Potton councillor’s post dubbed ‘false news’ in growth corridor row

Councillor Adam Zerny of Central Bedfordshire Council and Potton Town Council.

Councillor Adam Zerny of Central Bedfordshire Council and Potton Town Council. - Credit: Archant

Independent Potton councillor Adam Zerny’s latest Facebook post has been dubbed “false news” and “inaccurate” by a fellow Central Bedfordshire councillor.

Their difference of opinion concerned the local authority’s intention to join the Central Area Growth Board.

Conservative Dunstable Watling councillor Nigel Young criticised independent Potton councillor Adam Zerny’s social media post.

The Facebook article was headed: “Major infrastructure decisions made undemocratically … Central Beds to join yet another development quango.”

The CAGB consists of local authorities mainly within the Oxford-to-Cambridge corridor, according to a report for the council’s general purposes committee.

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Since last summer, Central Bedfordshire Council has been exploring closer collaborative work with the 17 authorities involved, says the report.

Partners have agreed in principle to formally establish a CAGB, set up as a joint committee, to coordinate cross-boundary working, it adds.

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But Mr Zerny sees it rather differently. He said on Facebook: “Central Bedfordshire councillors have approved membership of, and allocated public money towards, yet another undemocratic body designed to influence large scale housing development in our area.

“Earlier this month, the council’s executive committee met to approve membership of yet another quango, the CAGB.

“In 2013, the council joined an organisation called SEMLEP. I have mentioned, in the past, how this unelected body makes decisions behind closed doors.

“I asked the council recently what benefits residents could hope to get from membership.

“And I was told: ‘Local Enterprise Partnerships … have played a key role in convening local economic stakeholders to develop evidence-based economic strategies.

‘They have helped to identify key investment opportunities and interventions.’”

Mr Zerny suggested: “I am not sure what direct evidence I can provide as to the benefits they bring.”

Mr Young denied the CAGB is a quango – quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation – at the general purposes committee meeting last Thursday.

He said the CAGB is made up of elected members of a number of district, unitary and county councils.

“It could not be in any way, shape or form be described as a quango,” he told the committee.

“It does concern me where members of the public are misled into believing decisions are taken out of this authority’s control.”

The article referred to SEMLEP, explained Mr Young – who is the council’s executive member for regeneration.

He referred to council leader James Jamieson being on the SEMLEP board, which has significant amounts of money to allocate.

“It is a matter for us to lobby for that money, which we do very successfully,” said Mr Young.

“We have more than £30 million from SEMLEP contributing to the M1-A6 link road, a vital piece of cross-boundary infrastructure.

“The article also mentions England’s Economic Heartland, run by an elected member board and, therefore, not part of a quango.

“It does not mention the strategic transport board, which I sit on, made up of both elected members and interested parties, such as bus companies.”

Mr Young added: “It is not a quango, and the strategic transport board would have a significant effect on this authority were we not a member of it.”

He then turned his attention to housing provision in Central Bedfordshire.

“If any member of this committee believes by excluding ourselves from discussion forums that we will reduce the number of homes we are asked to provide, if anyone believes that will change they are sadly dillusional,” he said.

“It is absolutely clear the formula the government has approved does apply to planning decisions.

“Our number will increase to 2,500 a year, and with the shortfall of homes for Luton – which is a constrained authority – that number will rise to 3,000 homes a year, so that’s 60,000 over the next 20 years.

“I am extremely disappointed anyone in this council would present such a distorted picture, particularly to describe all of these organsiations as quangos and that they operate behind closed doors.”

Council business and investment group manager Kate McFarlane said: “Local authorities within that growth corridor [Oxford-Cambridge] have to work better together going forwards.

“We have to strengthen structures for collaborative governance and collective decision-making.”

She added: “Critically the council won’t be ceding any powers to the CAGB. It’s a joint committee.

“But where decisions are required they will come back to the council through the ususal decison-making process, as you’d expect.

“There’s the potential for local authority partners to work, communicate and engage with central government to shape the future of our areas, and to deliver and try to secure investment.

“What we can identify is that the most appropriate way would be through the CAGB.”

Asked by Mr Zerny whether the CAGB meetings would be held in public and who would be representing the council, she replied it would be Mr Young and that as a joint committee the agendas and minutes would be “in the public domain”.

The council’s interim monitoring officer Stephen Rix confirmed: “They are public meetings. They will be held in public unless exempt items need to be discussed.”

Mr Zerny welcomed that the CAGB meetings are expected to be held in public, but warned he would bring the issue back if it doesn’t happen.

He said it had not always been the case with the previous organisations he mentioned in his Facebook article.

“If a decision is made by the CAGB, the chances are when it comes back to the council, it’s going to be approved,” he told the committee.

“Of course it’s going to be ratified here. People are not going to go against it. I think this is a major issue.”

He added: “We should be very careful how we do this – and, if we are to join another body, are we confident it will be any better than the other ones?

“I have significant concerns about this and I can’t speak in favour of it.”

Mr Young said: “If everyone agrees with councillor Zerny, we’ll let all the other authorities surrounding us, every single one, make decisions on our behalf. And we’ll be stuck in the middle looking after ourselves with no government support whatsoever.

“The CAGB cannot make decisions. And any decisions at all will be brought back to the normal decision-making process in this council.

“It’s fine to have these discussions and it is fine to have doubts.

“But it is not fine to issue false news based on an opinion which has been clearly refuted, and is being refuted by me now.”

Conservative Flitwick councillor Fiona Chapman said: “This CAGB is going to exist with us or without us.

“Quite frankly we need to be there. Any decision-making is going to come back here. I have no hesitation in moving the recommendation as set out.”

The committee agreed by eight votes to one to recommend to the full council that changes be made to the constitution to allow membership of the CAGB.

The executive had agreed in principle earlier this month to spend £5,000 a year to support the CAGB.

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