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County council puts its ‘tanks’ on Fenland’s lawns in row over £20m spending plans for Wisbech

‘Councillor Tierney has not been nominated or appointed by this authority to act on this council’s behalf’

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Fenland Council was warned today it can have no say in which county councillor gets to sit on an improvement board for Wisbech that will oversee expenditure of a £20m Government grant. “They do not get to appoint a county council representative,” warned county council leader Lucy Nethsingha. “They are insisting those local councillors such as Steve Tierney or Simon King will be the county councillor representative on the board – we decide the county council representative.”

And she added she wouldn’t agree with the choice of a county councillor from Wisbech “since we do not have enough faith in Fenland District Council to spend the money wisely given their record”.

Cllr Nethsingha said: “It is also the people of Wisbech for whom this funding is intended and there are number of factors involved.

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Part of report prepared by Paul Medd for Monday’s Cabinet meeting: new town board for Wisbech being presented as a fait accompli until challenged by chief executive Stephen Moir of CCC

Part of report prepared by Paul Medd for Monday’s Cabinet meeting: new town board for Wisbech being presented as a fait accompli until challenged by chief executive Stephen Moir of CCC

“If you look at the issues in Wisbech where health and education inequalities are extreme, I don’t think the district or town council are right people to tackle those issues.”

Fenland Council will oversee the £20m of funding to regenerate the town centre and a business board is being set up, chaired by local entrepreneur Iain Kirkbright.

However, Stephen Moir, the county council chief executive, released an open letter today to Paul Medd, chief executive of Fenland District Council, expressing outrage at “unilateral actions currently being taken by Fenland District Council”.

Whilst agreeing the district council is the accountable body, Mr Moir told Mr Medd that the district council “does not have the power to make the appointments to the Town Board, other than for your own district council nominations – the other appointments are a matter for the Independent chair, with the exception of other local authorities.

“This is explicit statement in the Government’s Guidance.”

And Mr Moir says the Fenland chief executive is simply wrong when he claims, in a report to be discussed by Fenland councillors next week, that the board must include a Cambridgeshire County Council member based within Fenland.

“It is not a requirement of the Government’s Guidance that a county council elected member must be based within the local area, therefore the statement ‘based within Fenland’ is factually inaccurate and does not support the district council’s proposed actions,” says Mr Moir.

“Additionally, in relation to the nominations from the representative authorities, it is interesting to note that Fenland District Council is giving itself the opportunity to make nominations from its own membership whilst denying other local authorities from doing the same.”

Chief executive Stephen Moir: “As I think members will be aware the funding being provided for by government is due to come to an end therefore the county council proposed budget includes continuation of that using our own revenue.”

Chief executive Stephen Moir

Mr Moir said: “Cambridgeshire County Council does not agree with or accept Fenland District Council’s flawed interpretation of the Government’s Guidance and I confirm that Councillor Tierney has not been nominated or appointed by this authority to act on this council’s behalf.

“It remains entirely a matter for Cambridgeshire County Council as a sovereign local authority to determine appointments to outside bodies to represent the views of this council.

“Cambridgeshire County Council will therefore proceed with the nomination and appointment of a county councillor of its choosing, in accordance with the Government’s Guidance, to fulfil our role fully upon the Town Board, as the relevant upper tier local authority encompassing Wisbech.”

Stephen Moir said: “Cambridgeshire County Council does not agree with or accept Fenland District Council’s flawed interpretation of the Government’s Guidance and I confirm that Councillor Steve Tierney (above) has not been nominated or appointed by this authority to act on this council’s behalf”

Stephen Moir said: “Cambridgeshire County Council does not agree with or accept Fenland District Council’s flawed interpretation of the Government’s Guidance and I confirm that Councillor Steve Tierney (above) has not been nominated or appointed by this authority to act on this council’s behalf”

Mr Moir continued: “It would be deeply regrettable for the Town Board to therefore be set up in a potentially ultra vires manner, meaning that public funds being allocated for the benefit of Wisbech, and the people of the town could be withdrawn, owing to such a failure of governance.

“Such a breach of governance would also be a professional accountability issue for the relevant statutory officers.”

Mr Moir confirmed he had written to Government departments involved in the funding to register the county council’s concerns.

“Whilst their advice and opinion is awaited, it is incumbent upon me to set out the County Council’s position and formal objections to the actions currently being taken by Fenland District Council,” he says.

“In addition to setting out our objections and concerns I am formally seeking the retraction of the elements of the report to your Cabinet meeting on 20th May that are inaccurate and also to request the removal of any reference to a county council appointed representative, other than to indicate that you have approached the county council to confirm their elected member to be appointed to the Town Board”.

THE LETTER IN FULL

My ref:  20240517_FDC_Medd_P_SSM Your ref:

Date:               17 May 2024

Contact:          Dr Stephen Moir                                                                                                  Chief Executive’s Office

Telephone:   01223 699188                                                                                                                             New Shire Hall

Email:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 stephen.moir@cambridgeshire.gov.uk                                                                                        Emery Crescent

Enterprise Campus

Alconbury Weald

Paul Medd                                                                                              Huntingdon

Chief Executive                                                                                        PE28 4YE

Fenland District Council

Via email to: paulmedd@fenland.gov.uk

Dear Paul,

 

Wisbech Town Board Membership and Terms of Reference:

Formal Objection from Cambridgeshire County Council 

 

I am writing this open letter further to our e-mail correspondence and discussions in respect of the above matter.  In doing so I wish to formally record both the disappointment and objection of Cambridgeshire County Council with regard to the unilateral actions currently being taken by Fenland District Council.

Having taken the opportunity to review the report for Fenland District Council’s

Cabinet meeting on 20th May 2024, which was not shared with or agreed by Cambridgeshire County Council, I wish to point out some considerable and potentially misleading statements within the report as follows:

  • The report to your Cabinet recommends “That Cabinet delegates power to the Chief Executive and Leader of the Council in conjunction with the independent chairman to confirm initial appointments to the Wisbech Town Board as set out within appendix 4. Appointments after this will be made by the independent chairman and Town Board. Confirmation of these arrangements will be communicated to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) by 1 June 2024.”

 

Whilst the District Council is the accountable body (“The local authority, or an alternative organisation such as a community group if that is agreed between the chair and local authority, should act as secretariat to the Town Board”), it does not have the power to make the appointments to the Town Board, other than for your own District Council nominations – the other appointments are a matter for the Independent Chair, with the exception of other local authorities. This is explicit statement in the Government’s Guidance, which I further refer to below:

 

  • “it is incumbent on the chair, supported by the local authority, to ensure the right people are around the table to fully reflect the priorities of the town” as stated in the Long Term Plan for Towns Guidance for Local Authorities and Town Board 18/12/23.

                                                  

In terms of Town Board Membership there is a clear expectation that elected members representing both district and county councils will be included.

 

2. Local councillors

In areas where there are two tiers of local authorities, there should be one councillor from each tier of local government. In unitary authorities, there should be 2 councillors from the authority. Where relevant for the town, the chair may wish to invite parish, town, or community councillors, noting that total numbers of elected representatives should be limited to promote community leadership.”

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 Regrettably, the report from your officers to the Cabinet in Fenland is misleading at para 2.4 where it identifies:

“Government guidelines require that the membership of the Town Board must include the following:

 Independent Chair

  • Local MP
  • A Cambridgeshire County Council member based within Fenland A Fenland District Council elected member
  • Representation from the Police (either Police & Crime Commissioner or delegated to a senior Police Officer)”

 

It is not a requirement of the Government’s Guidance that a County Council elected member must be based within the local area, therefore the statement “based within Fenland” is factually inaccurate and does not support the District Council’s proposed actions. 

Additionally, in relation to the nominations from the representative authorities, it is interesting to note that Fenland District Council is giving itself the opportunity to make nominations from its own membership whilst denying other local authorities from doing the same.

However, given that the role on the Town Board is to act as a representative of the Council, it is therefore up to the constituent Council to make the nomination, not the Town Board to specify a member, given that it is not an appointment in a personal capacity.

As such, Cambridgeshire County Council does not agree with or accept Fenland District Council’s flawed interpretation of the Government’s Guidance and I confirm that Councillor Tierney has not been nominated or appointed by this authority to act on this Council’s behalf.

It remains entirely a matter for Cambridgeshire County Council as a sovereign local authority to determine appointments to outside bodies to represent the views of this Council.

Cambridgeshire County Council will therefore proceed with the nomination and appointment of a County Councillor of its choosing, in accordance with the Government’s Guidance, to fulfil our role fully upon the Town Board, as the relevant upper tier local authority encompassing Wisbech.

As you will appreciate Fenland District Council, as the accountable body for the Town Board, is required to account for all spending and to ensure that governance requirements are met in relation to appointments.  It is then for the relevant statutory officers of the authority to be personally accountable for ensuring compliance with these provisions.

I would anticipate that such duties may be jointly or individually the responsibility of the Head of Paid Service, Section 151 Officer, and/or Monitoring Officer of the District Council, along with  the Independent Chair.

It would be deeply regrettable therefore for the Town Board to therefore be set up in a potentially ultra vires manner, meaning that public funds being allocated for the benefit of Wisbech, and the people of the Town could be withdrawn, owing to such a failure of governance.

Such a breach of governance would also be a professional accountability issue for the relevant statutory officers.

Consequently, given the significance of these issues and the requirements to comply not only with the Long-Term Plan for Towns Guidance, but also the recently published Statutory Government Guidance for Local Authorities relating to Best Value, I have considered it necessary to escalate these matters directly to officials within the Cities and Local Growth Unit, a partnership between the Department for Business and Trade and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, in the first instance.

Whilst their advice and opinion is awaited, it is incumbent upon me to set out the County Council’s position and formal objections to the actions currently being taken by Fenland District Council.

In addition to setting out our objections and concerns I am formally seeking the retraction of the elements of the report to your Cabinet meeting on 20th May that are inaccurate and also to request the removal of any reference to a County Council appointed representative, other than to indicate that you have approach the County Council to confirm their Elected Member to be appointed to the Town Board.

I would be grateful for your formal acknowledgement of receipt of this letter and your written confirmation of the steps your authority will now be making to rectify these errors, by return.

Finally, being mindful that the Leader of the District Council is also a County  Councillor, I consider it necessary to copy this letter to Councillor Boden to ensure he is fully aware of these issues.

Councillor Boden, in my experience, is a strong supporter of robust and effective governance arrangements and would, I anticipate, wish to be assured that both the District Council and the County Council were meeting their requirements fully in respect of this significant and exciting investment for the people and Town of Wisbech.

 

Yours sincerely,

Stephen S. Moir

BSc (Hons), MSc, PhD, Chartered CCIPD, FCMI, FRSA   Chief Executive

 

CC:    Councillor Lucy Nethsingha, Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council

Councillor Chris Boden, Leader of Fenland District Council

 

 

 

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