Peterborough MP Shailesh Vara reveals ‘huge concern’ over city’s mayoral authority

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Peterborough MP Shailesh Vara believes there are “very serious issues” regarding the city’s mayoral authority.

The former minister said the public needs to have confidence that the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority is “fit for the purpose for which it was set up”.

Shailesh Vara MP

Shailesh Vara MP

The Conservative MP for North West Cambridgeshire said he has spoken to metro mayor James Palmer following a series of revelations regarding senior staff at the public body which have given him “huge concern”.

Mayor Palmer, who leads the combined authority, has been criticised in recent months for sanctioning a £94,500 payout for the combined authority’s former chief executive Martin Whiteley.

The settlement - around six months of Mr Whiteley’s annual salary - was agreed despite the mayor claiming the former chief executive had resigned from his role. The figure was only revealed through Freedom of Information requests.

The CA, which is responsible for major transport, housing and infrastructure project across the county, including starting up the new University of Peterborough, has also seen a large turnover of top officials since it began in March 2017.

Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Mayor James Palmer with Martin Whiteley

Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Mayor James Palmer with Martin Whiteley

The local authority is currently on the search for its sixth chief finance officer after the previous interim to hold the role, Karl Fenlon, was sacked after he was accused by the mayor of making “misleading” statements about the funding of major projects at a scrutiny meeting four days earlier.

Mr Fenlon had cast doubt on whether the University of Peterborough could be achieved within the authority’s budget.

His abrupt dismissal left councillors “gobsmacked”.

Speaking in an interview with BBC local democracy reporter Rob Alexander, Mr Vara stated he was pleased that there is going to be independent external audit at the combined authority, on top of a internal inquiry.

He said: “There are some very serious issues with regard to the combined authority.

“We have had now five finance directors since 2017. We have seen a chief executive leave who has had a huge pay-off and resigned under circumstances which are forbidden from the public to see, because it’s a sealed agreement – but we do know that it was just under £100,000.

“All of these give me huge concern.

“Bearing that in mind I am naturally very pleased that there is going to be an independent external audit that will be looking into matters at the combined authority. I know that there has been an internal inquiry that has been going on for a while, but it is important that we have complete openness and transparency because there is a lot of responsibility that the combined authority has.

“It’s important that they resolve their issues very quickly because there needs to be confidence in the local community that the combined authority is fit for the purpose for which it was set up.

“Of course I’ve met with Mayor James Palmer at meetings and certain functions, but he also came to Parliament at my request and we had a meeting at which I raised these issues concerning the constituency, as well as more generally aspects which concern Cambridgeshire.

“The meeting we had in Parliament was before all these latest troubles arose and, at that time, our conversation was very much in terms of the plans and ambitions that he had for the combined authority.

“But since then I’ve met with Mayor Palmer again – not in Parliament – and at that meeting I made it very clear to him that I would like to have certainty and I hoped that all of this could be sorted out and put aside very quickly, and that action must be taken when required.

“But we do need to resolve the issue to move on and that, at the moment at least, is not happening. My hope is that the external audit will do its work, because for my constituency there are huge projects in the balance.

“I know the deputy mayor, Cllr John Holdich, has said that the University of Peterborough is not going to be impacted upon, but I would like the external audit to confirm that.

“There are many other projects which affect hundreds of thousands of people – way beyond our area – for example the costings for the highways projects on the A47, A14 and A1. These are all huge schemes – and the simple fact is that we need certainty from the combined authority for it all to work.”

Mr Palmer has now hit back at the comments.

More from the interview will be carried in next week’s Peterborough Telegraph.

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