After Storm Marco, new leader’s calmer outlook

Council leader John Holdich overseeing the town hall
Council leader John Holdich overseeing the town hall
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As I was walked along the corridor of power at the town hall on my way to a meeting with the leader of Peterborough City council John Holdich I couldn’t help but wonder what his mood would be.

He always comes across as an affable character – a cursory look at his cuttings file shows he’s happy to ham it up for the cameras – but I knew he would probably have a copy of the PT and in it a scathing comment I had written about the city’s new futuristic Christmas tree.

Cllr John Holdich in his office at the town hall

Cllr John Holdich in his office at the town hall

As he rose to greet me if there was an irritation he was hiding it well, but not the PT which was on his desk.

He is a tall man, smartly dressed and looking very fit for his 71 years and well for a man who has the stresses of running an organisation that impacts on the life of every single person in the city.

His office houses a large table for meetings and in one corner is a small, and I do mean small, desk with just enough room for a computer and a telephone.

I somehow expected the leader of the council to have a bigger desk. He smiled and gestured to his tablet and mobile: “ That’s all you need these days.’’

John Holdich was the agent for former MP Brian Mawhinney who he is pictured with in 1982

John Holdich was the agent for former MP Brian Mawhinney who he is pictured with in 1982

On the walls are pictures of the cathedral, Cathedral Square and St John’s Square.

As we chat about them his pride in the city is obvious. John is a Peterborian through and through, but more than that in his DNA is local politics.

His great grandfather and his father were both councillors and John believes the family has given service to the community through various councils since 1880.

There is even a Holdich Street named after his great grandfather.

An election leaflet for John's father Fred who was also a councillor for many years

An election leaflet for John's father Fred who was also a councillor for many years

John himself has now clocked up 38 years on the council and six months ago he became its leader.

Did you have ambitions to be leader, I ask. “No,’’ he says without hesitation, “all I’ve tried to do is my best for people’’.

He was previously deputy leader until the shock defeat of Cllr Marco Cereste at the last election.

“I was surprised,’’ he says of his predecessor’s demise, but he gives the impression that he was not shocked.

He admired Marco’s passion for the city and when asked whether he thought Mr Cereste should return to local politics he says: “He has a lot to offer,’’ before adding, “althought perhaps not as leader.’’

The problem with Marco, he suggests, is that “if you come up with an idea, he’s got six more.’’

Cllr Holdich clearly has an admiration for Mr Cereste. Only he can say (and he doesn’t) whether that’s a grudging one.

He did reveal he was thinking off giving up on being the deputy leader before the voters intervened. “I felt I was under-used,’’ he says.

Cllr Holdich said: “Marco, and he says this himself, is a Marmite character, you either love him or hate him.’’

So did you love or hate him?

The response is a politician’s one, and not the last one, he delivers in the interview.

The question remains without a definitive answer so perhaps we can assume it’s somewhere inbetween. Not Marmite after all!

He has a very different style to Mr Cereste although he says he does lose his temper from time to time “when people don’t do what they say they are going to do.’’

He confesses he has mellowed over the years and believes listening to people is the best way.

He added: “And always thank them, I learned that from Cllr John Horrell and Richard Branson’’.

Yes, that Richard Branson, of Virgin fame, whose path has crossed Cllr Holdich’s at various times over the years including a travel consultation group.

After the somewhat turbulent Marco Cereste administration, Cllr Holdich said one of his key aims was to unite the warring factions within the local Tory party something which he believes he has done successfully in his first six months. “That’s gone away,’’ he confirms.

Cllr Holdich insisted on his deputy coming from the ‘other side’ (Peterborough as opposed to North West Cambs constituency parties) adding “some people didn’t like that.’’

Mr Cereste had an infamously turbulent relationship with MP Stewart Jackson and Cllr Holdich confesses he has already had a run-in with him over the issue of licensing landlords, but he shrugs it off and reveals he briefs the MP on key council issues.

Despite his affable demeanour you sense the leader of the council is no pushover.

He can’t afford to be because whether its newspaper columnists moaning about Christmas trees or developers locking horns over plans crucial to the city’s growth he has a lot on his plate.

One of Cllr Holdich’s great passions is education.

He has retained the cabinet portfolio for education despite becoming leader and a lesser man might have welcomed the chance to rid themselves of a difficult job.

He explained: “I am passionate about it.’’

His own school days were not the happiest – at one point his education was disrupted when he missed a year of schooling because of illness which indirectly caused him to miss out on a scholarship at Laxton School in Oundle.

Instead he went to a state school in Peterborough .

He was a bright child, but also, in his own words, “a fat kid, we’d call it obese now. I wasn’t any good at sports.’’

That might explain why despite looking in good shape he fusses about his weight and dietary demands of civic duty.

Academic work came easily to him, particularly maths, but by his own admission he got lazy and didn’t get all he should have done out of his school years, hence his passion for children in the city to have the best possible education.

He left school at 15 to become a motor mechanic, eventually moving into sales and becoming a very successful garage manager winning numerous awards. He later took over the family’s mobile caravan park firm in Fengate until he sold it in 2002.

He talks candidly about the difficulties of recruiting teachers, the pressure on school places, the problems posed by the “churn’’ of pupils and the task of dragging city schools up the league tables but he takes pride in the fact that 84 percent of city schools are now rated as good or better by Ofsted.

One school that’s not “good or better’’ is the Voyager Academy and Cllr Holdich revealed he would like to see the city council take back control from the Comberton Trust which runs it now.

“I don’t have any control over the Voyager, but I am

meeting the education minister to see what we can do to help,’’ he said.

“It is struggling, and it is a vicious circle. It gets the poor results and bad publicity, teachers don’t want to come and parents don’t want to send their children there.’’

“We have a great Schools Improvement Team and I’d like us (the city council) to take a crack at it.’’

He doubts though this will happen, fearing that the Government has too much invested in the Academy ideal to see a major school like the Voyager returned to council control.

Cllr Holdich’s schoolboy ability with maths no doubt comes in handy when wrestling with the city’s budget and the cuts imposed by the Government.

The day before our meeting the council had revealed its first raft of proposals to save £12m out of the £19.5 million.

Remarkably it seems a cat has been pulled out of a hat and the council has made cuts that are relatively painless with services maintained, and according to the council, even improved.

You sense the council leader’s quiet pride, and new revenue streams have helped, but there is the suspicion that the nasty stuff would come in part two after Christmas.

Cllr Holdich rules this out: “I don’t think so,’’ he says, “why would we do that? We’re all facing election next year, so if that was the case it would be better to get it out in the open straight away.’’

One of the savings has been in renegotiating the interest on capital loans and extending the repayment term from 25 years to 42.

Isn’t that just storing up trouble for the future?

He points out that much of the capital spend has been on schools and they should last the period of the repayment, adding: “Money’s so cheap at the moment, and it means we can save £2million this year.’’

Another important issue is the big developments in the city.

North Westgate has long been seen as crucial to the continued growth of the city and things appeared to be finally moving forward when plans were announced for a development anchored by a multiplex cinema.

But those plans were thrown into doubt when Queensgate announced its plans for a major revamp... including the creation of a multiplex cinema.

Like most people, and he’s said as such publicly, Cllr Holdich believes the city centre can only sustain one multiplex. There is an impasse but Cllr Holdich is talking to all parties to broker a deal that satisfies all – and he is confident that a way can be found.

One thing he doesn’t have to worry about is the fury at the council’s solar farm plan which has now been consigned to history’s rubbish bin.

As ever, he’s unruffled in his assessment of the scheme and what went wrong. He said: “If the solar farms plan had gone ahead when it was first suggested it would have earned us about £3million a year. But the government changed the tariffs and we handled it badly and we should have given up on it long before we did.’’

He added that he was meeting with the tenant farmers who opposed the scheme in a bid to build bridges and create a policy on tenant farming.

Through out all the trials and tribulations that may come with being council leader, Cllr Holdich knows he can always rely on his wife Barbara.The couple celebrated their golden wedding earlier this year.

As befits a true Peterborian their first date was at London Road to watch the Posh.

He invited himself along although he’d never been to a football match and that perhaps explains his choice of attire – an eye-catching black and white coat. It certainly caught the eye of the London Road faithful who repeatedly chanted: “Who’s the prat in the coat.’’

He laughs: “I felt that small’’ and gestures with his thumb and forefinger.

He takes Barbara to as many events and functions as he can – including Buckingham Palace in 1996 to get his OBE – despite her not sharing his passion for politics. He adds: “She does get upset when I get attacked unfairly.’’

And she will be joining him at the latest raft of Bill Kenwright shows being staged at the Broadway. He bought tickets for every show, which is testament as much to his desire for another Peterborough success story as a love for theatre.

His calm demeanour suggests relaxation is not a problem but if he needs a recharge “I have a bolthole in Norfolk.’’

And what about that Christmas tree?

He smiles: “I’ve got to be careful what I say, otherwise you’ll say I cancelled Christmas’’.

He is philosophical about the reaction but insists it was a good deal. He was relieved it didn’t blow down in the high winds that gusted days after the tree had been erected.

And what sort of tree does he have at home?

“We have a fake one, now,’’ he smiles, “I got fed up with picking up all the needles.’’

Such a practical and matter of fact approach may serve the city well in the years to come.