Mayor promises ‘unique’ and ‘high standard’ University of Peterborough after playing down scathing report

Mayor James Palmer
Mayor James Palmer
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The new University of Peterborough remains on track to open in 2022, the city’s metro mayor has insisted, after playing down a scathing independent report.

Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough James Palmer has pledged to deliver a “unique” and “high standard” university which the city can be proud of as he defended his role in leading the project.

Cllr John Holdich and city council education cabinet member Cllr Lynne Ayres at the site for the new campus.

Cllr John Holdich and city council education cabinet member Cllr Lynne Ayres at the site for the new campus.

A review into the scheme by HM Treasury and the Local Government Association highlighted divisions between project leaders behind the scenes.

In particular, it revealed poor leadership, a lack of trust and major disagreements among stakeholders, with a recommendation that the project be delayed. It concluded: “There is no business case which all partners are able to agree.”

The review was written last autumn, but was only released into the public domain last week. Speaking to the Peterborough Telegraph, Mayor Palmer, the leader of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, was adamant that the picture portrayed in the report was no longer accurate.

He said: “We are putting together something that’s going to change Peterborough forever. We are very, very, very determined to make sure we get it right, and therefore it’s important to get criticism and opinion, and that’s what we would expect reports to do.

“We know where we want to be to create a technical university of high standard in Peterborough. The report is there to be a critical friend.

“What’s absolutely clear is we have a budget to deliver a Peterborough university, we have the land to deliver a Peterborough university and a target for that university to be delivered by 2025. That’s the timetable we are working to, and we are absolutely determined that’s what we will do.”

The university, which will evolve from University Centre Peterborough (UCP), is due to open in 2022, but not become fully independent until 2025. UCP - which is jointly run by Peterborough Regional College and Anglia Ruskin University - is currently seeking degree-awarding powers from the Office for Students.

Further revelations in the report include:

. A substantial turnover of key staff in leadership roles

. Disagreement over what the university’s curriculum should be

. Little reporting of activities carried out

. No clear sign that the project will be completed within budget

. Large amounts of documents not being shared among all stakeholders.

The combined authority is now awaiting two further independent reports in March.

Mayor Palmer added: “The reality is people are very passionate about delivering the university for Peterborough, and I’m one of those.

“It will be something that will be unique, and will be something Peterborough can be proud of.

“It’s an outstanding opportunity for Peterborough, and we are on track.”

Leader of Peterborough City Council Cllr John Holdich has insisted that the fully-fledged university remains on schedule to open in 2022, and that the problems published in the report have now been resolved.

Cllr Holdich, who is also deputy mayor of the combined authority, said: “The report was commissioned by myself and the combined authority because we felt things were not going the way we want them. It’s public money and we need to be able to justify it.

“The report came out last year, and since then the governance has been improved, and everything has been addressed.”

Cllr Holdich added that despite earlier disagreement over the university’s curriculum, there is now consensus on subjects such as engineering, agri-tech and computers.

Asked what had caused the problems behind the scenes, he replied: “Once the board of Peterborough Regional College were made aware of the situation things improved considerably.”

The mayoral authority was created in a devolution deal for Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. City councillors in Peterborough were promised that it would deliver the university the city craved if they voted for it.

Leader of the city council’s Labour group Cllr Shaz Nawaz said the university is “essential” for Peterborough to “fulfil its potential as a modern city”. He added: “A lot of time and money has already been wasted.

“There’s been a lack of leadership, lack of communication and trust, lack of vision, lack of ability to deliver, lack of key personnel in leadership, lack of planning to substantiate that the project will be delivered within budget, and lack of will and commitment to get things moving.

“This project is a gamechanger for Peterborough, for students in the city, and for businesses - especially retail, restaurants and the entertainment sector.

“All of this is being jeopardised by a mayor who is too busy wasting taxpayers’ money through trips to America, through changing a number of finance directors, through promising to keep staffing costs at around £850,000, and ending up spending millions.

“He lacks leadership and vision - talking a good game only goes so far. The people of Peterborough want results and that’s not happening as far as the university project is concerned.”

A UCP spokesperson said it was working closely with all partners and stakeholders to address the recommendations in the report, and had formed a shadow higher education council which is chaired by Professor Sir Les Ebdon (pictured), who has extensive experience in the university and higher education sector.

It also said that it was forming a new Employer and Community Consultative Group to ensure the needs of business and employers are addressed, and that it was “committed to improving communication across partners”.

UCP itends to submit its application for new degree awarding powers to the newly formed Office for Students (OfS) in March.

The UCP spokesperson said: “In the past six months, all of the current provision at University Centre Peterborough, offered in partnership with Anglia Ruskin University, has been successfully revalidated for September 2019.

“Due to this, University Centre Peterborough are confident that these positive steps will ensure a successful degree awarding powers application with the OfS.”

He added: “A portfolio of new courses will be developed and promoted, which will enable the creation of an independent university for Peterborough and Fenland, which will satisfy the current and future needs of students, schools and employers.”