Fears of a “serious contempt of the scrutiny committee” after councillors failed to attend a call-in of the mayor’s transport plans

The mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, James Palmer.

The mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, James Palmer. - Credit: Archant

Councillors have questioned whether the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority’s scrutiny and overview committee has enough power to hold the authority to account.

This comes after a meeting to call in the mayor’s transport statement was deemed inquorate after only six out of the 14 members showed up to discuss the item.

The call in was launched after fears the mayor’s calls for a pause of transport plans would lead to a worsening situation for traffic in the city, which will be seeing more and more commuters arrive.

Asking a question as a member of the public, Cambridge Labour councillor Dave Baigent called for every member of the committee who did not attend the call-in meeting on June 15 to disclose where they were and why they did not attend.

He said the “unexplained failure” to turn up “suggested a very serious contempt of the scrutiny process”. Cllr Baigent also said he wanted to hear details of any discussions absentee councillors might have had with the mayor, his chief of staff, the chief executive, the monitoring officer, or other combined authority staff.

Mayor, James Palmer, has denied there was any kind of concerted effort to stymie the call-in process.

Speaking at the meeting, Cllr Mike Sargeant said he thought there should be constitutional changes at the combined authority to avoid this happening again.

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Cllr Sargeant: “We were potentially challenging the decision. We need to resolve this. When there is a call in we need to make sure there is a quorate attendance.

“We may need to look at the ten day rule (which meant the call-in had to be dealt with within 10 days or not at all) or we may end up with this overview and scrutiny committee being toothless. It is important we use all the tools we have.”

Cllr Markus Gehring went further, saying the scrutiny of decisions was being deliberately “disrupted”.

Cllr Gehring said: “I think it is wilful disruption. It is not coincidental people sent their apologies on Thursday afternoon. It is utterly unacceptable. It was a call-in meeting that was disrupted and it undermines the authority of the scrutiny committee.”

Cllr Lucy Nethsingha, chairwoman of the scrutiny and overview committee, said it was unproven that there had been “any collusion or coordination” to keep councillors away from the call in meeting.

She said that, if there had been a specific effort to stymie the call-in, it would be a “very serious” matter.

James Palmer, mayor of the combined authority, said: “I had a phone call from Kim (Sawyer, CA legal officer) saying it might not be quorate. Up until that point, I had been ready to drop everything and get to the meeting. It was disappointing.

“I have always believed this committee has massive opportunities to set the direction.”

Mr Palmer said he was not a member of the scrutiny and overview committee and that it would be inappropriate for him to decide what was discussed or how. His role was to be present and to answer questions when asked, he said.

Conservative councillor, Mike Bradley said he was disappointed with suggestions some on the committee were “not taking their duties seriously”, and pointed out that many on the committee had other jobs and responsibilities.

He said there were situations where it was not possible to change scheduled events to fit in meetings.

Cllr Bradley’s colleague Cllr Chris Boden said he thought party politics should not get in the way of an effective scrutiny committee. He said it was up to Cllr Nethsingha as chairwoman to help make sure this happened.