Like Marmite and Manchester United, Marco Cereste divides opinion. To some he was a strong and charismatic leader full of passion and vision for his adopted home city. To others he was a tinpot dictator full of vanity projects and hot air.
It may or may not be relevant that is political hero is Winston Churchill.
Whatever side you are on, as leader of Peterborough City Council he has been one of the most influential figures on the lives of city residents.
But now he’s gone. Brutally removed by the voters in Stanground Central.
He agreed to meet me to talk about the “Marco Years’’ and invited me to his home, one of the most unusual and imposing houses in the city.
The toddler, who arrived with his family from Italy more than 60 years ago and who faced hardship and poverty, has certainly come a long way.
He is, he says, “a proud Anglo-Italian’’.
“I came over here when I was two years old. It was very difficult. I was watching The Godfather II the other day. Robert de Niro comes home and brings his wife a special present, a pear and that’s what it was like.
“I used to help Ernie Lee, the greengrocer on Oundle Road. He was a great bloke. He used to pay me in fruit because we couldn’t afford to buy it.’’
He can now. Large wrought iron gates embellished with the Cereste family crest guard the entrance to the manor house in Longthorpe, since Christmas Eve 1983 the home of the former council leader.
Historic Longthorpe Tower was originally part of the manor house. “My dining room is underneath the tower,’’ reveals Mr Cereste.
It is now home to him, his wife, and their two young sons – Mr Cereste also has a grown-up son and daughter.
Rather grand it is too, complete with a swimming pool, a separate guest house and an acre of land.But it is also a friendly family home full of the excited buzz young children bring – all the family including his young sons speak Italian when at home.
Both Alessandro (six) and two-year-old Gianmarco briefly interrupt our interview much to the delight of the 64-year-old.
“My kids love me,’’ he beams with paternal pride adding, “that’s the only good thing about losing the election, we get to spend a lot more time together.’’
Defeat at the ballot box has left him disappointed but not bitter. But you sense he feels he has been robbed of finishing a job he started.
He does not strike you as a beaten man – the monogrammed MC on the pocket of his tailored shirt is just one indication that this is a successful man. And a man who despite the verdict of voters is convinced his way is the right way. He is philosophical about his defeat – “what can you do? it’s democracy’’ – putting it down to a combination of factors one of which he implied was dirty tricks from the opposition.
He said: “I could see there was a huge groundswell of support for UKIP in my ward, much more than anywhere else in the city. Plus a lot of UKIP supporters were being told I was supporting the church that the Afghan community wanted in a converted Golden Lion.
The winners in the election were the other Tory candidate and UKIP’s man, but was the defeat a reflection on his leadership?
He reflects: “I think it probably was. It was a combination of things. There were all the lies spread about the renewable schemes (in Newborough).’’
Even so he seems at a loss to really explain it. He speculates: “Whether it was a personal attack on me or just that people didn’t realise they had two votes .’’
Whatever the reasons, his reign came to an abrupt end.
“I cleared my desk on Friday afternoon and by Monday was gone. The king is dead, long live the king.
“I feel I’ve been responsible for putting Peterborough on a positive journey and we were getting there.My sadness would be if we don’t deliver the rest of the vision.
“Peterborough has gone from being a stop somewhere on the East Coast mainline tobeing a place people want to live and invest in. There was a time when people avoided Peterborough like the plague.’’
One other possible factor in for his defeat was his difficult relationship with city MP Stewart Jackson who has been very critical of some of Mr Cereste’s policies. Did the MP play a part in his downfall?
The question doesn’t faze him and he reflected: “Only history will tell. I have no idea but it cannot be in any party’s interests for senior members of that party to wash their dirty linen in public. It can’t be right and it can’t be good.’’
He pauses before alluding to Mr Jackson’s reduced majority: “The consequences were nearly as dramatic for him as they were for me.’’
Perhaps warming to the topic he goes on: “I share his objectives, I share his policies but there has been a difficulty in understanding the difference between being an MP and a councillor.
“I would go so as far as to say that if he continues to behave like that with the new members of the council, he will risk his very own existence at the next election,’’ he warns.
“Hopefully, he will have learned we should all be working together for the benefit of our city. You’ve never heard me say a bad word about him or criticise him.’’
It seemed there were many people out to get Marco Cereste, do you think they got you?
“Well, I lost. But what I will say is that I had hundreds, and I mean hundreds, of texts, emails and phone calls of commiserations and sadness within two hours of the result being known. The response from the public in the city was overwhelming. Even now I get stopped in the street by people who say, their words not mine, ‘what a disaster for the city’.’’
So why is it a disaster, what are the things you are most proud of?
“You have to put it in context. When I became leader there was no investment in our city, our schools were in the worst 25 per cent in the country, we had one of the highest unemployment rates, and we weren’t even on the list of places where big businesses wanted to invest.’’
He continues in bullish mood: “Every senior school is new or refurbished and with the exception of one are performing the way they should. We are on the way to having a university. Each year of my leadership we delivered 4,00o net jobs, that’s 16,000 new jobs. Unemployment is one of the lowest in the country. Our High Street is the talk of the country.
“The river embankment... for 20 years they have been trying to sort it out and I’ve done it, the planning applications are coming forward.’’
He reels off a list of other achievements and his satisfaction at a job well done is clear, concluding: “All these things people said were not possible are all being delivered. I didn’t do that on my own, we had a really good team that could deliver and we did.’’
But he appears exasperated that despite the achievements there is a downbeat reaction from residents. For the first time he becomes animated.
“You have to look where we came from. We came from one of the worst places you could be. Peterborough was on the verge of dying. The public might like the way it was because no-one likes change but Peterborough would have had no jobs, the schools would be crap. We know where we were seven years ago we were in the s*** up to our necks.
“Imagine what we would have achieved if we’d had some money to spend and not lost £44million recurring out of the budget during my period as leader. Imagine what I could have done.’’
Mr Cereste revealed he regularly worked more than 50 hours a week on council business a commitment that meant his businesses were neglected. But will he seek to return to the council?
He says: “ I don’t have any plans at the moment other than to make sure my businesses start to work. I’ve got young children and I’ve got to get my finger out.’’
You’ll note that wasn’t a “no’’.
Father, businessman and fruit lover
As council leader, the owner of several businesses and the father of small children, Mr Cereste does not have much spare time on his hands. He said: “I don’t know that I ever relax. I might watch some televison, historical programmes. I shoot clays, I restore antique pottery but I can’t just sit and do nothing.
Clearly his family are his pride and joy. He beams: “I play with the kids, we go out and have a great time. I try to keep the weekends purely for family.’’
He adds: “I had a wonderful relationship with my parents. If you have good parents you can do anything, if you have bad ones you’re in trouble before you start.’’
His home and garden also gives him much pleasure.
“I have got 13 or 14 fig trees. I love fruit trees - quinces, pears, apples, plums, cherries... which we never ever get to eat because the birds always get them. I also have a Medlar tree, a very old English fruit which used to be very popular because it doesn’t ripen until November.’’
Energy parks failure “a disaster’’ for the city
History will pass its own verdict on Marco Cereste’s leadership of Peterborough City Council.
But central to the debate will be the big ideas he put forward that were ridiculed by his critics as vanity projects.
Water taxis and a roof on the Lido raised eyebrows, but it was the plans for a wind and solar farm at Newborough which would have eaten up land used for decades by tenant farmers that whipped up a storm that never really subsided.
The plans were finally defeated after concerted opposition– not just from the farmers – and changes in government policy.
It left the city residents with a £3million bill – the start up costs of the scheme.
It was Mr Cereste’s project and if he’s bitter about the outcome he hides it well. Although his frustration, anger and disappointment he does not bother to conceal.
He says: “I have no regrets.
“It was the right thing to do at the time. My regret is that we failed.
“Watch this space in 10 or 15 years’ time. When they start turning off our electricity and we have no way of controlling that then someone is going to say ‘I wish we’d listened to Marco’.
“If we had delivered that project together with some of the other renewable projects around the city, we would have been completely self-sufficient in energy with most of it controlled by the council.
“When the rest of the world starts to switch off their electricity supply – we are going to run out of power, we are going to have brown-outs by 2020.
“My job as leader of the city was to husband the estate that we have.
“We have two problems. We have a farming estate that doesn’t pay for itself and a real need, like every other city, in five to seven years, for energy.
“So what am I supposed to do?Sit on my backside and ignore it?’’
His anger breaks through when he talks about the oppostion to the scheme.
“The farmers, every single one of them was offered an alternative and somewhere else to farm. And remember most of those farmers were on a shorthold tenancy.
“If I was the new leader, I wouldn’t renew their tenancy agreement. They were all offered an alternative. I made sure they would be given a long term tenancy so they could stay and so their children could stay there.
“It was a group of people who for whatever reason decided it was not going to happen and they did not do our city any favours whatsoever.
“One day, one day,’’ he repeats for emphasis, “our city will realise what a disaster this has been for Peterborough.
“The £7 to 8million every year for 20 years earned from renewables would have protected our services.
“I was slandered and libelled... people stood up in public and told lies.’’
“ What we should have had was the silent majority saying ‘hang on a minute what’ we should be doing is what’s the best for everybody’s future.
“It’s a tragedy for our city, we could have protected our services forever and taken Peterborough to the next level.’’
By this time there is metaphorical steam coming out of his ears but he is in good humour when talking about the other “vanity projects’’ although it is clearly a term that irks him.
“No, no, no,’’ he responds passionately, “I don’t regret them because that’s how you drive the city into being special.
“You might get so-called vanity projects that the public think are daft, but you get the same number that do work.
“Is having one of the finest embankment areas in the country a vanity project or is it the right thing to do?
“It’s 130 million quid of spend, so why’s that not a vanity project?
“If we’d built a park and ride at Alwalton and Stanground why would the water taxis have been a vanity project? Eventually when we have park and rides, and there will come a time when we build them, the best connection will be a bloody water taxi.
“And the roof on the Lido, let’s talk about the roof on the Lido. I say let’s have a roof on the Lido.
“I didn’t say anything about this (expletive deleted!) great £7m sliding roof. That was other idiots. I say something, somebody else gets carried away and I get the blame.
“Wouldn’t it make sense to put a nice simple roof on so we could all use the pool?’’
We could have been another Rotherham
Mr Cereste ranks the improvements in the council’s children’s services as one of the achievements of his period in office.
He says: “Our children’s services was one of the worst in the country and we were about to have people come in, shut it down, and run it for us.
“We’re not outstanding yet, probably just adequate, but we’ve gone from a very bad place.
“We could have easily been in the same place as Rotherham – 1,200 children trafficked, abused and prostituted in Rotherham.
“It wasn’t an accident of fate. We picked it up and then bit the bullet and then spent more than £1million a year to make sure our children are safe.’’
...and finally, Bourges Boulevard?
Last week saw the completion of the £4.5 million project to revamp a section of Bourges Boulevard – it was another of Mr Cereste’s pet projects.
The response hasn’t been totally negative but many residents have voiced anger at what they will predict will be more traffic delays caused by the new lay-out.
Will it be worth it?I ask.
As ever there is no room for doubt in his reply. “Absolutely, and it ain’t going to stop there. The whole of Bourges Boulevard from there to Bridge Street needs to be sorted.
It had to be done, becausethat was the way we secured development around the station and North Westgate.’’
He points out that access from the city centre to the railway station had been very poor.
“If you were disabled the only way to get to the railway station was through the Queensgate lift.
“In what society is that acceptable?
“If we don’t care about those people less able than us what are we worth?.
“It was worth it for that if for no other reason to get a proper crossing across Bourges Boulevard for people who are less fortunate.
“If you then add to that a thriving hotel, a lovely new railway station, a new Waitrose and development of North Westgate, of course, it was right to do it.”