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EXCLUSIVE: Nigel Pauley asks: ‘Why does the CPCA turn winners into losers?’

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Nigel Pauley, former aide to Mayor Dr Nik Johnson. He resigned that post in February.

Never work with friends. That’s the old adage.

It’s up there with the one about never working with animals and children.

Over the years in journalism I’ve ignored them all – with varying degrees of success.

Working alongside a friend, Dr Nik Johnson, when he became the newly elected Labour and Cooperative mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough in May 2021, was therefore a no brainer.

I knew from that first meeting seven years ago that Dr Nik was the real deal.

But more importantly a winner. 

A winner who went on to enjoy one of the biggest political upsets  Cambridgeshire and Peterborough has seen – toppling incumbent James Palmer to become mayor of the distinctly blue-tinged combined authority.

That rainy afternoon at the count in Soham was as good as it gets. 

I no longer work for the mayor.  That is a story for another day. 

Our friendship remains. Though is more distant. 

So  I watch from afar and cringe at the abuse he gets online mainly from senior political opponents who are very much throwing stones from inside their own greenhouses.

Now, I’m all  in favour of elected politicians being scrutinised and questioned – properly and fairly.

But, this constant drip, drip of hate and passive aggressive bile: usual starting with the  “A question for …”   is just  playground bullies showboating to their own echo chamber.

Let’s get things in proportion – all  Dr Nik did was win an election. 

He got a mandate not only from his own supporters but more importantly LibDem and indeed even Conservatives putting him down as their second preference.

So, on what planet, can a decent man trying to do his best in trying circumstances, have to daily face the modern equivalent of  Orwell’s daily “Two Minutes Hate” on Twitter?

To see the mayor – who let’s not forget  is a consultant paediatrician – constantly vilified and  “ordered” to resign because he “not up to the job” is as pathetic, as it is nasty.

One unpleasant individual – who had held high elected office – even accused the mayor of “abandoning sick children to die to follow his own political ambitions…”

The so-called failed  #Fenpowder Plot was another example of those opting for a scorched earth policy rather than working with the mayor for the better good.

Knowing Dr Nik as I do, I know he is also the first to put his hand up when he makes a mistake. 

And he has made mistakes.  What politician – what human – hasn’t?

But in reality this column is not about Dr Nik Johnson. 

It’s about how the combined authority turns winners into losers.

Quite simply in its current form it is a flawed and broken model. That isn’t fit for purpose. 

There are too many with a vested interested. 

Too much animosity. 

Too much partisan parochialism. 

Too much bile and ill feeling. 

Too many small minds. 

Not enough big, forward, thinking.

If things don’t change  there will never enjoy a vibrant, united and fully functioning combined authority, and I doubt whether ANY mayor  will make it work.

How can we stop the CPCA turning proven winners like James Palmer and Dr Nik Johnson into broken losers?

I believe the only way the CPCA will ever work properly is by a consensus with ALL parties  putting aside their differences and co-operating together.

But, can those so firmly entrenched in their animosity ever be prepared to forget the past and  be willing to work together towards making a brighter future?

At the heart of all Dr Nik’s problems, I believe,  is the antipathy caused by the mayor’s 3 C’s  of Compassion, Cooperation and Community.

Who knew that such a simple phrase of hope and unity which I first coined  in 2017 should cause such deep seated anger.

I saw a packed audience at the Big Tent event in Coventry give a standing ovation to Dr Nik as he explained the ethos of the 3Cs.

Afterwards many ignored ignore big name national politicians present to grab a moment with our mayor to learn more.

Yet, locally, rather than learn and embrace the 3Cs, for some they seemed to act like a red rag to a raging bull –  fuelling a desperate desire to bring down its proponent. 

Almost as  if it was a challenge to prove that the 3Cs were nothing more than just another trite slogan they began hectoring and hassling the mayor – hoping he would bite back.

This antipathy has magnified and spilled over into the CPCA and impacted on its ability to make sensible decisions at board level.

The likes of Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald and Cllr Steve Count may both covet being mayor. I’m pretty sure one or  two other board members do too. 

With an election three years away the  manoeuvring, posturing and campaigning has already begun.

Hence the constant negativity aimed at the mayor by those with a vested interest in his failure .

Maybe Dr Nik was naive, too trusting and politically inexperienced, yes maybe even a rabbit caught in the headlights. He certainly endured a sharp learning curve.

Many involved in the CPCA and central government couldn’t cope with a politician who spoke from the heart and who some perceived as being “too soft” to be a “proper” politician. 

His predecessor James Palmer was a much more worldly and experienced politician.

Yet he was also a winner who was turned into a loser by the CPCA..

Let me make it clear I have the utmost respect for James. 

No-one could have worked harder than him to make it work. 

But despite all his long hours, dedication and devotion to the cause, his four year term ended in abject failure. 

Voters rejected the Palmer vision for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

It wasn’t enough. Nothing will ever be enough. 

James suffered  a rocky relationship with other locals leaders – even those from within his own Conservative party.

Board meetings became marathon ill-tempered sessions of spats, insults and toxicity …

His relationship with the Greater Cambridge Partnership became non-existent. Ditto Cambridge, South Cambs and incredibly even Tory-led HDC.

But things only got worse – he ended up getting a rebuke from the Tory government about the way things were done at the CPCA.

As part of this the “basket case” CPCA was ordered to undertake a recruitment campaign for a new full-time Chief Executive.

Ironically, a consequence of the perceived governance failings of the previous regime, was to become one of the new mayor’s biggest  – and still ongoing – festering sores.

So if the consummate, smartly dressed, suave James Palmer – buoyed by a big Tory majority on the board – failed to achieve what he set out to do in four year term … what chance for the relatively inexperienced Dr Nik?

After James Palmer virtually turned the mayoralty into being all about the mayor it was inevitable  that forces both within the combined authority and central government wanted a move towards more consensual way of doing things.

But there is the major problem. 

How do you run the combined authority by consensus when nearly half of its board members don’t want a consensus?

It was clear pretty early on that some of the board members were not interested in Co-operating with Dr Nik … let along the other two Cs!

Now the beleaguered mayor is on the receiving end of an almost daily barrage of passive aggressive tweets aimed at mocking, belittling and undermining him.

It may seem to them that this is politics. Partisan politics. This is how it’s done. This is how it has always been done.

It is clear they have learned nothing from the shifting sands locally with Cambridgeshire County and Huntingdonshire District both being lost to the Tories in favour of a rainbow coalition.

Another issue that makes the job of mayor treacherous is the skewed nature of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough which means that the focus  too often appears to favour Cambridge and the prosperous south.

Conservatives in Fenland, East Cambs and Peterborough get chippy about the “wealthy” south of the county … spectacularly failing to recognise that the problems faced in the north have not improved over many years of their own control.

They’re like political  versions of archetypical do-gooder Mrs Jellyby in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House who spent time campaigning for projects in Africa while ignoring the needy in her own neighbourhood.

Too much time spent tweeting and obsessing about the Labour mayor’s alleged failings and  moaning  about Cambridge and South Cambs.

Not enough time spent tackling their own issues.

But, to be fair,  the leaders from the south also tend to be territorial and show a distinct lack of vision or interest for anything outside of their own particular district.

That is why I hope the Mayor Dr Nik sticks to his original plan to concentrate on “levelling up” the Fens, parts of Peterborough and East Cambs to improve public transport. To sort the Wisbech-March rail link. To improve health outcomes. To build houses.

To park his tanks – or at least a red flag – in the middle of Fenland.

I hope he isn’t swayed by the easy option of turning to the power of his natural allies in Cambridge and south Cambs rather than the trickier paths of the north of the region.

I’d like to think the mayor will overcome his current problems and lead a better, more united, consensual and less dysfunctional combined authority.

But, whether, the task is beyond  Dr Nik or anyone who may come after him. Is a more worrying question.

And one that could have huge bearing on the future of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

Already there are rumblings that the area could be divided into two unitary authorities – maybe the north (Peterborough, Fenland and East Cambs) and the south – Cambridge, South Cambs and Hunts.)

While, I can see the logic behind such a proposal, I believe such a move could prove a disaster for the north.

Maybe they have a problem living *with* the well-heeled south and Cambridge – but living *without* them could prove even more problematical.

I believe the key is for those on the CPCA to put aside their territorial squabbles and to draw up a proper action plan.

To recognise the need for major investment in Fenland, the poorer areas of East Cambs and Peterborough.

Levelling up, or whatever you wish to call it, those areas will benefit the whole region – providing a  bigger  pool of healthier, happier, better educated, better connected and better housed, workers.

It might be possible for a fully functioning CPCA to achieve this – but dividing the area into two unitary authorities will only exacerbate the divisions.

It would be tragedy, I believe, if Dr Nik was the second – and last – mayor of the CPCA.

Devolution needs to work. For all of us. 

Whether any mayor can properly unite the combined authority is the $64,000 question.

Over the next few years, whoever is at the helm, the deep-rooted problems facing the CPCA need to be tackled before it can deliver for all residents.

But, for that to happen, our senior politicians need to grow up, bury the hatchet and work together. 

To stop being short-sighted and look at the bigger picture.

It’s time for them to stop posting snide tweets and wasting time scoring cheap political points .

They may not like the 3Cs but in reality they need to embrace them – because only by invoking Compassion and Co-operation can they truly serve everyone in our Communities. 

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