Combined Authority in freefall: how on earth did we get to this?  

Dr Nik Johnson

Mayor Dr Nik Johnson - Credit: Twitter

A Labour mayor, his appointment of an archetypal former Fleet Street journalist as his strategic adviser, and a £200,000-year former civil servant as chief executive has created a political crisis. 

Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority is in freefall. 

Dr Johnson is facing an internal inquiry and possible vote of confidence. 

His former £70,000 a year strategic adviser Nigel Pauley has left under a cloud, but still subject to ongoing potentially embarrassing exposure of allegations made against him.  

And Eileen Milner, drafted in as a late but successful applicant for the chief executive role is heading for the door. 

But not before concluding negotiations for an exit package, even though she left, technically, at the end of her probationary period. 

Top that up with executives and other senior and less senior staff jumping ship – or simply having contracts terminated – and you begin to grasp only the outer reaches of the issues. 

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Last week’s local elections may help ease some problems, not least that of the electorate’s decision that resulted in Johnson critic Ryan Fuller departing both Huntingdonshire District Council and de facto his membership of the Combined Authority board. 

A paranoia of confidentiality has encircled the executive of the Combined Authority, especially with the revelation that one internal investigation has been prompted by a whistle blower.  

A 256-word email to this newspaper from the Combined Authority warns that leaking of any information about the whistle blower's claim would, at this stage, “damage the integrity of the process”. 

But Pauley believes the entire process has been unfair, targeted against him – and his long-standing relationship with Dr Johnson. 

He says the claims against him are false, even though an external investigator concluded he had, allegedly, told CAPCA colleagues “to ignore the chief executive”. 

Pauley is also alleged to have told the same colleagues that CAPCA could function without a chief executive. 

His conduct, which again he rigorously disputes, is that his actions contributed to a “toxic culture within the mayor’s office”. 

Pauley is aghast and has told investigators that not only did he and the mayor welcome a new chief executive “we were both very relieved and excited at the appointment of a dynamic new chief executive”. 

It would mean the mayor and himself could get on with fulfilling their election mandate, whilst leaving day to day running of the authority to someone with suitable “capabilities and experience”. 

Viewed impartially it is clear the unexpected victory of Labour in last May’s elections surprised most and not least the newly elected mayor himself.  

During that election campaign both Dr Johnson and Pauley lost their fathers. 

Pauley then suffered the loss of his mother in November and his beloved dog in October. 

And coupled with what he says was working “crazy 75-hour weeks - with weekends also working - the pressure mounted”. 

His friends say, and he won’t deny it, that his mental health began to suffer. 

The funeral of Pauley’s mother, three days before Christmas, was problematic as it turned out. 

Dr Johnson attended but, it seems, against his officers’ wishes as, by this time, the strategic advisor was under investigation and there were fears of confidentiality of that inquiry being breached.  

Pauley firmly denies trying to interfere with the investigation - or discussing it with the mayor. 

And he says even answering messages of condolences and sending Christmas wishes to colleagues were, he claimed, treated as him trying to interfere with inquiry or pressure witnesses. 

 “It was intolerable,” he told a friend. “Basic human kindness was treated with suspicion and as some sort of negative action”.

Pauley - who was on compassionate leave and then paid leave from November through to February - was then suspended for being in contact with the mayor  

Eileen Milner, chief executive of the Education and Skills Funding Agency, has beaten off 32 challen

Eileen Milner, chief executive of the Education and Skills Funding Agency, beat off 32 challenges to land the £204,000 a year chief executive role at the Combined Authority. - Credit: CAPCA

The friend revealed: “The mayor had Covid and needed urgent board papers. Nigel who was on leave offered to drive to the empty Ely office to pick them up. 

“He dropped the papers on the mayor’s doorstep. Basic compassion. But officers claimed he had breached management instructions not to contact the mayor and suspended him. 

“It was the final straw for him. He felt the investigation was skewed against him and they were out to get him and get at the mayor through him.  

“He knew he had no option but to quit ahead of potential disciplinary action.” 

One Conservative councillor I spoke to, and admittedly on the fringes of the ongoing storm within the Combined Authority, felt that the lack of a permanent office for the chief executive didn’t help. 

“Last year we were still in a pandemic, we had a sudden change of leadership at the Combined Authority, and things were different,” said the councillor. 

“What should have happened – but didn’t - were early meetings between the mayor and his chief executive. And ensuring she had a proper office to work from which wasn’t her home”. 

However, the dossier compiled against Pauley is comprehensive and to a degree alarming. His response is that parts of the inquiry’s findings are selective, unrepresentative and fail to reflect the truth.  

He does, however, agree that “on occasions my behaviour has fallen short of what is expected of someone in my position. Or indeed of my own personal standards and expectations”. 

But he points out that being placed suddenly in jobs with multi-million-pound budgets “and working in a void of leadership and support for a number of months" certainly didn’t help. 

His background is never far from him.

Nigel Pauley

Nigel Pauley - Credit: Archant

 “My entire working career, up until this point, has been in high pressure newspaper newsrooms,” he says. “In that 40-year career this is my first potential disciplinary issue”. 

The issues surrounding Pauley’s departure are further complicated by a separate expense claim probe against Dr Johnson.  

Both the mayor and Pauley attended the Labour Party conference last year and used the Combined Authority’s credit card to cover expenses.  

Both say they were told it was acceptable to use it and both insist they were assured non-qualifiable expenses would be re charged, and paid by them, at a later date.  

It seems not.  

And so, a mini ‘expenses-gate’ probe, still ongoing, was ordered.  

BBC Look East is said to have a leaked report on at least one of the ongoing inquiries into the actions of Pauley and/or the mayor.  

Within the Combined Authority, Mayor Johnson, on the surface at least, looks more assured than a week ago.  

Change of control at Huntingdonshire District Council will remove the Conservative former leader Ryan Fuller from a seat on the board. 

And with Ryan gone, and an Independent in his place, and with Labour and Liberal Democrats elsewhere in the ascendancy, voting by a majority of Combined Authority board members will, assuredly, provide Dr Johnson with a majority.  

But the mayor is wounded. Disrupted in the visionary, quasi-inspirational election mantra of compassion, cooperation and community. 

Instead, Dr Johnson is left to find new advisers, a new chief executive, welcome new elected members to his ‘top table’ and re think his next three years.  

BBC Look East, meanwhile, has asked Pauley about alleged “behaviour of staff in the mayor’s office and the use of a Government Procurement Card” made by whistle-blower”. 

And information about an independent investigation (s) into ‘behaviours and allegations that he “created a toxic and bullying culture”. 

How much, or how little, the public care about the internal machinations of the Combined Authority remains to be seen.  

His first of his four-year term as mayor now gone, Dr Johnson will no doubt reflect on mistakes made, trusts broken and be quizzical about his strategy going forward. 

He will reflect, too, on the promise he brought to the job. 

After his election he said: " It is wonderful to have the opportunity to make meaningful change to improve public services, 

“And this in an area where there are real challenges of intra- regional inequality, with significant rural poverty and social isolation.” 

Recovery and getting back on track are possible – but is it likely?