Mayor calls for shake-up in ‘massively muddled’ local government in Cambridgeshire

Local government in Cambridgeshire is “massively muddled” and costs about £20 million more than the area needs, the county’s directly elected mayor has said.

Conservative James Palmer also said having both a combined authority and a city deal in the form of the Greater Cambridge Partnership is “a massive waste of money and resources”.

Giving his views on the success of devolution to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on Monday (November 30), Mr Palmer spoke positively about devolution.

He said the devolution deal that led to the creation of the Combined Authority which he leads and his position as a metro mayor has allowed “exceptional” things to be achieved, such as the new university planned for Peterborough.

He said local government in Cambridgeshire needs someone to “set the vision and the ambition for the area” as well as to “take the flack”.

He said: “If the old way of working was working, you wouldn’t have needed mayors in the first place”.

But in addition, for calling for greater devolution to provide greater financial powers, the mayor questioned the wisdom of maintaining Cambridge’s city deal alongside his own authority.

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The government created the city deal – now known as the Greater Cambridge Partnership – in 2013. It is worth around £500 million, with payments subject to progress reviews. The Combined Authority was then set up in 2017.

The two organisations have publicly clashed this year over opposing views regarding public transport investment in Cambridge, with the mayor arguing at least one of the GCP’s proposed new busways is inconsistent with his plans for the metro.

The mayor said in February: “It has become clear to me that GCP lack the vision, strategic thinking and the ability necessary to deliver any of the transport priorities for the Cambridge area.”

The mayor told the HCLG committee that this is the only area in the country where an active city deal exists in the same area as a combined authority, because other city deals were absorbed into the combined authorities in their area.

He said: “The toughest job I have had is trying to form any kind of relationship with the Greater Cambridge Partnership.

“It’s been almost impossible, they haven’t accepted the role of the mayor nor of the Combined Authority as a transport authority, we effectively have two organisations working in the same space”.

He said: “It just seems to me to be a massive waste of money and resources to have two organisations working in the same area”.

He said: “Every time I have challenged that structure, I have had massive kickback from civil servants”.

He also called for greater clarity on the responsibilities of each organisation, and said the government needs to set out where the boundaries are for different authorities involved in devolution.

He told the committee: “Nobody in Cambridge knows who is in charge, I don’t even think Whitehall knows who is in charge to be honest with you, and the general public don’t”.

He said Cambridgeshire and Peterborough has a county council, district councils, a unitary council, the Greater Cambridge Partnership city deal and the Combined Authority.

“That’s a lot of government for one county, and ultimately people will say there is so much waste in the system – well there is. I have no doubt about that.

“We are a county that pays around £5 billion net into the treasury, and yet we have got, in my view, probably about £20 million worth of government more than we need, and that is frustrating for me, and I think more than anything it’s frustrating for the general public”.

He said if he didn’t work in the system he would have “absolutely no idea who to go to” for issues in the area.

The mayor’s former chief of staff, and now MP for Ipswich, Tom Hunt, asked the minister of state for local government in February this year if the government plans to the abolish the Greater Cambridge Partnership and transfer its powers and funding to the Combined Authority.

Then minister of state, Simon Clarke MP, said the government has no plans to abolish the greater Cambridge city deal.

He also said that change could be brought about with the support of the county’s other political leaders.

He said: “If the local area wants to propose changes to governance arrangements, they should bring forward proposals, agreed by all the signatories, and my officials could consult with the relevant departments to consider government’s response”.

There has been no indication from council leaders that there is support for such a proposal.

The mayor made his remarks on Monday while taking part in the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee’s evidence session for metro mayors and council representatives as part of its inquiry into devolution in England.

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