Beleaguered Peterborough City Council leader Wayne Fitzgerald – facing a confidence vote on November 1 – has received a message of support from Fenland councillor Steve Tierney. “I’d like to pay tribute to the brave leadership of Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald in Peterborough,” Cllr Tierney tweeted.
“Even in the face of traitors and threats to his position, he has stood firm against the nonsense. Well done, Sir”.
It may offer a crumb of comfort to Cllr Fitzgerald, re-elected unanimously to the role of leader just a few months ago but on November 1 odds-on to lose; he was first elected leader in May 2021, having previously been deputy leader.
“We the opposition groups have worked together to put forward a vote of no confidence in the leader of the council at the full council meeting on 1st November,” says Cllr Chris Harper who is proposing the motion.
He heads up the Peterborough First councillors and prides himself on being part of a group that has “no whip and we can all decide for ourselves as complete individuals how we wish to comment or vote on any matter”.
Describing the experience as “liberating” Cllr Harper has also spoken in the past of holding the balance of power at the town hall and pledging to be seen as “a real alternative to the usual political parties, and most importantly because we are committed to putting you the people of our city first”.
But supporting a Conservative administration has its limits and Cllr Harper has reached them.
His no confidence motion opens with references to “the political attacks and weaponization of the council administration against opposition members”.
Cllr Harper says this has led to the relationship between the leader, including his cabinet, and the opposition groups, including former group members, “deteriorating to such an extent that the delivery of our council services and having majority consent on major policy including the budget are at risk.
“It is a vital time for our council to have stability and sensible leadership to navigate through the difficult financial and governance challenges it is facing.
“With this in mind we the opposition groups are proposing an alternative leader and subsequent administration, which will deliver the much-needed stability our city deserves and an administration that will enjoy the support from the majority of members of the council”.
Cllr Harper adds: “We will not make any further comment until after the meeting has taken place to ensure the work of the current administration has no distractions.”
Here’s who signed motion of no confidence
His motion is signed by five members of Peterborough First, three Labour councillors, two Liberal Democrats and two Greens.
No clue, then, in who might be pitching to become leader.
Labour has, reluctantly, been drawn into the issue, initially hoping to at least suspend hostilities until next May and a more decisive outcome for their party at the next round of local elections.
But even they have recognised that the time has come for a confidence vote in the leader although it is unlikely, they will offer a suggestion from within their ranks for a replacement.
That could come from within Peterborough First, and many believe Cllr Mohammed Farooq, until recently a Conservative councillor, to be a serious contender.
This summer he was cleared of allegedly plotting against council leader Wayne Fitzgerald and later spoke out about a ‘bullying, toxic’ culture within the ruling group that he says nearly killed him.
Cllr Farooq, a successful businessman and councillor for Hargate and Hempsted since 2018, was re-instated but then quit the Conservative group on the city council.
Speaking to CambsNews at the time, he felt “the bigger impact is that we are preventing the good talented people coming into the council by having that kind of toxic culture in the city council.”
Whoever takes charge will face a considerable series of challenges on multiple fronts, not least picking up the implications of the most recent report of the Peterborough City Council Independent Improvement and Assurance Panel.
This was set up at the express wish of the Minister of State for Equalities and Levelling Up Communities to provide external advice, challenge, and expertise to Peterborough City Council in driving forward the development and delivery of their improvement plan.
The minister also required four monthly reports on the progress of the delivery of the improvement plan.
It was established in December 2021 following a report by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy who identified a “significant risk” that the council would not be able to balance its budget in the medium term.
The most recent report, at the end of July, from the improvement board warned that the second half of 2023 would be critical in determining whether the council had set the foundations to weather the continuing financial challenges.
Changing fortunes of Tory group
A section of the latest report also reflects on the changing fortunes of the Conservative group on the city council, with resignations since May diminishing further their numbers.
“On the face of it the smaller size of the administration increases what was already a high degree of uncertainty about decision making in the council chamber,” the report said.
“The panel has received assurances from the leader and the chief executive that despite this situation the quality of decision making will not be affected and there will be a high degree of continuity in the council’s policies and plans.
“Nonetheless, there is no guarantee that the administration’s policies will be accepted by the council, though the conduct of the recent council meeting in May was reassuring in this regard.
“This is especially challenging when there are so many difficult issues to address in the years ahead.”
It added: “One of the risks of this no overall control situation is that there can be a loss of focus on, and drive to deliver, a vision for the city.”
The report also challenges the council to look again at a move to all out elections, ending the annual elections where a third of councillors come up for re-election.
The baton on that particular challenge looks likely now to pass to others, given the enormity of the task ahead if Cllr Fitzgerald is to remain.
Removal of Cllr Fitzgerald as leader will, of course, be welcome at the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority where his veto has blocked passing of the critical Local Transport and Connectivity Plan.
Cllr Fitzgerald remains insistent the plan, however much it has been re worked, still opens the door for congestion charges for Peterborough – and has gained support for his opposition to it from both Fenland and East Cambs council leaders.
Andrew Pakes, Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Peterborough, has stayed on the sidelines of the council manoeuvring over a confidence vote but will have been part of the process in determining his party’s strategy.
“Here’s the story behind the financial pressures facing Peterborough City Council,” he wrote below a graphic claiming Government spending under Labour on Peterborough was twice that of Conservative Government spending on the city.
“The Tories have cut funding for the city by half over the last decade,” he said. “Together with the poor management of the city’s finances we are now left with a £15 million budget blackhole and the prospect of libraries, community centres and other assets being sold off.”
The likely outcome of November 1 is that Cllr Fitzgerald will be removed and although he may go quietly, it will almost certainly only be to reflect and recharge for his next political fight.
And that could mean running as Mayor of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority – putting him head-to-head with Labour Mayor Dr Nik Johnson if the latter decides to run for a second term.
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