Whistleblower evidence shared with me and verified by the National Audit Office (NAO) shows that the boss of a local multi-million pound funding body accused Cambridgeshire County Council and Cambridge City Council of lying to the LEP Board.
Neil Darwin, Chief Executive of Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), made the remarkable claim in writing, which is confirmed in a letter from Sir Amyas Morse, Comptroller and Audit General of the NAO.
It is one of a number of damning accusations made by Mr Darwin in evidence I have received, including that a Norfolk MP allegedly threatened the LEP and that the Government supposedly bullied councils over accepting devolution. Mr Darwin also claims a senior Peterborough business figure is delusional.
The serious accusations from Mr Darwin relating to Cambridgeshire County Council are particularly surprising given that he is on secondment from Peterborough City Council where the Chief Executive Gillian Beasley – his boss – is also the Chief Executive of the County Council accused of lying.
Nor is this the first time Mr Darwin has made serious accusations disputed by Mrs Beasley. On 20th January he alleged to me that a top County Council official was responsible for failures on a major transport scheme. It emerged last week that he had apologised profusely to the official, but has still to explain both why he made these claims to me in the first place or the unnecessary delay on the transport scheme involved.
The whistleblower’s revelations appear at odds with evidence the LEP recently submitted to the NAO stating they are not in dispute with the County Council. It also raises questions over the LEP’s governance, since the body accused of lying is the Accountable Body for the LEP.
Mr Darwin’s allegation that Cambridge City Council lied to the LEP Board also raises questions regarding the Cambridge City Deal in which Cambridge City Council are heavily involved.
I hope Mr Darwin will now confirm who on the LEP Board was made aware of his concerns, and the basis for his serious accusations?
The whistleblower’s evidence comes on top of a number of outstanding questions which the LEP has to date not answered.
Having repeatedly sought to address concerns in private with the LEP, in December 2016 I raised concerns in public. The LEP initially failed to reply and had to be chased up.
After apologising for the lack of a response, the LEP’s eventual response was inadequate. So on 13th January 2017 at the Wisbech 2020 conference and in a paper later that day I set out detailed questions for the LEP. The LEP issued a response on 19th January, but this failed to answer many of the questions.
The LEP Chair and Chief Executive met with me on 20th January but still refused to provide answers to the points missing from their 19th January response, including on the timescales regarding the MMUK Flowers move, delays on Wisbech Rail and the A47 for which they blamed the County Council, or why Fenland as an agricultural area received just £46,500 in four years out of almost £5 million allocated for Agri-Tech by the LEP.
Given the LEP’s response, I submitted a second paper on 26th January 2017. The LEP response was a dismissive one page, issued the next day. It is for members of the LEP Board to explain why this was deemed an acceptable level of transparency and accountability.
I therefore submitted a third paper on 6th March identifying further questions, such as whether financial irregularities were present in the accounts of the LEP Chair’s building firm Chalcroft in the year he became Chair of the LEP? The LEP response sought to answer different questions to the questions set out, for example on the question regarding financial irregularities suggesting Mr Reeve had not personally paid any fine. This was not the question, which remains whether the firm of which he was Managing Director had been fined and if so did he know about the financial irregularities as Managing Director?
The LEP did not even send their response to me, replying instead to the National Audit Office. I only learned about the LEP response from my local newspaper after a delay. The LEP’s response sought to attack me personally suggesting my questions were wholly inaccurate and defamatory, and placed reliance on a new Assurance Framework passed just 6 days before the Government’s deadline.
Yet the Assurance Framework appears flawed, and the process by which the LEP Board commissioned the Assurance Framework also appears flawed. I set out the reasons for this in a letter to the Chair of the LEP on 24th March 2017. The Chair of the LEP has so far not replied.
Questions in this letter of 24th March include whether a LEP Board member who has declared a conflict of interest can still vote and if they have done so? Why does a £20 million building contract on the Alconbury site not give rise to a potential conflict of interest for the Chair of the LEP if the LEP continued to support this site? Why was the Board only given a choice of one firm to undertake the Assurance Framework when the two other firms submitted were both disqualified? Did the law firm chosen have any conflicts of interest given its prior work for and with the LEP? Why does a conflict of interest not arise from LEP grants before and after the Chair of the LEP’s firm had received a building contract from Sharp Systems? Why has the LEP’s Corporate Hospitality register still not been published?
It therefore appears that the LEP response to a series of questions on behalf of constituents has included a mix of either delay, not answering, answering a different question to the one put, or attacking me personally.
Given that the NAO has verified the whistleblower evidence I have received, the LEP Chair Mr Reeve and Mrs Beasley on behalf of the LEP’s Accountable Body both now need to set out separately their response to these serious accusations made by Mr Darwin. This should be made public with urgency given that £37.6 million of Growth Deal Round Three funding becomes available to the LEP this month.
It is the job of a Member of Parliament to raise questions on behalf of constituents, particularly when millions of pounds of public money is involved. It is a shame that with the exception of Cllr Count, the LEP Board has remained silent.
The letter from Sir Amyas Morse, Comptroller and Auditor General of the NAO, and my letter to Mrs Beasley, are both below.