Racist hate mail, libel pay-outs, £900 a day rescue ‘experts’, near bankruptcy - year in the life of city council
- Credit: BBC
Looking back at the key political events of 2021, perhaps the biggest surprise came in May when former Conservative Metro Mayor, James Palmer lost out to Labour Dr Nik Johnson in the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority mayoral elections.
Controversial appointments and subsequent expensive dismissals coupled with optimistic projects with major concerns as to whether they could be fully funded, led the electorate of Cambridgeshire to choose a different way forward.
Once in office, Mayor Dr Johnson – who was elected on the premise of his so-called ‘three c’s of Compassion, Co-operation and Community’ – immediately cancelled all projects that former Mayor Palmer had not yet begun.
And he forensically examined the remainder which did have approval to ensure that funding would be in place.
Peterborough City Council also saw a change of leadership as 142-years of public service by various members of the Holdich family came to an end, following the retirement of Leader of the Council, Cllr John Holdich.
Having entered the world of politics aged 33 in 1977, Cllr Holdich said of his retirement: “It has been an incredibly hard decision to make.
“But after talking it through with my wife Barbara and my family I feel that now is the right time.
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“ Although I feel fit and well enough right now to continue, if I was lucky enough to be re-elected for a further four years this would be too long.
“I suffer from arthritis which can make life quite painful for me at times, and it is a progressive condition so it will only get worse.
“I would love to remain as leader; there are so many exciting projects happening across the city and so much on the horizon that will put Peterborough on the map.
“But the time has come to put myself and my family first and allow Barbara and I time to achieve some of the things on our bucket list whist we are still able to.”
Local government is in Councillor Holdich’s blood. His father Fred Holdich was a councillor for 47 years and there has been a Holdich on one council or another since 1880.
Holdich Street in West Town was named after his great-great-grandfather in 1886.
Perhaps Cllr Holdich’s legacy will be that he, along with former Mayor Palmer, set in motion the process which will result in Peterborough having a new University.
Working in partnership with Anglia Ruskin University the new ARU Peterborough building which broke ground in July 2021, will be located on the Embankment Site close to the city centre and to existing transport links and connections.
The campus will create a new high-quality higher education space for Peterborough and establish a strong identity for the university in the city, transforming an under-utilised concrete car park into a green, landscaped campus which will be accessible to the public.
Of course, local politics during 2021 have been totally dominated by two issues – the ongoing effects of COVID-19 and the struggle by Peterborough City Council to balance the budget by March 2022 and keep control of its own finances.
Peterborough has remained a centre of COVID activity throughout the year, with higher-than-average numbers of new cases reported, as well as only 35% of the city’s population aged 12 and above having been vaccinated – significantly below the national average.
New leader of the council, Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald, took office in May, stating that he has: “Opened his door to everybody and welcomes any cross-party ideas that may take the council forward.”
Former cabinet member for finance and long-term city councillor David Seaton resigned from public service in May, with new member for finance, Cllr Andy Coles, facing near-crisis level decisions within weeks of taking office: the city council being forced to make major cuts to services in order to balance the budget.
In June, external auditors Ernst and Young reported that they were “…seriously concerned” about the local authority’s financial position.
Yet the council’s Audit Committee Chairman, Cllr David Over commented: “Over the last 25 years of audit reports we’ve had 23 of them showing a weakness in terms of financial statements… and yet, we’re still here.”
But by mid-December the council needed to call an emergency Full Council meeting at which it was announced that certain services would be ‘temporarily suspended’ to save as much money as possible in the run-up to March.
Among these were the closure of the Key Theatre, Werrington Leisure Centre and possibly many of the city’s libraries.
All of which have been widely criticised when council-owned property such as the former Woolworth building had money spent to keep them open yet remain empty earning nothing towards their own upkeep.
The council will bring in ‘experts’ in the New Year to help them ‘consult’ on how best to save more money.
However, the Labour, LibDem and Green Groups were quick to point out that these experts will cost upwards of £900 per day plus expenses, and that maybe five or six will be needed daily. Hardly a cost-cutting exercise.
Conservatives point to financial successes such as Sand Martin House, the Fletton Quays project, the new Hilton Hotel and the development of the Embankment projects.
Other community successes include the Community Assistance Scheme which has developed a wide network of foodbanks throughout the city helping people affected by Lockdown and Furlough and who cannot afford to buy food.
While the winter of 2020/21 was milder than usual, nearly every homeless person in Peterborough who wanted shelter was found accommodation of some kind and given the opportunity to contact Housing Needs.
All this came as news that the new city market location on Bridge Street would only be able to accommodate a third of the original traders when the new stalls open early next year.
The old indoor Market site will close as part of the Northminster Development project which will see that area of the city redeveloped with new housing, offices, and shops.
Peterborough City Council declared itself anti-racist and an ongoing and ardent supporter of the Windrush generation, many of whom found a home in Peterborough in the 1950s and 1960s.
But despite declaring a climate emergency as far back as 2019, opposition leaders argue – and with some cause – that very little has actually been done to further the ambition of becoming carbon-zero by 2030.
“We need to focus on the critical issues at hand before we concern ourselves with planting more trees”, said Leader Cllr Fitzgerald, referring to paying for COVID and balancing the budget.
In April it was reported that investigations into complaints against Peterborough councillors had cost city taxpayers £17,859 plus VAT and expenses.
In August, Peterborough Labour Cllr Dr Shabina Qayyum won substantial libel damages and an apology from former Conservative Cabinet Member Cllr David Seaton who had made a number of allegations on social media.
Cllr Qayyum, who was elected in 2019, said she had: “…suffered severe distress and was deeply disturbed by the publication by Mr Seaton of these defamatory claims.” (Which were lifted from a right-wing blog site).
An individual who wrote a racist hate email to Dr Qayyum has since been charged with the offence of malicious communications.
In November, Leader of the Council, Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald hit back at social media ‘trolls ”who feel they have the right to abuse councillors. Why is it in today’s society some people think they can say almost anything they want to you online?
“Most councillors at Peterborough City Council have been the recipient of malicious comments via social media and to be honest, if you take up a position in the public gaze then you can expect a certain amount of criticism.
“But there has to be a ‘line in the sand’ that goes with that – and what we are seeing, sadly more and more frequently – are cowards and keyboard warriors crossing that line, feeling that they can have the right to say anything they wish and then to hide behind their computer screens having commented at any level, even maliciously.”
The year ended with the council losing one of its genuine stalwarts: Chief Executive of Peterborough City Council, Gillian Beasley OBE retired in December after 38-years of public service.
Mrs Beasley, 63, had delayed her original plan to retire last October because of the pandemic. A solicitor by profession she was appointed CEO in 2002, and became joint Chief Executive of both Cambridgeshire County Council and Peterborough City Council in 2015.
“I have been privileged to work with and lead a group of staff at both councils who are tireless in their efforts for people in Peterborough and Cambridgeshire.
"And nothing has demonstrated that more than the last two years during the pandemic when their work has been at the frontline of protecting and supporting local communities,” she said.