Combined Authority Board highlights over-complicated county structures of public services

Interim chief executive Gordon Mitchell seems to have won over the leaders and senior councillors of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough’s local councils, but he has his work cut out improving the Combined Authority.

“From the brief discussions I’ve had with [The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – i.e. Central Government] , they’re content that you’ve appointed me, and the things that I want initially to do are manifested in this report – but we’ll have to wait and see and have a review of the situation in mid-September.”

Gordon Mitchell – interim CEO of the CPCA, 25 July 2022

The debate that Cambridgeshire’s local council leaders and senior councillors had with the interim chief executive starts with Mayor Dr Nik Johnson introducing the governance review.

See item 4.1 in the meeting papers here – the review itself being the annexed report.

The review was carried out by Jodie Townsend of Governance First Ltd, so if you hear speaker’s talking about “Jodie’s report”, it’s the annexed report to item 4.1 in the meeting papers mentioned above.

The review is the result of a letter from auditors EY that makes for painful reading for all involved – even though the full facts are yet to come out. You can read the letter here. The auditors identified significant governance weaknesses.

“Without appropriate leadership capacity with the requisite skills, knowledge and experience, there is significant doubt as to the Authority’s ability to discharge its statutory obligations as set out in The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority Order 2017, Local Government Act 1999 and other relevant pertinent legislation.”

Mark Hodgson of Ernst & Young LLP to John Pye – Independent Chair of Audit & Governance Committee of CPCA 01 June 2022

It is the CPCA Order 2017 – made under a host of powers granted by Parliament (under a series of sections listed here) in the Local Democracy, Economic Development and Construction Act 2009, that transfers powers to the Combined Authority in relation to:

  1. Local Transport (Article 7)
  2. Economic regeneration (including tourism) (Article 10a)
  3. Post-compulsory education – including adult education and lifelong learning (Article 10b)
Put simply, there are a series of things that the Combined Authority must do, and standards it must reach by law.

And at the moment there is a significant likelihood that it will not be able to do this. Which is why this is such a serious matter. Had Whitehall and Westminster not had their own serious governance issues of their of their own, (listen to Bronwen Maddox’s valedictory lecture to the Institute for Government here), I reckon ministers would have intervened much sooner.

“…the Authority needs to urgently ensure that it has sufficient appropriate leadership capacity to be able to deliver its objectives and statutory responsibilities. In order to do so, we believe more formal intervention is required, and expeditious discussions with the Authority’s sponsoring department to this end are time critical.”

Mark Hodgson of Ernst & Young LLP to John Pye – Independent Chair of Audit & Governance Committee of CPCA 01 June 2022

The bit in bold clearly rang alarm bells for the Combined Authority Board and the interim chief executive who has asked for, and was granted extraordinary powers from the Board to make interim senior appointments (at significant cost) so as to significantly reduce the risks of not meeting the standards the law requires of the Combined Authority. Ultimately ministers can simply close the Combined Authority down, but that would have significant Political ramifications because this was, between 2016-21 a Combined Authority that had a Conservative Mayor with a Conservative majority on the Combined Authority Board.

At the 2021 ‘super-elections’ that party-political balance shifted to give what was effectively a ‘Hung Board’ of four Conservatives (Peterborough, Huntingdonshire, Fenland, East Cambridgeshire), three Lab/Lib/Joint Admin (Cambridge – Labour, South Cambs – Lib Dems, Cambridgeshire County – Joint Admin). The elections in Huntingdonshire in May turfed out the ruling Conservatives and replaced them with a Joint Admin – similar to Cambridgeshire (Lab, Lib, Independents) but with the addition of the Greens. Furthermore, Peterborough is now running as a minority Conservative administration – and is in a crisis of its own.

“To what extent are the problems ‘legacy issues’ of the previous Mayor, and to what extent are these issues the fault/responsibility of the present Mayor?”

I’m not party to any information other than what is already in the public domain. Ultimately this is something for the former and current mayor to respond to.

My interest given my comments way back in 2016 questioning the entire rationale of combined authorities is whether ministers will accept they/their party predecessors made a mistake in trying to create a single authority out of a large geographical area that was both politically polarised, and also had significantly different economic needs. i.e. Fenland desperately needing jobs and investment while Cambridge City is overheating – with too many very highly specialist jobs that cannot be filled by local and regional jobs markets. Hence my blogpost from six weeks ago here.

Over-complicated governance structures and too many partnerships making it hard for full time officers to keep track of activities and actions

Have a listen in the video below to Jan Thomas of the newly-constituted “ICP” – Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Integrated Care Service – or Partnership.

Above: “We have to work out how to simplify”

“We have to work out how to simplify. There are so many boards – not just the CA but across CA, health, localgov – there are lots of meetings, and lots scrutinising what other meeting is doing. What do you need from us to simplify this even more?

“This is a key accountability for all of us. Across the CA and the Health & Wellbeing Board, and the ICS Board, there are four very clear themes and priorities we are all already signed up to. We need a map to show all of the things that we have signed up for”

Jan Thomas of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Integrated Care Service to the CPCA Board 27 July 2022

To which I concur.

And note that Addenbrooke’s problems have not gone away either – and neither have our issues with dentists and GPs/doctors surgeries. Hence Healthwatch for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough are asking people to get in touch and feed back their experiences here.

For those of you who want to take part in online meetings, see here and scroll down – the next online forum for Cambridge & South Cambs is on 03 August 2022. Furthermore, for those of you interested in all things mental health, the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Foundation Trust (of which I am now a patient governor) is looking for new public & patients (past & present recipients of treatment/care) members who help hold the governors to account. It’s free, the commitment for members is very light, and the more informed people who are aware of what the Trust does, the better. Because at the moment the NHS needs all of the support it can get.

“What happened to the previous mayor’s review of governance structures in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough?”

Good question.

The Independent Review of Governance covering Cambridgeshire & Peterborough was launched by the previous mayor James Palmer, who appointed Andy Wood of Adnams PLC in 2018.

“It was proposed to establish an independent Public Service Reform and Innovation Commission led by Andy Wood of Adnams PLC who would appoint his own members providing a good gender balance and the relevant expertise. Its first task would be to progress this project as set out in the terms of reference.”

CPCA Board Meeting 31 October 2018 at p16 Document Pack citing minutes of Board Meeting Wed 26 Sept 2018.

What happened to that review? What happened to the work done on it? Was any work done on it? Were any interim reports published? Would now be a good time to explore whether separate combined authorities for Greater Cambridge and Greater Peterborough based on the boundaries of the Redcliffe Maud Report / Royal Commission on Local Government in England of 1966-69 (which I discuss here with links to the report) would be a better alternative to the current arrangements? (And then align as many local public services as possible to those geographical boundaries?)

Below – a detail from the Redcliffe Maud Report main map of new larger proposed unitary councils (thinner red lines) within new economic regions (thick red lines – Grt Cambridge & Gtr Peterborough being within East Anglia). You can download the maps here. The summary report is here. The main report is here – at nearly 400 pages. Furthermore, there are 250 pages of research appendices here.

Above – abandoned proposals for Greater Cambridge and Greater Peterborough unitary councils from 1969

See also Nathanliel Lichfield’s case study of the old Cambridge County, and the economic spheres of influence of the surrounding market towns, and the regional sphere of influence of Cambridge back in 1966.

Above – p14 (the key is on p13 in the link) of Lichfield’s analysis from 1966 of town planning with Cambridge as his case study.

Would it not make more sense to have a Combined Authority (if that is what ministers want) that incorporates the democratically-elected representatives of the surrounding market towns even though all of them sit outside of the pre-1960s boundaries of the old Cambridge County Council?

Below – from William Davidge’s Cambridgeshire Regional Plan in 1934 (I’ve digitised it here) – showing the old county council boundaries, and his proposal for the districts within – at a time when district councils were even smaller. Note at the time both Cherry Hinton and Trumpington were nominally outside of the Borough of Cambridge – which didn’t get city status until 1951.

A long term vision that is ‘election-proof’

From the Governance First Ltd Report for the Combined Authority, we have the diagram below:

Above – 4.1 Appendix A from CPCA Board 27 July 2022 p17

The author Jodie Townsend states in 3.39 the following:

“This must be taken on board when developing a longer term vision for the region that is capable of sustaining short-term politics and provides a platform for future devolution. West Midlands has a 2030 vision, Greater Manchester has a strategy for 2021-2031, these strategies are based on agreed approaches to identifying regional insights and data that make them more capable of withstanding short term politics.”

Above – 4.1 Appendix A from CPCA Board 27 July 2022 p17 – Para 3.39

The problem is this does not take into account the realities of the political history within the county. As a candidate, Dr Nik Johnson made very clear before the 2021 election that the legal powers and the budget that came with the Mayoralty and Combined Authority for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough did not give him the time or resources to put together such a long term vision – i.e. one that would deliver the CAM Metro that was the core of his predecessor’s transport plan for Cambridge. He said he had minimal funds and only four years. Therefore he concentrated on buses in his campaign. The problem is that Ministers at the Department for Transport rejected the Mayor’s bid for further funding from a new pot they made available. Which for me is not devolution. It keeps the purse strings firmly within Whitehall, with combined authorities having to wait until The Chancellor decides to hand big funding pots to the Department for Transport and for transport ministers to dish out accordingly.

This is *not* devolution

Proper devolution would have given revenue-raising powers to the Mayor, and would have also created an elected assembly that would have held him to account in the same way the London Assembly in principle holds the Mayor of Greater London to account. i.e the Mayor has to formally table a budget to the Assembly, and the Assembly has to debate, amend, and either approve or reject that budget. It’s identical in the House of Commons as well – and is a basic principle of democratic government and the separation of an executive function from a legislative and scrutiny function. One of the reasons why the CPCA is struggling is because the Board is polarised politically, and is made up of council leaders or senior councillors who have their own executive functions. There is no direct line of accountability for constituents to ask an elected representative to hold the Mayor to account in the way MPs hold ministers to account in Parliament. Instead it’s a ‘direct relationship’ between electorate and directly-elected Mayor.

“So…what is the way forward?”

At the moment, getting the Combined Authority functioning as a public body is the immediate priority. Then we have to await the various reports and assessments that come out. Ultimately, ministers will have to decide what sort of intervention will be necessary after all of this has happened.

Furthermore, with a general election looming, it will be up to political parties to decide what to put in their manifestos for further devolution in England – something many institutions and policy organisations seem to be calling for, but with little clarity on what this will actually be like in terms of how the electorate is supposed to be involved. For whatever reason, a 1960s-style Royal Commission seems to too radical-a-step. I would like to see the opposition parties committing to such a new Royal Commission – encouraging academics and university public policy units to start commissioning their own research now, so that it need not take three years to complete. Thus ensuring a new structure can be in place before the term of office of the next government (assuming one or a combination of opposition parties wins in 2024) comes to an end. Otherwise we risk repeating the mistake that Harold Wilson made – committing to implementing the Royal Commission’s recommendations of 1969, and losing the subsequent general election – thus giving us the structures similar to today. Ones that are now hopelessly obsolete.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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