Cambridgeshire & Peterborough CA mayor James Palmer (Con) has claimed he is “the most scrutinised politician in the country” and accused council officers of believing the combined authority exists to “prop up” their budgets.
In a wide-ranging interview with LGC, Mr Palmer also defended his relationship with staff after a series of senior officers departed the combined authority during his time in office, and said he hoped the region could secure the devolution of health funding in the future.
Mr Palmer has been beset by controversy since his election in May 2017.
The departure of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough’s first permanent chief executive Martin Whiteley in August last year led to council leaders accusing Mr Palmer of bypassing the combined authority’s constitution by personally dismissing him, a claim Mr Palmer denies.
In October a letter emerged which was sent to Mr Whiteley two months before and signed by all but one of the regions chief executives - including Cambridgeshire CC and Peterborough City Council chief executive Gillian Beasley.
It cited “increasing concern” over an apparent lack of compliance with due process at the combined authority and constitutional concerns regarding communication and decision-making.
Chief finance officer Karl Fenlon, the fourth person to hold the role, left the combined authority’s suddenly in November last year, four months after being appointed.
Mr Palmer accused Mr Fenlon of providing misleading information to the combined authority’s overview and scrutiny committee.
Concerns have also been raised about recruitment to senior roles, with a number of interims in place, while Mr Palmer apologised last year after the combined authority’s annual wage cost ballooned to almost ten times the £850,000 pledged in his election manifesto.
Mr Palmer told LGC the reduction in staffing cost from £7.6m in 2017-18 to £4.5m in next year’s budget showed the combined authority’s finances are now in a “very healthy position”.
He said the combined authority initially used interim chief finance officers from other authorities, then the first full-time interim decided to travel the world before Mr Fenlow “had to go”.
“I’ve been accused of going though [finance officers]. It is not the case at all,” Mr Palmer said.
When asked about the concerns raised about the way the combined authority is being run, Mr Palmer said: “I think I am probably the most scrutinised mayor in the country, I think I’m probably the most scrutinised politician in the country, considering the number of freedom of information requests that scrutiny committee members put through to this authority.”
But Mr Palmer said he was not phased by the attention.
“There cannot be anyone else more transparent than I am. I have got no problem with that at all. They can scrutinise all they want but what it won’t do is get in the way of me delivering on my projects,” he added.
Mr Palmer said he is very loyal to his staff and maintains a “very good relationship” with John Hill, who was seconded from his role as chief executive at East Cambridgeshire DC to the combined authority following Mr Whiteley’s departure. He previously worked with the mayor when he was leader of the council.
“I am a very driven person and I expect my staff to be alongside me and I am also very loyal to my staff. I just expect them to deliver if I ask them to deliver,” Mr Palmer added.
“I don’t think that is too much. My job is dependent on the quality of the work officers do. I like all politicians rely on significantly well-qualified and hard-working staff and I appreciate the work they put in for me.”
Mr Palmer last month weighed into the controversy over the departure of South Cambridgeshire DC’s chief executive Beverley Agass, who received a £200,000 pension contribution.
He described it as “very frustrating” that such sums are paid when senior officers leave councils and pointed out the combined authority had paid Mr Whiteley less than half that amount (£94,500) when he left. The figure was only revealed following Freedom of Information requests.
Mr Palmer was also critical of some officers at councils which are members of the combined authority, who he said misunderstand its role.
“I would look at officer level around the county and I would say that there are certainly officers who feel the combined authority is there to prop up their budgets which it certainly is not,” he said. “It is there to deliver on projects that they cannot. There have been issues around that because some unelected officers feel that the combined authority exists for another reason than it actually does.”
He added the combined authority is a “delivery” and “commissioning” body which serves the people in the region.
The Cambridgeshire & Peterborough devolution deal, agreed in 2016, gave the combined authority new powers over transport, planning and skills, along with an investment fund of £600m over 30 years.
But Mr Palmer said he would like to see health services and education provision devolved and delivered through the combined authority.
On whether he would like to see similar health devolution to the deal agreed with the Greater Manchester Health and Social Partnership in 2016, he said: “I think it is a possibility. We are not ready yet. We are 20 months old.
“Certainly, as part of the devolution deal we are looking at health provision to try and make sure we can deliver our social care aspects in a better way or a different way. I wouldn’t rule out health devolution.”
Mr Palmer said the combined authority’s biggest achievement so far was the publication last year of the Cambridge and Peterborough Independent Economic Review by economist Dame Kate Barker, a former member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee.
Mr Palmer said the review provided “clarity” on the combined authority’s direction, which has cross-council agreement, and “gives us the gravitas when we talk to government, when we talk to investors and when we make local decisions”.
A key element is the plan for an underground metro in Cambridge, which Mr Palmer said should be built between 2023 and 2029.
He said innovative ways of funding the project are being proposed. These include introducing a cap on the value of land adjacent to the new infrastructure.
This would enable housebuilders to acquire the land for a cheaper price, but they would have to agree to pay a charge every time they sold a property to the organisation funding the infrastructure.
Mr Palmer said building a significant metro system in a place the size of Cambridge is “unique”, but its needs are “extreme” due to a housing shortage and “horrendous” regular road congestion.
He added his vision of the metro would see it expand outside the city to existing homes and new “garden villages”.
Mr Palmer said: “Cambridgeshire is surrounded by green belt. It is a relatively small city, yet it is showing significant growth not just over the last 20 to 30 years but predicted into the future.
“The economy is growing at significant rates. The need for housing is acute. You can’t just build houses without infrastructure.
“We will deliver this scheme. I have no doubt at all. The outline business case makes it very clear that it is an affordable scheme and my job is to make sure it happens.”
FACT FILE: James Palmer
Mayor, Cambridgeshire & Peterborough CA 2017-
Leader, East Cambridgeshire DC 2013-17
Councillor, East Cambridgeshre DC 2007-17; Cambridgeshire CC 2009-17
Former partner in family dairy business