Devolution for Cambridgeshire ' a system that does more harm than good; in simple terms the combined authority is a fraud' say Lib Dems

PUBLISHED: 16:32 30 August 2019

Mayor James Palmer (right) posted this photo of him with MP James Cleverly, the new chairman of the Conservative Party during a visit to London this week. 
“We discussed our plans for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. Very pleased James has been appointed,” tweeted Mayor Palmer. Picture; MAYOR PALMER

Mayor James Palmer (right) posted this photo of him with MP James Cleverly, the new chairman of the Conservative Party during a visit to London this week. "We discussed our plans for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. Very pleased James has been appointed," tweeted Mayor Palmer. Picture; MAYOR PALMER

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The devolution deal that brought about the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CAPCA) "is a fraud-a system that does more harm than good" says a 2,500 word assessment by Liberal Democrats.

Cambridgeshire Lib Dems submitted their conclusions to a Government inquiry examining the impact of devolution.

The approach by Mayor James Palmer "goes against every principle of devolution. It should be consistent; it should be democratic and enhance accountability and it should transfer power and money from the centre to the region.

"In simple terms, the combined authority is a fraud."

Their report will be considered by the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee.

Lib Dems criticised the creation by CAPCA of a business board to replace the local enterprise partnership (LEP) which is "tainted, with a reputation so tarnished that it is proving very difficult to attract high quality personnel.

"There is a near complete lack of accountability, transparency and oversight.

"It is virtually impossible for any clear and detailed view to be formed over what the LEP is actually doing and how.

"As far as we can see, the LEP functions only as a conduit for grants, given in a way that is hard to be evaluated, to recipients with business cases that are difficult to review, leading to results that cannot be quantified.

"The original role and purpose of the LEP has, in our view, been abandoned. This level of secrecy is not justified for any business, economic or social reason and opens the very real danger of corruption.

Lib Dems also argue that issues of oversight and scrutiny have led to serious concerns about all areas of management.

"We have grave concerns about the ways in which financial powers are being exercised and scrutinised," says their report.

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Lib Dems say they were "highly supportive" of devolution but the current model in Cambridgeshire fails to meet even the most basic criteria for delivering more effective local government.

They say that in Cambridgeshire the combined authority has taken powers already devolved to local bodies and then effectively taken them further away from the people into the hands of one individual, Mayor Palmer.

"We felt this was an abuse of democracy, divisive, likely to make scrutiny and accountability more (not less) difficult and went counter to the true basic principle of devolution, which is to move power from the centre to the locality," says the report.

"The entire concept is perverse and fatally flawed in its very structure. It has also, most unfortunately, led to 'divide to rule', with accountability made unclear and endless potential for buck passing and blame culture."

Lib Dems say: "All of our fears on the combined authority have been realised, with the presidential style of government imposed by this new approach reinforcing the worst characteristics of local government without any mitigating benefits to date.

In another section the Lib Dems talk of strategies by CAPCA that are geared towards "short-term thinking, commercialisation and cronyism; we view such a development with horror".

In some respects the document is a personal attack on Mayor Palmer and Lib Dems say his character is a factor.

"There is nothing in his capabilities, outlook or management style to suggest that he has any of the qualifications needed to act as an effective 'presidential-style' chief executive," the committee will be told.

"Yet the main problem lies in the dysfunctional structures put in place. A better mayor than the current incumbent would struggle to do a good job in these circumstances. When the mayor is so painfully, evidently incompetent it simply highlights and re-emphasises structural problems that are built into the system. "

The mayor is blamed for "acting as cheerleader" for his own Conservative Party rather than for the good of all and affordable housing provision "is now an area of bitter partisan conflict".

MP Clive Betts MP, chair of the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, said: " Between 2014 and 2017 a number of English cities and regions negotiated settlements allowing more powers at a local level. This flurry of activity has since slowed with little transfer of further powers, no new deals and the promised devolution framework still unpublished.

"The approach the Government has taken is to develop bespoke arrangements for different areas, both in terms of the powers devolved to them and the administrative systems to execute them. We have launched this inquiry to understand the impact of the current approach.

"Has tailoring devolution to each locality improved decision making, the local economy and public services?"

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