Accusations of ‘cronyism’ and ‘£30k wasted’ at Peterborough’s mayoral authority after new chief execs appointed

Mayor James Palmer
Mayor James Palmer
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Accusations of “cronyism” and thousands of pounds wasted on recruitment fees have been made by a Cambridgeshire council leader after the appointment of the new chief executives at Peterborough’s mayoral body.

Labour’s Cllr Lewis Herbert, the leader of Cambridge City Council, said it was a “dark day” for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough after claiming more than £30,000 was spent on recruitment consultancy fees, only for the role to be handed to the two interims who have been in post for the past nine months.

In an angry statement Cllr Herbert, who sits on the board of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, which is led by metro mayor James Palmer, said he was quitting as cabinet member for spatial planning.

He also claimed that the combined authority had spent £94,000 between November and March on recruitment consultancy fees to hire senior officials, but in February ended the process to hire a director of transport and director of finance even though people had been shortlisted for both roles.

Mayor Palmer has hit back at the accusations, stating that the chief executive appointments were made after a “rigorous process” and that “vague accusations of cronyism are cheap and baseless”.

The combined authority is currently checking the figures quoted by Cllr Herbert.

The Cambridge council leader said: “Unfortunately, the mayor has resisted all our efforts to put the combined authority on the right course, and to end financial waste and excessive use of consultants.

“Along with other council representatives, I will continue to argue for proper appointment processes and far better use of the combined authority’s funds and opportunities.”

The final straw for the council leader was yesterday’s announcement from the combined authority that its board will be recommended to appoint Kim Sawyer and John Hill as permanent joint chief executives when it meets on May 29.

The pair have been filling the role on an interim basis since the last full-time chief executive, Martin Whiteley, departed last August with a pay-out of £94,500 having been on a salary of £182,000 a year.

The Peterborough Telegraph revealed yesterday that 20 people had put themselves forward to replace Mr Whiteley, but the combined authority - which has responsibility for major infrastructure and housing projects, including the new University of Peterborough - said the process had failed to find a candidate which its Employment Committee would recommend.

Cllr Herbert’s anger was stoked by Mr Hill becoming the fourth former colleague of Mayor Palmer at East Cambridgeshire District Council who has been appointed to a senior role “without any advert or formal appointment process”.

The other appointments are the mayor’s chief of staff Tom Hunt, strategic adviser Charles Roberts, and combined authority director of strategy and planning Paul Raynes.

Mr Roberts had resigned as deputy mayor earlier this month before being appointed to his new role on a reported salary of £56,400 a year, working the equivalent of four days a week.

Cllr Herbert, who is one of two non-Conservative council leaders on the combined authority board, said: “The mayor’s appointment processes at the combined authority smack of cronyism.

“No one is going to convince me or residents that there is somehow a unique pool of amazing talent in Ely and East Cambridgeshire that will do a better job for local people than open appointment processes that seek the brightest and best from across Cambridgeshire and the UK.”

Despite stepping down as a portfolio holder he said he will “continue to work as a combined authority cabinet member, along with other council leaders and representatives, for the best for our whole area and local residents”.

Mrs Sawyer, who used to be director of governance at Peterborough City Council, and Mr Hill, will be employed as joint chief executives if their appointment is rubber-stamped, with the arrangement reviewed on May 31, 2021 to coincide with the mayoral elections.

The combined authority said the appointment of the joint chief executives would “generate an estimated annual net saving of £62,000 over the appointment of a permanent chief executive”.

Mayor Palmer said: “Cllr Herbert has arrived at a conclusion regarding the recruitment to the position of chief executive that is completely at odds with the reality. His vague accusations of cronyism are cheap and baseless.

“The combined authority has been through a rigorous process to appoint to this position, which has involved the use of a specialist recruitment agency specifically to undertake the task.

“Rightly, it was the job of the Employment Committee, in March, to discuss which of the candidates they wanted to recommend to the combined authority board to appoint. It was their majority view not to recommend to the board a candidate to appoint.

“The board then took the decision to continue the interim arrangement with the joint chief executives until the May board meeting. The board will now once again decide the best way forward.

“This could including going out to recruitment again, or, as is my view, acknowledge the exceptional job that Kim and John have done over the last nine months and back the recommendation to make them permanent joint chief executives.

“Cllr Herbert talks of financial prudence, and the need for a sense of direction, but this is precisely what the interim chief executives have achieved through their root and branch review of the organisation. It was clear the staffing budget had become too high, acknowledged vociferously by Cllr Herbert himself, and this restructure has delivered £1.8 million in savings from the August 2018 position.

“Their work has also produced a clear, budgeted set of 12 key priorities for the combined authority, as set out in our published 2019/20 business plan.

“Additionally, making the joint chief executives’ roles permanent would save an additional £62,000 annually in staffing costs.”

Mayor Palmer added: “With regard to the strategic adviser position, as I have explained, this role was approved by the Employment Committee in restructuring proposals and was appraised by the Overview and Scrutiny committee.

“This is a position to which I am able to appoint directly, and Charles Roberts will be challenged to help me in meeting the ambitious timescales we have for the delivery of key combined authority projects, like the University of Peterborough, A47 dualling, and CAM Metro.

“While it is regrettable Cllr Herbert does not wish to continue with the responsibilities of his portfolio, it is also perhaps reflective of a divergence of approach in meeting the transport and housing challenges faced in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.”

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