Peterborough's metro mayor comes under fire from own cabinet members who demand answers over shock chief executive departure

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Peterborough's metro mayor James Palmer has come under fire from two members of his own cabinet who are demanding answers about the shock departure of the mayoral authority's chief executive.

The leaders of South Cambridgeshire District Council, Cllr Bridget Smith, and Cambridge City Council, Cllr Lewis Herbert, have also called for an independent review of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority - the body headed by Mayor Palmer.

Mayor James Palmer and Martin Whiteley

Mayor James Palmer and Martin Whiteley

The shock announcement follows the sudden "resignation" of the authority's £150,000 a year chief executive Martin Whiteley who the two leaders allege may have been dismissed by the mayor in a breach of the authority's constitution.

Mr Whiteley's departure last month, after little more than a year in the job, was leaked to the media amid rumours of a huge bust-up with the major, although this has been categorically denied by the mayor's office.

The combined authority began in March 2017 as part of a devolution deal for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, with the public body funded with hundreds of millions of pounds by the Government and given responsibility for major infrastructure and housing projects including the new University of Peterborough.

In a damning statement sent to the media Cllr Smith (Liberal Democrat) and Cllr Herbert (Labour), who are the only two non-Conservative members in the cabinet, claim:

Cllr Bridget Smith

Cllr Bridget Smith

. They are asking the combined authority board to commission an independent review and that it should implement its recommendations so it can become "an effective and professionally-led organisation".

. They want Cambridgeshire and Peterborough residents and councillors across the county to be "told the truth by Mayor James Palmer" over Mr Whiteley's departure. They add "evidence points to it being a dismissal by the mayor. This would breach the combined authority constitution".

. There are no permanent post holders for senior positions including the director of infrastructure and transport and director of finance roles, on top of the chief executive post. They add: "Interims have filled these roles through 2018."

. Senior staff changes have occurred without any written communication with combined authority board members or formal public statements, with board members finding out through the media.

. The combined authority agreed to create and rent a large office in Alconbury in the summer, but the authority is "currently being run increasingly from Ely where the mayor’s office is".

. The ability for the combined authority's scrutiny committee to call-in decisions by the mayor will be watered down under new proposals which would require a member of each political party on the committee to support the call-in.

The two leaders' motion for an independent review will be debated at the next combined authority board meeting on Wednesday, September 26.

According to a report prepared for that meeting Mr Whiteley resigned from his post effective from October 1.

The Peterborough Telegraph has previously asked the mayor' office why Mr Whiteley's departure was kept quiet and if he had received any money after leaving his role but never received an answer.

Cllrs Smith and Herbert allege that there are "signs pointing to a dismissal by the mayor". These include, in their words:

. The suddenness and secretiveness of the process and no publication of details on any deal, including whether compensation was paid to the chief executive.

. No report on his departure on the next combined authority or scrutiny committee meeting agendas, and nothing in writing to combined authority board members or shared within the organisation.

. The total absence of the combined authority chief executive since August, despite the fact that he remains an employee until the end of September.

The pair are also calling for a single interim chief executive to be appointed as a replacement is sought for Mr Whiteley, rather than have two interims until the end of March 2019 which is currently being proposed at a cost of at least £81,000.

All leaders of the seven unitary and district councils in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough are members of the combined authority cabinet. That includes Peterborough City Council leader Cllr John Holdich, who is a deputy mayor.

Cllr Holdich declined to comment.

Mayor Palmer said: “While the motion seems very dramatic, my focus is delivering on the promises I made in the election and on which I will rightly be judged.

“I do not agree with the need for an external review and believe we can waste no time in tackling the urgent housing, transport and skills challenges facing Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

“The former chief executive resigned and interim arrangements are in place. We will seek to recruit a single, permanent chief executive in a timely way.

“I have always said that good scrutiny is central to good democracy and I have attended the combined authority scrutiny committee on a number of occasions. I always enjoy healthy, robust debate.”

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