Cambridgeshire & Peterborough CA mayor James Palmer has been accused of cronyism after appointing four former colleagues to positions of power in the organisation.
Mayor Palmer, who is himself a former leader of East Cambridgeshire DC, has been heavily criticised for appointing the council’s more recent former leader Charles Roberts to a part time role as a strategic advisor on a £54,000 a year salary. This came after Cllr Roberts stood down earlier this month as council leader and deputy mayor of the CA.
Mr Palmer is also seeking to appoint East Cambridgeshire chief executive John Hill as permanent joint chief executive of the CA, after the employment committee which he chairs in March rejected candidates identified during a recruitment process.
Two former East Cambridgeshire councillors – Tom Hunt and Paul Raynes – are already employed as Mr Palmer’s chief of staff and director of planning.
In protest, Cambridge City Council leader Lewis Herbert (Lab) has quit his role as CA portfolio holder for spatial planning, declaring that the mayor’s appointments “smack of cronyism”.
Cllr Herbert argues in favour of appointing a single chief executive, in “a demonstrably open, transparent recruitment process, with jobs properly advertised”.
“It is unprecedented that in these two appointments, there haven’t been interviews – it’s been done over people’s heads without proper process,” he said. “People who might want to apply for the job don’t feel they would get a fair hearing. What concerns me is the pattern suggests it is much more about people closely connected to the mayor.”
In a letter which was sent to housing & communities minister James Brokenshire, the leader of South Cambridgeshire DC Bridget Smith (Lib Dem) said it is “widely accepted” that the mayor and Mr Roberts have a “close personal, professional and political relationship stretching back many years”.
She said: “As a member of the combined authority board, I am exceedingly concerned that this appointment must appear, to any member of the public, to be the mayor doing a favour for a friend and colleague.
“In doing so, this further damages the reputation of the mayor and risks similar to the reputation of myself and other councillors as members of the combined authority board by association.”
Mayor Palmer has defended the appointment of Cllr Roberts, which he explained was approved by the employment committee in restructuring proposals and appraised by the overview and scrutiny committee. He said: “This is a position to which I am able to appoint directly, and Charles Roberts will be challenged to help me in meeting the ambitious timescales we have for the delivery of key combined authority projects, like the University of Peterborough, A47 dualling, and CAM Metro.”
The mayor’s staffing procedures have been embroiled in controversy since his election in May 2017. A number of senior officers have departed the CA, and he was accused by council leaders of bypassing the combined authority’s constitution by personally dismissing its first permanent chief executive Martin Whiteley last August, a claim which he denies.
The chief executive role has been covered on an interim basis since then by Mr Hill and Kim Sawyer. The Cambridgeshire & Peterborough CA Board are recommended to appoint Ms Sawyer and Mr Hill as permanent joint chief executives until 2021 at a meeting of the Board at the CA’s AGM on May 29.
Mr Palmer expressed his support for the recommendation, and emphasised their achievements so far, which have included a root and branch review and restructure of the organisation, delivering £1.8m of savings to the staff budget.
He hit back at Cllr Herbert’s accusations of cronyism as “cheap and baseless”, adding: “The combined authority has been through a rigorous process to appoint to this position, which has involved the use of a specialist recruitment agency specifically to undertake the task.
“The board will now once again decide the best way forward. This could including going out to recruitment again, or, as is my view, acknowledge the exceptional job that Kim and John have done over the last nine months and back the recommendation to make them permanent joint chief executives.”