Cambridgeshire council bosses, NHS, chief constable and chief fire officer sent email critical of combined authority to chief executive the week he quit £150,000 a year job

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The county’s most senior local government officers – together with the chief constable and the chief fire officer – sent an email critical of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority to its chief executive just days before he handed in his resignation.

It was signed by Joanne Lancaster, managing director of Huntingdonshire District Council and on behalf of the Cambridgeshire Public Service Board (CPSB) whose members comprise chief executives of all Cambridgeshire councils.

The NHS, chief constable and chief fire officer are all on the board together with the council chief executives and all signed the letter with the exception of John Hill, chief executive of East Cambridgeshire District Council.

Mr Hill has recently, of course, become joint acting chief executive of the combined authority, following the sudden and unexplained departure of Martin Whiteley.

The CPSB email was dated August 24 and the explosive nature of the wording would go some way to explaining perhaps Mr Whiteley’s almost immediate resignation from his £150,000 a year job.

Ironically the email was sent both to Mr Whiteley and to Kim Sawyer, a former director of governance at Peterborough City Council, now legal counsel at the combined authority and in recent weeks the other joint acting chief executive.

The CPSB pulled few punches in its email, telling the combined authority – led by Mayor James Palmer – that only “limited or incomplete” information on a number of major projects in which they would be involved was available to them.

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“As you know, as a collective and as individuals the members of CPSB are ambitious for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and keen to lend our collective weight and influence to the challenging agendas ahead of us,” they told Mr Whiteley.

“Those of us who are constituent members of the CA are also collectively responsible for ensuring that the CA makes good evidence based decisions in an open and transparent manner.

“We have discussed a number of times the need to be involved at an early stage on significant issues coming before the CA, but the lack of on-going productive engagement and the way some decisions are being handled is now causing real concern. “

They said the absence of senior officers from the combined authority at the CPSB August meeting compelled them to put their concerns in writing.

“Let me be specific,” wrote the Huntingdonshire managing director Mrs Lancaster.

Accepting that the CA was not a local council and did not have the same governance structure, she insisted that “many of the same principles and rules apply.

“It is still a public body and so has fiduciary duties relating to the spending of public money and the principles of good governance relating to decision making, including properly defined checks and balances”.

She told Mr Whiteley and Ms Sawyer: “There is an increasing concern that the rules of operation that you are using are not clear or widely understood.”

On constitutional issues she said the CPSB was concerned that decisions are being made which do not align with the requirements of the CA constitution.

She then lists specific examples of where the CA was not following agreed procedures

Mrs Lancaster said reports to council leaders “are often framed in terms of what the mayor wishes to do when, constitutionally, the mayor is not the decision maker, it is the CA.

“For example the recent note outlines the mayor’s proposals on appointments to committees, but as they are committees of the CA, the power lies with the board to make those appointments”

On investment strategy the CPSB criticised the lack of discussion and “direction of travel” and noted that the “the lack of visibility of this work is concerning”.

On housing the CPSB said decisions have been, and continue to be made, about the allocation of funding without criteria being agreed to guide those investment decisions.

“This is a basic protective device of good governance in the allocation of public money,” said Mrs Lancaster particularly as money was often being used to subsidise developer activity.

Overall the CPSB felt criteria for housing investment was not being properly attended to and “we are concerned that in the absence of fully agreed criteria that consistency and transparency of decision making cannot be guaranteed.”

On information sharing, the CSPB complained that despite numerous requests there had been presentations and informal meetings that had not been properly recorded. This made it difficult to follow through what was being discussed and decided.

All in all “it makes it very hard to see the audit trail of what leaders have said and agreed to and what they have simply been shown, but not necessarily given agreement”.

Other topics covered in the email refer to the lack of terms of reference for a local industrial strategy and lack of progress on a skills strategy.

Mrs Lancaster also referred to rumours among some of her members of a new company being formed by the CA to deliver the skills agenda and the market towns strategy. The lack of clarity, she indicated, was a concern.

Much of the latter part of her email covered other areas of work of the CA including the geographic coverage of the business board to replace the LEP and access overall to information and at the proper time and in the proper manner.

She told Mr Whiteley and Ms Sawyer: “There was a universal recognition of our need to express our concerns in writing.

“I hope that you take them in the spirit that they are being offered, which is that we all need to be at our best for the people of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough; they deserve no less.

“The hope is that this will bring about some actions and all members of CPSB are keen to create space so that we work as efficiently and effectively as we can.”

Her email concluded: “To this end there was a suggestion that now that your permanent team is taking shape that an informal officer meeting with your Directors and CPSB would be a helpful way to build relationships.

“As a final sign off, all members of CPSB, with the exception of John Hill, have agreed to the contents and sentiment of this note and we look forward with interest to your response.”

It was signed

Mrs Joanne Lancaster

Chair of CPSB

And on behalf of:

Antoinette Jackson, Cambridge City Council

Alec Wood, Cambridgeshire Constabulary

Gillian Beasley, Cambridgeshire County Council / Peterborough City Council

Chris Strickland, Cambridgeshire Fire & Rescue Service

Jess Bawden, Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Clinical Commissioning Group

Paul Medd, Fenland DC

Rachel Stopard, Greater Cambridge Partnership

Dorothy Gregson, Police & Crime Commissioner’s Office

Beverly Agass, South Cambridgeshire DC