Under that piece of legislation, new combined authorities were set up to help “improve the exercise of statutory functions” in local government.
The former leader of Trafford MBC Baroness Williams, who at the time was one of the ministers overseeing the legislation’s passage through parliament, described the bill on its second reading as a “legal framework enabling us to decentralise powers to our cities and counties, and across the country”.
And with great local power comes great local finger-pointing. To ensure the proper and effective execution of power at the local level, Baroness Trafford said there was a need for a “single point of accountability”.
“People need to know who is taking the decisions and whom to turn to if things go wrong,” she said in the House of Lords.
Things, it would appear, are starting to go wrong in one combined authority.
Yesterday, Cambridgeshire & Peterborough CA mayor James Palmer (Con) unexpectedly announced the resignation of chief executive Martin Whiteley. Mr Whiteley had only served 14 months in the role.
Lucy Nethsingha (Lib Dem), chair of the CA’s overview and scrutiny committee, told LGC she was “very concerned” at Mr Whiteley’s departure as the combined authority has “relatively few senior staff, and even fewer with any significant length of service of long term understanding of the issues facing Cambridgeshire”.
“I believe they have had some difficulty in recruiting to senior posts,” she added.
LGC also understands the announcement over Mr Whiteley’s departure was not expected - allegedly made following an internal leak to the press.
“The mayor called me up after the story in the local paper went online. He was bloody furious and wanted to know where the story had come from,” one councillor, who wanted to remain anonymous, told LGC.
Cambridge City Council leader Lewis Herbert (Lab) was among those to first hear the news of Mr Whiteley’s departure through the local press.
“There’s just no communication there - formal or otherwise. There’s even the question of just who the section 151 officer is - there’s no clarity on that because they keep on changing,” Cllr Herbert said.
A CA spokesperson said the section 151 role was currently held on an interim basis by Karl Fenlon, who in July replaced Rachel Musson as interim chief finance officer. When asked, the spokesperson also confirmed that four of the most senior director roles at the CA were held by interim staff - more than a year after the authority was formed.
Amid rumours and concerns about the CA’s recruitment processes, former deputy leader of Cambridge City Council Kevin Price (Lab) recently described the body as an “old boy’s club”.
LGC also reported today that eyebrows have been raised over the appointment of Conservative county councillor Paul Raynes to the strategy and planning director’s role at the authority - accompanied by a £100,000 a year salary.
Cllr Price said the selection committee, which he sat on, had reached a “unanimous conclusion” against Cllr Raynes’ suitability. A spokesperson for the CA said this was only one part of the recruitment process, however. Cllr Raynes was later appointed by a three-man board of Conservative members - which included the mayor as chair.
Cllr Nethsingha told LGC the decision “has raised many eyebrows” locally, adding that the overview and scrutiny committee will be looking at the authority’s “organisational culture” when it meets on 24 September.
In a completely separate interview with LGC, conducted before Mr Whiteley’s departure had come to light, Mr Palmer said it is “absolutely my job to be disruptive and to ruffle a few feathers whether they be at home or in Westminster.”
Mr Palmer also rubbished claims from councillors that he was operating a “power grab” over the Cambridge city deal.
“Power grab is an over-used and lazy term for trying to sort out problems,” he said. “I need to make sure policies are joined up and we don’t go wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on schemes that are not joined up and thought through.”
Mr Palmer has declared his intention to disrupt and he is certainly doing that - but to what end?
By Robert Cusack, reporter