Peterborough’s metro mayor has hit back at critical comments made from city MP Shailesh Vara.
James Palmer disputed a claim from Mr Vara that the MP had spoken to him about concerns he held over the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. He said the comments had “blindsided” him.
He also made clear his disapproval that the former minister had revealed his concerns of the public body - which is responsible for major transport, housing and infrastructure projects - through the media, and he questioned Mr Vara's knowledge of the combined authority after he spoke about costings for highways projects on the A47, A14 and A1.
The projects on the A14 and A1 are not part of the combined authority's responsibility.
The public body, which is led by Mr Palmer, has been in the news following the shock resignation of former chief executive Martin Whiteley (who it was later discovered had received a £94,500 payout) as well as the dismissal of chief finance officer Karl Fenlon.
Mr Fenlon had been accused of making “misleading” statements about the funding of major projects at a scrutiny meeting where he had cast doubt on whether the new University of Peterborough could be achieved within the authority’s budget.
He was the fifth person to hold the role of chief finance officer since March 2017 before his dismissal.
An internal review at the combined authority, and an external audit review into its budget, are currently ongoing.
Mr Vara, the MP for North West Cambridgeshire, told local democracy reporter Rob Alexander that the departures of Mr Whiteley and Mr Fenlon had given him “huge concern”.
He also claimed to have met his fellow Conservative politician Mr Palmer where he “made it very clear” that he wanted certainty and that “action must be taken when required”.
Responding to the interview, Mr Palmer said: “I must admit to being completely blindsided by comments made in the media by North West Cambridgeshire MP Shailesh Vara in which he criticises the combined authority and expresses his concerns over how it is being run.
“What I found particularly perplexing was his claim that he had a meeting with me in which he raised those concerns directly. To be clear, I have had no such meeting with Mr Vara. I’m puzzled as to how he came to make this claim.
“A meeting would of course have been an entirely appropriate forum in which to raise any questions or concerns he may have had, but he has now chosen to express them in the way he has.
“A meeting would have also provided an opportunity for him to better understand my responsibilities as mayor and for example to learn that improvements to the A1 and A14 are national projects and outside of the combined authority’s responsibility.
“He also makes reference to the A47, which is also a Highways England-managed road, but I have made clear my ambition to see it fully dualled in Cambridgeshire.
“We have completed a Strategic Outline Business Case and Options Appraisal Report which has identified a unique ‘single route’ approach to dualling the road, instead of a conventional process of a series of piecemeal upgrades.
“We are continuing to work with Highways England to bring the scheme to a standard which meets their guidelines for investment. The plan is to put this scheme forward for the next Highways England funding round which runs 2019-2025.
“We are also working with the A47 Alliance lobby group to bring the collective weight of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk to bear on dualling the whole road. We are moving this project further forward that it has been before in Cambridgeshire, and when delivered will be of significant benefit to people in Mr Vara’s constituency.
“A meeting would also be a good opportunity for us to resolve to work together, with Mr Vara using his important position in Parliament whose job it is to scrutinise bodies like Highways England to ensure that progress on roads like the A1, A14 and A47 is being made.
“Other projects the combined authority continues to progress which will positively impact Mr Vara’s constituents include the University of Peterborough. The combined authority has allocated £13.74 million to deliver the project, to both progress the physical build at the Embankment site and to secure its degree awarding powers. By autumn 2022 the aim is to have 2,000 students enrolled.
“The combined authority is working to support a range of road schemes which will again benefit people in Mr Vara’s constituency. This includes £400,000 for feasibility work for improvements at the A1260 Nene Parkway Junction 15 and Junctions 32-33, £750,000 for feasibility work for widening of part of the A605 Oundle Road and £2.8 million of improvements at the A605 Stanground via a National Productivity Investment Fund bid prioritised by the combined authority.
“Mr Vara raises our ongoing review of the combined authority, which is being led by interim joint chief executive John Hill and is already delivering results. The combined authority is already in a stronger position to deliver on its priorities and the consolidated improvement plan that will follow will further improve our organisation. This review commenced shortly after the departure of the former chief executive.
“Mr Vara also makes reference to an external review into our budget which will be carried out by external auditors. This will give us an independent check and balance on our financial position and is a prudent and sensible measure following the departure of the former chief financial officer. We expect this review to confirm there is a fully balanced budget in line with proper regulation.
“An important point to make clear is that while this comprehensive review work will help put the combined authority in a stronger position to meet our delivery priorities, it in no way means that any of our projects and schemes are on hold in the meantime. Our work continues at pace.
“I am always happy to meet with Mr Vara on any matter to do with the combined authority. It was unfortunate that we could not have had such a meeting before he chose to express his concerns in the way he has.”