Mr Palmer has been accused of undertaking a “power grab” of the Cambridge city deal, while local leaders have questioned the viability of his ambitious transport plans for the region.
The row has led to housing and communities secretary James Brokenshire stepping in to urge Mr Palmer and council leaders to make “every possible effort” to ensure momentum around economic growth is not lost.
It is the most high profile intervention by the government into a combined authority mayor’s plans since the first cohort were elected in 2017.
Mr Brokenshire sent a letter, seen by LGC, last Wednesday to the combined authority and the Greater Cambridge Partnership, which oversees the implementation of the Cambridge city deal. In it Mr Brokenshire said: “I have seen various statements and correspondence which have been critical of the level of collaborative working between local leaders and I am also aware that a number of the Greater Cambridge Partnership’s proposed initiatives have now been paused.
“You will be aware that the next tranche of up to £400m of city deal funding is not guaranteed and that the level of future funding made available will depend on the positive conclusion of the gateway assessment. In addition to assessing progress on delivery, government will also need to consider our confidence in the effective collaboration and delivery capability of local partners for the period beyond 2019.”
So far £100m government funding has been released through the Cambridge city deal, signed in 2014 with the aim of building almost 35,000 homes, creating 45,000 jobs, and investing in infrastructure. An extra £200m could be released from April 2020, and a further £200m from April 2025. The funding would be match-funded locally.
However, that is now in doubt due to a disagreement over whether Mr Palmer’s transport plans should conform with those made by the Greater Cambridge Partnership or vice versa.
The mayor’s interim transport strategy was approved at a meeting of the combined authority on 30 May by six votes to two. The two dissenting voices belonged to Lewis Herbert (Lab), leader of Cambridge City Council and interim chair of the Greater Cambridge Partnership, and Bridget Smith (Lib Dem), leader of South Cambridgeshire DC.
In a blog post in November last year, Cllr Smith accused Mr Palmer of a “power grab” and of seeking “complete control over all the available big budgets”.
Cllr Herbert echoed these views to LGC and questioned the viability of Mr Palmer’s transport plans.
“The mayor has stalled a number of perfectly good transport projects. He wants to fund a number of projects, including a metro, through land value capture. His plan is very unclear,” he said.
This political “squabbling”, as Cllr Smith described it in May, has been noted by the government.
In separate letters, also seen by LGC, previous communities secretary Sajid Javid wrote on 18 October 2017 that it was “undoubtedly the case that our approach to devolution in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough is that the mayoral combined authority is the sole transport authority for the area.”
Then on 13 February, local growth minister Jake Berry appeared to contradict that when he told Mr Palmer the government was “content for you to work collaboratively with local partners to bring forward consensual proposals”.
Mr Palmer told LGC he was “clearly concerned” about Mr Brokenshire’s letter but pointed to the Greater Cambridgeshire Partnership’s “lack of progress during the four years of its existence”.
Mr Palmer said: “Claims that the transport statement passed by the combined authority last month is the key threat to the next tranche of funding being released are ludicrous.
“As mayor one of my key focuses is on securing as much funding as possible for transport infrastructure projects across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.
“Indeed the combined authority secured a further £74m from government on top of the devolution deal in the budget specifically for investment in transport infrastructure.
“I’m clearly concerned that the [Greater Cambridgeshire Partnership’s] lack of progress during the four years of its existence appears to be a cause of concern for the government, so much so that it may well influence their decision on whether to release the next tranche of funding. I’m focused on ensuring that this money comes to Greater Cambridge.”