An “outrageous” lack of transparency at Peterborough and Cambridgeshire’s mayoral authority has been slammed as it looks to cut almost a quarter of its staffing budget.
Yesterday, the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority’s employment committee voted to exclude members of the press and public from discussions of major restructuring at the authority.
A new staffing budget of £4.8 million has been agreed for 2019/20, which is £1.5 million less than the anticipated staffing structure in June 2018, which sat at £6.3 million. This amounts to a cut of about 24 per cent.
Press and public, as well as members of the authority’s scrutiny committee, however, were excluded from the discussions, a decision which board member Lewis Herbert hit out at.
He said: “I think it is outrageous, there are lots of issues here. £1.5 million of cuts is significant. I do think it is outrageous we are not going to have this discussion in public.”
Cllr Herbert had proposed to split the item into two parts, only discussing confidential matters of individuals’ employment in a confidential session while keeping the substantial parts of the discussion public.
Cllr Anna Bailey, however, said it would be difficult to have a “free-flowing” conversation if members were having to be careful about what they said for fear of accidentally revealing something that should be confidential.
“It would be incredibly difficult to have a free-flowing discussion when there are names and jobs in the papers,” said Cllr Bailey. “I’d rather we had a free-flowing discussion, details of which will come out in due course.”
Cllr Herbert’s suggestion failed to get seconded at the meeting. A proposal from Cllr Bailey to hold the discussions in a closed session was seconded by Cllr Steve Count and accepted by the committee.
The cuts come after the combined authority was criticised last year for spending £7 million in operational costs when Mayor James Palmer had initially promised the authority could be run for as little as £850,000.
Mr Palmer said the staffing restructure would help the authority be more efficient, allowing it to concentrate on delivery of “key housing, transport infrastructure and skills priorities”.
He added: “To deliver on our transformational agenda for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, we must ensure we have an organisation which is fit, lean and focused on delivery.
“Our new staffing budget is part of that sound platform from which we will make good on our key priorities.”
As well as the press, members of the combined authority’s own overview and scrutiny committee found themselves unable to attend the closed session as they do not sit on the employment committee.
Cllr Lucy Nethsingha, chairwoman of the overview and scrutiny committee, said: “It is difficult for scrutiny to do our job properly if we can’t see the confidential appendices.”
Cllr Nethsingha said she had been advised the scrutiny committee would not be able to see the papers until they were in the public domain. She said there is already concern about transparency at the authority, and said excluding scrutiny committee members from meetings like this is not helpful.
Josh Thomas, Local Democracy Reporting Service