Mayor James Palmer rejects ‘massive slap in the face to the county council’ criticism of move to Ely
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The mayor of Cambridgeshire has dismissed a controversy over comments he made apparently disparaging transport links to Alconbury.
The Ely Standard reported on April 23 that James Palmer, the Conservative mayor of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, plans to move the authority’s offices from Alconbury to Ely.
The mayor, responsible for transport across the county, reportedly said that it has always been a long-term aim to find a site with good public transport access.
It was then reported by the Local Democracy Reporting Service that he told the Combined Authority’s overview and scrutiny committee on April 24: “The transport links to Alconbury are dreadful and nobody likes going there.”
The mayor’s comments have provoked a backlash and raised doubts over Cambridgeshire County Council’s plans to move its headquarters to Alconbury next year.
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The leader of the Liberal Democrat opposition group on the county council, and former chairman of the Combined Authority’s overview and scrutiny committee, councillor Lucy Nethsingha, said: “It’s a massive slap in the face to the county council.”
But in an interview with the Local Democracy Reporting Service the mayor said the press and his political critics have been wrong to focus on the connectivity of Alconbury, insisting instead “the point” is that his decision will save £250,000 a year in the authority’s “limited” revenue budget. He also suggested the authority may move into a purpose-built HQ years down the line.
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“I don’t really care what [the media] think,” Mr Palmer said. “The brutal reality is this is about budget – it’s boring, really boring, I know, but it’s about budget, it’s about three-quarters-of-a-million pounds in savings over the next three years.
“That gives us the opportunity for us to source, over a period of time, the right spot for the Combined Authority to be in, where we could use some of our capital to build a building which would save us even more on the revenue. So that’s common-sense budgetary decision-making, that’s all this is.
“You would expect me to try and keep on top of any outgoings – and this was a challenge from the Labour leader at the budget meeting in February, when he said he wanted me to look at the cost of accommodation, which is exactly what we are doing.”
But Mr Palmer did say that he wants his authority to be based somewhere with better public transport links.
“On the question of whether I feel that the Combined Authority should be based next to a railway station – yes absolutely I do, that’s my job at the Combined Authority to try and get people onto public transport,” he said.
He added: “There’s not an accessibility problem at Alconbury. There’s a railway station just down the road. There is a bus service that runs through Alconbury. We are looking to improve that significantly by running the metro into Alconbury, and our ambition is to do that as soon as we possibly can, and we are in negotiations with people who have committed finance in the Alconbury deal to do so.
“But equally, there is nothing wrong with me saying that I feel that the Combined Authority should be next to a railway station if possible. It makes it more accessible for more people, and that’s important.”
Although he has made a commitment for a metro system that would include Alconbury, the mayor accepted it will not be ready for the proposed opening date of the county council.
“I’m not suggesting that can be done in the course of the next year, but that work is ongoing, and we will do it as soon as we possibly can,” he said. “The decision to move to Alconbury was a county council decision. What the county council needs and what it does is nothing to do with me. I am trying to act in the best interests of the Combined Authority.”
He also noted that the county council is proposing to use satellite offices across the county, and that the pandemic has shown how much can be achieved remotely.
The mayor said to make the issue centre on the county council and public transport requires “poetic licence”. Mr Palmer, the first mayor of the Combined Authority, said previous restructures he has made make savings of £1.5million per year, but result in the authority having fewer staff.
“Alconbury is more than double the size of what we need,” he said.
“That’s it. It wasn’t larger than we needed before, but it’s larger than we need now. So the opportunity has arisen to give up that lease, and that will make savings of £724,000 in the next three years. That’s the reason behind this all/
“Every penny of revenue that I save means work can be done on bringing forward new projects for the general public.”
The mayor also dismissed the idea that the decision had been taken without public scrutiny. He said the “offer came in at the beginning of the week,” and said it will be put to the authority’s board, but that it is too soon to do so.
“It’s not done and dusted, the decision will be made at the board at the appropriate time,” he said, adding the “leak” was “irresponsible”, “unnecessary” and “childish”.
“The way that politics works, the way that business works, the way that these things work is you have to look at all opportunities at all times,” Mr Palmer said. “The simple fact is that not everything can be planned ahead with meticulous decision-making in public on a daily basis.”
He said it is “frustrating” that information is passed to the press “before everything is signed, sealed and delivered,” but said that is the “fickle” nature of politics.
Mr Palmer has alleged that the leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council, Lib Dem Bridget Smith is behind the leak of the information, after a Lib Dem councillor for East Cambridgeshire, Lorna Dupre, was quoted in the article revealing the plans.
Cllr Smith responded: “The mayor informed me last Thursday (April 23) by phone that the Combined Authority was immediately relinquishing its lease at Alconbury and moving into the Citizens Advice Bureaux offices next to the mayor’s office in Ely.
“At no time did I contact any member of the press about the decision.”
The leader of Cambridge City Council, Labour’s Lewis Herbert, described the phone call from the mayor on April 23 as a “shock”.
“No surprise choice is Ely again, nor secretive processes on yet another project with East Cambridgeshire District Council,” he said on Twitter.
The mayor said criticisms that the authority is too close to the council he used to lead, East Cambridgeshire – a criticism he has previously rejected – is “boring”.
He said: “Wherever you lay your hat is not necessarily an issue and nor should it be. Ely was chosen originally for my office because it’s on the railway station.
“It’s not in Cambridge, it’s not in Peterborough, it’s sort of a neutrality between the two. My job is to not have my head turned by the beauty of Cambridge or the success of Peterborough, but to be neutral across the whole of the county and that’s what I intend to do”.
He also noted that the county council has been based out of Cambridge for decades, something he suggested the leader of the city council would not object to on the grounds it favours Cambridge.