Leaked letter reveals Government warning to Mayor James Palmer to put his house in order
PUBLISHED: 12:13 21 July 2020
A leaked copy of a letter from the Government critical of Mayor James Palmer – dating back to the appointment in 2017 of Tom Hunt as chief of staff – has been obtained by this newspaper.
Simon Clarke, Minister of State at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, sent the letter to Mayor Palmer and copied in all members of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CAPCA).
Copies were also sent to Cambridgeshire MPs and to the chief executives of local councils.
Mr Clarke, who visited Ely last year and met with Mayor Palmer whilst a minister at the Treasury, calls for greater transparency at CAPCA.
One of his demands is for CAPCA to produce a governance and action plan to answer those criticisms.
Mr Clarke says he met Mayor Palmer on July 2 when they discussed governance of CAPCA “and the need for Government to have confidence in the local arrangements in place”.
The minister says changes will are necessary if they are to extend the powers of CAPCA.
Mr Clarke outlined “four broad areas in which we need to deliver consolidated progress”.
He wrote: “First, any proposal to transfer the existing city deal into the combined authority – or for the combined authority to take on other additional powers and functions – would need to be based upon the authority demonstrating strong and robust governance and transparency arrangements.”
He said a “number of historical problems” had been identified.
These included “factual errors” in the CAPCA constitution, that the CAPCA employment committee was not always part of senior executive recruitments, and that the legal advice behind the appointment of Tom Hunt, now MP for Ipswich, “contained significant omissions”.
Mr Clarke wrote: “My officials can provide further details on any of these points.
“It is essential that the combined authority becomes an example of best practice in relation to applying the Nolan Principles of Public Life, namely selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership”.
The minister said he was pleased to hear both Mayor Palmer and his co-chief executives were committed to ensure that “that robust processes are in place for future appointments and that no questions can be raised about the legality of these processes”.
Mr Clarke also warned Mayor Palmer that in order to deliver ambitious projects it was vital for CAPCA to ensure they had robust, professional advice that is clear on the available legal powers, risks, opportunities, challenges and delivery options.
“To date there have been issues which suggest that the delivery capacity of the combined authority requires improvement,” he told Mayor Palmer.
“This includes, for example, the delivery of the £100m affordable housing programme, on which the department wrote to your co-chief executives in June, outlining our differing view on the total additional starts on site delivered to date and confirming that further evidence of progress would be required before the department could make further funding available.”
Mr Clarke said he was also concerned to learn that the authority’s lead member for finance and investment (county council leader Steve Count) abstained from a vote at the CAPCA board meeting in June regarding the reallocation of budgets as he had not been fully consulted on the report, despite being named as lead member upon it.
“As we discussed, your current co-chief executive arrangements end in May 2021 and we agreed that it is essential that you and the combined authority ensure that a full, open and transparent appointment process is run to recruit a new, permanent chief executive,” he said.
“The expectation is that this should result in a shortlist of exceptional candidates to be prepared in time for an appointment to be made in May after the mayoral election”.
Mr Clarke said he was also concerned about disagreements between CAPCA and the Greater Cambridge Partnership which he feared might hinder delivery of projects.
He told Mayor Palmer: “You are right to say that this is inherently a two-way issue, and I recognise the challenges of the current devolution architecture.
“We do however need to try to find ways to progress key objectives.
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“In particular, it has been suggested to me that the withdrawal of GCP’s Cambridge to Cambourne scheme will impact negatively on the Bourn Airfield development and, in turn, could prevent South Cambridgeshire District meeting its five-year land supply.
“If so, this goes against the clear expectation previous ministers set out in February and June 2018 that discussions around governance should not impact negatively on delivery.”
Mr Clarke added: “Given that Government is investing significant funding into the area, I would welcome clarification about immediate next steps on this corridor and how you and local partners will not lose momentum.”
The minister said it was essential they work towards “significantly improved local partnership working arrangements, built on a unity of ambition and shared purpose, and I believe that you, as mayor, are uniquely placed to lead such a change.
“This is the spirit in which devolution is intended to operate across England and we really need to seek this in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.”
Mr Clarke concluded by noting that he had written to the GCP “in the same terms and I would urge you, as mayor, to focus on this as a matter of priority”.
Mayor Palmer blames civil servants for the criticism and says he believes they were ill prepared for his style and pace of delivering key projects.
“We would not have been able to bring these developments forward at such breakneck speed without ruffling some feathers and challenging some old ways of thinking,” he said.
“Michael Gove gave a speech recently where he talked about the need to restore faith in Government by changing the structures, ambitions and priorities of the machine and demonstrating a willingness to break the mould of the past.
“This is what I am trying to do, and what this letter is evidence of resistance to in the civil service.
“The culture of government is hostile to risk and experimentation, and decisions in the civil service are geared towards risk aversion.
“Programs are seen to be successful if they fit in with existing systems and assumptions, formed in London offices under the influence of like-minded colleagues, pressure groups and media coverage.
“Civil servants are constantly questioning our processes rather than our results, which means my officers have to spend hours defending our policies rather than implementing them.”
He said that on the political adviser role he took advice taken from senior counsel, described as a “top local government QC who advised at the time it was entirely appropriate” to appoint Mr Hunt.
Civil servants might have disagreed with that advice but the mayor had at all times acted within the law, remains his contention.
He added: “I was elected on the basis that I would do things differently, so that we could deliver for the people of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough where so many others before had failed. “I would rather be judged on whether I have delivered on my promises, and if we have been able to improve peoples’ lives.”
Cllr Aidan Van de Weyer, the Lib Dem candidate for mayor in next year’s election, felt that the letter “is clearly aiming tp encourage different parties and people involved in the future of Cambridgeshire to work more closely together.
“There is some positive stuff about needing unity of ambition and shared purpose”.
On the reference to the Nolan principles he felt the letter “is very clear what it is trying to say. The comments are very powerful and we need to take heed of them”.
Cllr Aidan Van de Weyer said: “The role of the mayor of the combined authority is to bring people together, different parties and organisations with a shared vision for the area.”
He felt there had been successes in establishing an ambitious transport system for the county and that the combined authority had been “very effective” in its support of businesses hit by Covid-19.
On housing, whilst agreeing there had been some achievements, he felt these were being “hampered by a lack of transparency in some respects”.
He added: “I also think there were missed opportunities to work more closely with the districts
“The message of this letter is we need to work better together and that’s absolutely what we should all be focusing on.”
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