Coming home to Cambridgeshire

By Dan Peters | 09 February 2022

This time last year Eileen Milner was responsible for overseeing a budget of £63bn – one of the largest in Government.

As chief executive of the Education and Skills Funding Agency, Ms Milner had delivery and policy responsibilities for the schools system and post-16 education.

Now, as chief executive of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority she heads up a much smaller organisation with approved 2022-23 expenditure of just over £100m.

‘It doesn’t make it any way a less important organisation,’ Ms Milner insists.

‘The reason I relished the opportunity is that Cambridgeshire and Peterborough is not just a combined authority that is becoming more confident and more recognised but the area is really important to the UK economy.’

Another factor was that Ms Milner has lived in Cambridgeshire for years and so jumped at the opportunity to make a difference to her home county.

She says the sense she gets is that the combined authority is an organisation ‘still growing into its purpose’ and ‘still in a settling period’.

When relatively inexperienced Labour politician Nik Johnson won the mayoralty last May he had no official manifesto and admitted very publicly he had not expected to beat the Conservative incumbent James Palmer.

Mayor Johnson, who continues to work one day a week as a pediatrician, took over from a mayor who had reportedly got on the wrong side of ministers and who had earned a reputation – fairly or otherwise – for favouring projects that benefitted the councils run by his Conservative colleagues.

Ms Milner said the results from the first four years were a ‘mixed picture’ though she declines to use her background in education to grade its performance.

She hopes the fact she is ‘reasonably well known’ in Whitehall will help restore the combined authority’s reputation.

Ms Milner said she was currently focusing on testing how much progress the combined authority had made against its first devolution deal, which she described as ‘minimalist’ but still featuring ‘chunky things’.

Speaking ahead of the Levelling Up White Paper, in her first interview in six years, she said: ‘I’m not rattling a can [for more powers].

'We need to be better at giving things time to embed just as in the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales so it can mature into something more impactful.’

So far Cambridgeshire and Peterborough has been one of the less sexy combined authorities, working in the shadows of high-profile mayoral beasts such as Andy Burnham.

It also has the challenge of representing a region that struggles to have a clear identity among residents, with the combined authority originally emerging out of failed efforts to secure a devolution deal for the much bigger area of East Anglia.

‘People here tend to identify with a very local geography,’ Ms Milner explains.

‘They talk about coming from “x village” instead of from Cambridgeshire.

'I accept that the affiliation here is with much smaller places.

‘It’s right to say that Cambridgeshire and Peterborough doesn’t hit the headlines in the same way as the other combined authorities but actually that’s fine.

'We are still such an important part of the country for the UK economy.

'If you look at our net contribution to the UK economy, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough feels plenty big enough to me.’

Notably, the region is ‘politically finely balanced,’ and the whole combined authority board has to agree before anything gets done.

Luckily, Ms Milner says, there is plenty of cross-party consensus, including ‘violent agreement’ that the combined authority needs to get ‘much better’ at skills – a key delivery area.

‘Joining up has been talked about for close to 30 years,’ she says.

‘COVID has pushed more opportunities for joining up. COVID has provoked people to have different conversations.

'Through that people have built trust and a better understanding of other people’s challenges, and that’s what we mustn’t let go of.

‘What we must be really wary of is snapping back to old models and old thinking.

'Partnership working is like a muscle – you’ve got to keep working it.’

With memories of Whitehall still fresh, Ms Milner talks positively about her experience, though she quickly adds there were ‘no parties my end’.

‘I, sort of, do miss some of it,’ she says fondly, pushing back at its ‘remote and bureaucratic’ reputation.

Coming from Whitehall, Ms Milner had to receive clearance from the Government’s business appointments committee for her new job but she points out that did not stop her and it should not stop others.

She said it would be an ‘absolutely fantastic thing’ if there was more movement between Whitehall and our sector, and suggests both would benefit if fast-stream civil servants routinely had to spend a year in local government.

As for Ms Milner, she has now not only come home to work in Cambridgeshire but also to local government – the place where she began her career.

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