The mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough CA has initiated a review of options for local government reform in the region, but some members of the combined authority say they have been sidelined in the process.
Andy Wood, former chair of the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership, has been appointed by mayor James Palmer as independent chair of a review panel which will examine current local government structures and the delivery of services such as health and education. The findings of the review are expected at the end of the year.
The devolution deal agreed with government in March 2017 included a pledge to examine “the transfer of powers between the combined authority [and councils] to deliver the most efficient and effective public services”.
Cambridge & Peterborough mayor James Palmer (Con) told LGC the review was now underway. He said local government reform was a “necessary part of what we are doing”.
“The combined authority enables us to look more objectively at local government delivery,” he added.
“The system we have has been in place since 1974 and Cambridgeshire is unrecognisable as a county [since then]. I know having lived here all my life how much the place has changed, and local government has to adapt and change alongside that.”
Mr Palmer added the review will look at “the whole set up of governance in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough” and said he was “open-minded” about proposals for reorganisaton.
“I can’t dictate those changes on people, those changes have to be considered and voted on locally,” he added.
Cambridgeshire CC leader Steve Count (Con) said he would welcome review if it “looks at what is optimal” rather than progressing with “preconceived ideas” on structures.
“My understanding is that nothing has been set in stone and Andy has free reign to come and talk to us and look at any number of options.”
Mr Wood is chief executive of the Adnams brewery and played a key role in negotiating the Norfolk and Suffolk devolution deal with government in 2016. This was later rejected by councils over the requirement for an elected mayor.
Cambridge City Council leader Lewis Herbert (Lab) said while he was aware Mr Wood had been approached to chair the review, the combined authority had not been consulted on its remit.
“There is concern that we have been told these things by the media,” he said.
Cllr Herbert added the more pressing challenge for the CA was a “gap in senior officers” at the combined authority as “work has stalled over the last six months”.
“[The CA] will only work if it is a team effort and the mayor chairs a group of leaders so we can deliver improvements on local government reform and challenges in social care,” he added.
Mr Palmer has faced criticism from the area’s council chief executives and some leaders over the CA’s decision-making and recruitment of senior officers, while Karl Fenlon became the fourth interim finance director to leave the CA when he was dismissed in November last year.
Housing and communities secretary James Brokenshire wrote to the combined authority and the Greater Cambridge Partnership in June last year, urging local leaders to improve their collaborative working.
South Cambridgeshire DC leader Bridget Smith (Lib Dem) also said she was unaware of the detail of the review’s work plan.
She added: “There has been no engagement… with me or my council on this matter which is disappointing if in fact things are moving forward.
“The combined authority has to get to the position that it accepts that it is a sum of its parts with the local authorities making up those parts.”
In response, Mr Palmer said: “Both Cllr Lewis Herbert and Cllr Bridget Smith have been informed that the process is underway and they should be appraised of its remit.
“My door is always open to Cllrs Herbert and Smith, and I meet and speak with them regularly to discuss progress at the combined authority.”
Peterborough City Council leader John Holdich (Con) said he personally favoured splitting Cambridgeshire in half along a north-south divide and creating two new unitary councils.
“That works because [areas in] the top half of Cambridgeshire have similar problems and the bottom half has similar issues. That would save a lot of money and achieve economies of scale,” he said.
Graham Bull (Con), leader of Huntingdonshire DC, said “there is a lot of local government” in the region with Cambridgeshire’s two-tier system and the combined authority, which an outsider would perceive as “messy”.
“I think the public would be very interested to see how we could make it less costly and more efficient,” He added. “Someone has got to take the lead on this and James has done that.”