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Political infighting holds back Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority

Minister clearly aware of the antipathy towards Mayor Dr Nik Johnson held by Conservative district council leaders

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The Government has given its strongest hint yet that it remains unhappy with political infighting at the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (CAPCA). It has decided to extend by six months a ‘best value notice’ issued a year ago to try and keep the Combined Authority on an even keel.

Simon Hoare, appointed in the November 2023 cabinet reshuffle as minister for local government, called today for the Combined Authority board “to develop the strategic priorities and aspirations for the area that will benefit local residents, and a credible delivery strategy for progressing these”.

He said: “We hope that this can be achieved through consensus but, if not all stakeholders are ready to fully engage, the opportunity should be left open for them to do so when they feel ready to.

“This work is also important in informing CAPCA’s approach to further devolution.”

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The minister is clearly aware of the antipathy towards Mayor Dr Nik Johnson held by Conservative district council leaders Anna Bailey (East Cambs) and Chris Boden (Fenland), and the views of former Peterborough City Council leader Wayne Fitzgerald.

Code of conduct battle at Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority

And he is likely also to be aware that only recently CAPCA revealed there are four outstanding code of conduct complaints – all involving board members.

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The minister says he acknowledges the steps CAPCA has taken to address the serious issues at the authority since, including “constructive engagement with both the independent improvement board and the department over the last twelve months.

“We recognise the authority’s progress in delivering its agreed improvement plan, which has included making permanent appointments to the senior leadership team in a robust and timely manner. The benefits of a strengthened senior officer team are reflected in the progress made against the improvement plan”.

Recognising that the code of conduct investigation into Mayor Dr Johnson was not concluded quickly, “we note that it now has been and is an important milestone for the authority.

“However, as you know, embedding cultural change across the organisation and ensuring that it is having the desired, long-term impacts is likely to take time and will require sustained effort from both officers and, indeed, members at CAPCA.

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Confidentially breached ‘due to a leak in the press’ says Combined Authority

“Further, the department remains concerned that, despite efforts made, more work is needed to ensure effective partnership working between all levels of the Combined Authority and its constituent authorities, to enable the area to achieve its full potential”.

He said that whilst the improvement board “continues to draw assurance from the work of the officer team within [CAPCA], this needs to be matched by the actions of the [Combined Authority] Board itself.”

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“Ministers remain concerned as to CAPCA’s capacity to comply with its Best Value Duty under the Local Government Act 1999”.

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He told CAPCA they must continue to engage regularly with the department at official level and the Government would be looking to the improvement board and their external auditor for updates and assurance that the necessary changes are being made at sufficient pace.

“Whilst the authority may continue to receive and be awarded government funding whilst under this notice, we would emphasise that receipt of funding does not indicate the department’s broader view of the performance of the authority, nor would it indicate any change in the status of this notice, with individual funding programmes being managed and assured independently by their respective departments,” he said.

“This notice will remain in place for 6 months, after which time, should the department deem it necessary to continue to seek assurance through such a notice, a further notice will be issued.

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“The notice may be withdrawn or escalated at any point based on the available evidence.”

CAPCA was warned that “a failure to demonstrate continuous improvement may be judged to contribute to best value failure and the Secretary of State will consider using these powers as appropriate.

“It is important to ensure transparency in relation to the challenges faced by local authorities and the department’s engagement on these”.

Combined Authority faces fresh turmoil after Tory leaders refuse to accept conduct ruling

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The letter to CAPCA was signed by Max Soule, Deputy Director, Local Government Stewardship.

Commenting on the revised best value notice, Rob Bridge, Cambridgeshire, and Peterborough Combined Authority chief executive, said: “The revised best value notice acknowledges the progress the Combined Authority has made and continues to make since January 2023.

“This progress includes being the first Combined Authority to adopt, following approval from DLUHC, a Single Assurance Framework, adopting a new member officer protocol, the transformation of our procurement function and making permanent appointments to the senior leadership team.

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“I want to take this opportunity to thank the staff at the Combined Authority, who’s hard work has made this progress possible.

“There is of course still more work for us to do and I look forward to working in partnership with our constituent councils and the independent improvement board to continue to deliver for the businesses and communities of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.”

Council leader praises Mayor Johnson for ‘standing up with me and many others who are banging the drum for Peterborough’

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Peterborough MP Paul Bristow said: “The Department of Local Government still thinks the Labour mayor and the Combined Authority are failing to deliver value for money and are failing to deliver vital services.

“It remains on a watch list for a further 6 months. The Government have given the Combined Authority money, but there is little confidence that it is spent well.”

FOOTNOTE: The revised Best Value Notice replaces the notice issued by DLUHC on 24th January 2023 and can be found here 

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