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Call for urgent review of combined authority after chief departure

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Two council leaders are calling for an urgent independent review of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough CA due to concerns over its governance, transparency and effectiveness.

In a motion to be considered at the next meeting of the CA board on 26 September, Cambridge City Council leader Lewis Herbert (Lab) and South Cambridgeshire DC leader Bridget Smith (Lib Dem) say the review should examine “delivery objectives for 2018-2019; governance, top to bottom staffing, operations and project delivery.”

The motion added: “It is only by commissioning an outside body to conduct such a review that board members, partner organisations and the public gain sufficient assurance as to its impact, independence and transparency.”

The two leaders have also vowed to challenge a proposal by mayor James Palmer (Con) to appoint two interim chief executives for the CA without interview, arguing one should be recruited to lead the organisation as soon as possible.

The mayor’s proposal would see the CA’s monitoring officer Kim Sawyer and East Cambridgeshire DC chief executive John Hill fill the roles.

Cllrs Herbert and Smith have also called for Mr Palmer to “tell the truth” about the departure of former chief executive Martin Whitely last month.

The leaders claimed Mr Palmer personally dismissed Mr Whitely, which would breach the CA constitution as the decision can only be made by the full CA board, although the mayor denied this. 

Cllrs Herbert and Smith pointed to the “suddenness and secretiveness” of Mr Whitely’s departure, with no information made available on whether there was a settlement agreed. The leaders also said no report on the departure was submitted to the next meeting of the CA or its scrutiny committee on 24 September, and no details in writing were provided to board members or shared with the organisation. They also claimed there has been a “total absence” of the chief executive since last month despite Mr Whitely remaining a CA employee until the end of September.

In a joint statement Cllrs Herbert and Smith said the chief executive’s departure has increased concerns over the number of senior CA management positions without permanent appointments, including director of finance and director of infrastructure and transport. They also said they are “disturbed” that the CA board has not been formally notified of recent changes in senior staff, with information on major appointments and the chief executive appearing in the local press before being reported to the board.

A spokesperson for the mayor said Mr Whitely resigned from his post and the CA would seek to recruit a permanent, single chief executive in a “timely way”.

He said the mayor did not agree there was a need for a review of the CA, and added: “The mayor’s focus is on delivering on the promises he made in the election. The motion is very dramatic but it is business as usual.”

There is also expected to be opposition at next week’s scrutiny committee meeting to a proposal to change the procedure for the ‘call in’ of decisions.

The current process requires any five members of the scrutiny committee to request a call in within five days of a decision being published.

The proposal by the CA monitoring officer Kim Sawyer following a review is that five members of the committee can call in the decision, but these must include representatives from each political party.

Cllrs Herbert and Smith said this would prevent issues being called in with the support of the majority Conservative committee members and “block the rights” of the three minority parties.

In response, the mayor’s spokesperson said: “It is the mayor’s view that scrutiny always has an extremely important role to play.

“He has attended scrutiny meetings on a number of occasions and enjoyed engaging and being questioned.”

The spokesman added that the scrutiny committee should be able to call in decisions as a “critical friend” but said committee members should not use the process to “score political points”.

Last month questions were raised about the appointment of Conservative county councillor Paul Raynes as the CA’s director of strategy and planning despite not being considered suitable for the role by a panel early in the recruitment process.

In a statement the CA said Cllr Raynes, who will be required to stand down as a councillor, was appointed “following a rigorous process, in accordance with the requirements of both our constitution and our employment committee”.

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