A failure by councillors to turn up to scrutinise the county’s metro mayor James Palmer over his transport statement has been greeted with shock and anger amid accusations that the Conservatives boycotted the meeting.
Yesterday (Friday, June 15), the scrutiny committee for the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority (the public body headed by the mayor) was due to meet to discuss, among other things, a call-in of the mayor’s transport statement, with a focus on Cambridge schemes.
But, apparently concerned that the call-in was “undemocratic”, many councillors did not attend or send substitutes, meaning there were not enough members for a quorum, so no decisions could be made.
Peterborough City Council’s two representatives did not attend the meeting.
One of those was Conservative representative Cllr David Over, who was very unhappy that the meeting had been called for 9am in Cambridge, which would have meant a very early start.
He was then left frustrated when the Conservatives on the committee decided to boycott the meeting, although thankful his train ticket was refundable.
He told the Peterborough Telegraph: “The Conservative group view was the item of the call-in was not sufficiently important to be called-in, so the Conservative group decided not to attend which was news to me until Wednesday.
“It’s a little bit of a puzzle but it’s all based on Cambridgeshire politics. It may have something to do that the Lib Dems have taken control of the scrutiny committee. It’s a political war but I have very little interest in that.
“The meeting was based on the strategic plan for Cambridge. My main frustration is what’s it to do with Peterborough?”
Peterborough’s other representative was Labour’s Cllr Ed Murphy, who said he had given his apologies a while ago and asked the Peterborough Labour group of councillors to sort out a substitute for him, although nobody from Peterborough attended.
Only six of the 14 members of the committee: Cllr Lucy Nethsingha (Lib Dem), Cllr Peter Topping (Conservative, standing in for Cllr Grenville Chamberlain), Cllr Philip Allen (Lib Dem), Cllr Katie Thornburrow (Labour, standing in for Cllr Mike Sargeant), Cllr Markus Gehring (Lib Dem) and Cllr Barry Chapman (independent, standing in for Cllr Tom Sanderson) attended.
Cllr Nethsingha, who chairs the committee, said she was “shocked” by the number of absences and apologies received from absent councillors. She said the call-in of the mayor’s plans could now not take place, as such a move would need to be discussed within 10 days of the initial decision, making a follow-up impossible.
“I think it is disappointing that so many councillors didn’t come,” she said.
“These people were chosen to hold the mayor to account.”
Cllr Nethingha later said she was concerned there may have been “some kind of deliberate policy not to turn up” to stymie the call-in of the transport statement. Her Lib Dem colleague Cllr Markus Gehring said the “wilful blockage” of the discussions highlighted a “serious constitutional problem” with the way in which the combined authority is scrutinised. He said the failure to attend was “disrespectful”.
Other councillors had similar fears for the implications of the move on transparency.
Labour’s Cllr Thornburrow said: “I was shocked about the lead up to the call-in, and now I am even more shocked. We were expecting transparency and for the councils to work together on this in residents’ best interests. I am really concerned about the ongoing delays in the scrutiny process.”
Mr Palmer had apparently intended to attend the meeting, but was contacted in advance and told not to as the meeting would be inquorate. He said the decision of councillors to stay away might have been due to frustration and a feeling that the call-in was “not lawful”.
Mr Palmer said: “I was happy to go and always happy to answer any questions. I believe the problem stemmed from frustration at the way this was called-in. I believe it was felt that the call-in was not democratic. No vote was taken, therefore I believe some members felt that it was not a lawful call-in.
“I am not a member of the committee of course so do not have any involvement in how decisions are taken.”
Conservative Cllr Peter Topping said he was “disappointed” as he had been looking forward to getting a better understanding of how the combined authority and the Greater Cambridge Partnership were going to work together. Lib Dem Cllr Philip Allen said the decision for councillors not to come was “contemptuous”.
The committee heard that transport problems were mounting as major developments sprang up in the county, and that transport solutions needed to be accelerated rather than paused as the mayor has suggested. Cllr Nethsingha said that even popular schemes like the proposed Cambridge metro would take a long time to implement, and that action was needed now.
Cllr Nethsingha will now be writing to councillors, and some of the items from today’s agenda will be discussed at future scrutiny meetings. It will, however, be too late to enact the call-in of the transport statement.
Cllr Lewis Herbert, the Labour leader of Cambridge City Council, said: ”I pay tribute to those members of the Combined Authority Scrutiny Committee from all parties who turned up to do their job as a committee.
“It is an affront to democracy to have scrutiny of decisions by the mayor and the combined authority being removed by the majority party. They clearly discussed this issue privately and misused quorum rules.
“I think the mayor should also say what his involvement and that of his political advisers was in all of this. The mayor and his office should welcome scrutiny and if they knew in advance of the planned boycott, or if they were connected to it, they should say why this wasn’t shared with the rest of the committee.
“If scrutiny committee members were to request that the issue be also discussed at their forthcoming meeting on Monday, June 25, the clear democratic decision is to add it to that meeting’s agenda.”