Behind the scenes with Peterborough’s new metro mayor - the children’s doctor thrust into high political office

“It’s a bit like Stars in their Eyes with a man in his 50s who finds out he can sing.”

By Joel Lamy
Tuesday, 10th August 2021, 3:04 pm
Dr Nik Johnson being interviewed at the Stem Festival at Neale-Wade Academy in March. EMN-210715-155409009
Dr Nik Johnson being interviewed at the Stem Festival at Neale-Wade Academy in March. EMN-210715-155409009

He may have passed through an audition more gruelling than any pop hopeful trying to prise a smile from Simon Cowell, but for Dr Nik Johnson - Peterborough and Cambridgeshire’s new metro mayor - making the mid-life leap from full-time children’s doctor to leading politician still feels surreal.

Plucked from relative obscurity as a Huntingdonshire district councillor to contest a role seen by many as a Conservative gimme, he defied expectations by romping home on second preference votes.

This was not a huge upset just because Dr Johnson bucked the trend for Labour nationally - with the party struggling during the local elections - but because here was a dad of three with very little political experience suddenly thrust into an extremely powerful and high-profile role, leading a body with hundreds of millions of pounds to spend on transport, housing, infrastructure and adult education.

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Dr Johnson at the Metalcraft stand with apprentice trainer Neil Kirby and Year 7 pupils from the academy EMN-210715-155515009

Even now it seems strange to believe that Peterborough and Cambridgeshire’s equivalent of Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan is a man who still works eight hours a day as a paediatrician and who continues to introduce himself as a children’s doctor when out and about.

So, can this relative political outsider - born in Northumberland, now living near St Neots - deliver much of the X Factor over the next four years, or will he be like a talent show winner who achieves fleeting fame before drifting into obscurity?

To try and learn more about his methods and his intentions for the area, the Peterborough Telegraph shadowed the county’s new leader over two days where we witnessed political tensions, stresses over media interviews, negotiations over housing, threats over funding and repeated mention of the 3Cs (compassion, co-operation and community) - Dr Johnson’s beloved slogan which he even has printed on his mug.

Day 1

Dr Johnson in his office with Jo Whatley

“My name’s Nik and I’m the mayor around here, but I still see myself as a doctor.”

As far as introductions go, it’s not quite what you’d expect from arguably the most powerful person across a county with more than 850,000 people.

But mixing it with school pupils and university representatives feels like a natural environment for a man more used to screaming toddlers than hectoring politicians.

Take his conversation with Gail and Daisy, Year 7 pupils at Neale-Wade Academy in March where we are at this morning for a STEM Festival: “My youngest is in Year 8. We need more engineers and people in science, particularly girls.”

The combined authority's offices in Ely

He points to a Metalcraft stall nearby - “This is what you can do, and it’s in Chatteris.”

The PT’s photographer is here for the morning, so there are the obligatory poses to carry out before conversations can resume.

Asked to pull a serious face there is a giggle - “I struggle with serious.”

A short time later the mayor is listening in on a science lecture and is bursting to shout out the correct answer to a question - “It’s like being back at school!”

The mayor's coffee mug featuring the '3Cs'

If it feels like this is politics’ version of Phil Dunphy from Modern Family (cheerful and overly positive) it’s probably because Dr Johnson is in his element (and no, that wasn’t the answer to the question).

“Nik is more people orientated rather than wearing hard hats,” his chief of staff Nigel Pauley later tells me. “He finds it draining doing Zoom meetings as he is used to walking the wards.”

It is hard to think of a more contrasting character to previous mayor James Palmer than Dr Johnson, even taking into account their politics.

The first person to hold the office of elected mayor was a dominant character, a businessman turned Conservative district council leader who ruffled feathers.

His successor represents the Labour and Co-operative Party, repeatedly promises “co-operation” and admits in casual conversation to enjoying a diet Old Jamaican ginger beer from Waitrose.

So, as leader of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority, our equivalent of the London Greater Assembly, how often is he recognised?

Dr Johnson with Vic Annells, chief executive of the Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce

“Within two weeks of my new job a Hermes delivery driver said ‘you’re the mayor’.

“People do recognise me. I walk in the streets in Ely and people say ‘hello mayor’.

“There is some recognition, but I used to get more in Huntingdonshire as a doctor when people would see me in the shops.”

As for his three children, having a father with a higher profile also appears to have changed little.

“They are still proud of their dad, but I don’t know enough about TikTok and can’t dance.”

We move onto a stall for Peterborough’s new university where Dr Johnson introduces himself again.

“I used to be a children’s doctor in Hinchingbrooke and now I’m the Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.

“I’ve not been to the site yet but have signed off £20 million (for it).

“Make sure you sell it well!”

ARU Peterborough is a combined authority project, but during the election campaign it rarely featured with far more debate centring on Mr Palmer’s autonomous metro and £100k homes projects (both of which have been halted under the new chief).

Asked for his thoughts about the university, which is set to open in 14 months’ time, Dr Johnson replies: “The university has been a real success story in the first four years and I want to acknowledge that.

“I want to continue the success to deliver opportunity for local people and so we can get graduate education reaching out into areas like the Fens.

“There are signs of real optimism it’s going to provide courses tailor-made for industries in Peterborough such as agri-tech and opportunities in health care which we should be proud of.”

The morning finishes with a tour of the school and an interview with the BBC which is when the PT team decide to head home to prepare to listen in to some of the many online meetings pencilled in the mayor’s diary.

This would be an opportunity to see if Dr Johnson the friendly paediatrician would have a Hulk-like conversion into a political beast once conversations became more serious

Sadly, a mixture of cancellations and confidentiality issues mean we could only sit in on the last meeting of the day which centres on a potentially new ground-breaking housing scheme called VeloCity which is being rolled out in Blenheim Estate.

The principle is a series of new villages connected by light rail and cycling routes, with a focus on “sustainable environment”.

The cheerful doctor of the morning is now looking a lot more agitated. The time has ticked past 5pm and it has been an endless stream of virtual meetings for him.

In 30 minutes he will be interviewed on the radio about the need to continue wearing face coverings when restrictions end next week, while there is little to break up the lengthy VeloCity presentation aside from a mention that Dr Johnson delivered the grandson of someone in the meeting.

Fully briefed, the mayor asks: “I can understand all the principles. I guess the million dollar question is ‘where is the land?’”

One of the people in the meeting asks if the combined authority owns any. A one word response comes back: “No.”

“That’s going to make it very hard for you to deliver on your promises, isn’t it?” the mayor is told.

“I make promises but I find other ways to deliver them. We work with partners,” he replies.

Dr Johnson said the meeting was only taking place because he had been told “the church is looking to work with people like me. That’s why we’re having this conversation”.

There is a mini rant against “planners and developers (who) rode roughshod over what I would say was the social responsibilities around providing the proper levels of housing,” followed by: “Unfortunately, I don’t have a Blenheim Palace in the Fens.”

Dr Johnson, who is pushing to introduce bus franchising in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, is told that “every bus system has failed,” and is pushed to consider light rail options. But he remains undeterred.

“I’ve been criticised by others that ‘tinkering around with the buses won’t cut the mustard’.

“Well, you’ve got to start somewhere. And whilst they can criticise me while I tinker around with the buses and deliver something meaningful straight away, we are actually planning for much more enlightening, and indeed possible, light rail options for the Fenland area if we can come up with something relatively innovative.”

The meeting ends with Dr Johnson expressing an interest in the VeloCity model, but only if the Church of England has land to offer.

It was hard not to get the sense he was pleased to wrap the conversation up.

Day 2

The contrast between City Hall in London and the offices of the combined authority in Ely could not be starker. Tucked away near Ely Museum, they are easy to miss even with a small sign hanging outside.

Perhaps this is apt for an organisation which has never really captured the public’s imagination since forming in 2017 as part of a devolution deal with the Government.

Today promises to be more a lot more revealing, with greater access into the mayor’s working life. For a start, there is a relaxed atmosphere around the place.

The mayor seems chilled after a weekend which included spending time with Mr Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, and Nigel his chief of staff appears pleased that a potentially unpleasant news article about a local councillor who said Dr Johnson had ‘abandoned sick and dying children’ has been turned on its head by offering the mayor up for interview.

A former Fleet Street journalist, Nigel says: “I love coming into work. Every day is different but I’m getting the buzz back.”

First up at 9am is the leader’s strategy briefing, a call with interim combined authority CEO Kim Sawyer and director of delivery and strategy Paul Raynes to discuss the most pressing issues.

It begins with news that the Government has agreed to hand over another £100 million of funding for the combined authority, a big announcement after it had previously held back on £45 million of affordable housing money under Mr Palmer.

“Have I managed to charm them, is that what you’re saying?” Dr Johnson jokes.

The tone becomes more serious when conversation turns to the Embankment in Peterborough, and funding of £100,000 from the combined authority to draw up a masterplan which could include a new stadium for Peterborough United.

This is a controversial topic and one which the mayor has previously not issued a definitive statement on, but this time he is unequivocal: “I want to support the football club but do not necessarily support the ambition to be on the Embankment - that’s an important point of difference between myself and my deputy and a point of difference with many people in the Peterborough community. It might cause some problems.

“If this money is directly going to the football club to build on the Embankment I will struggle to support it. I won’t vote for it so it will struggle to go through.”

Mayor Johnson also queries why the combined authority is pledging £600,000 for phase three of the Peterborough university project which is currently subject of a bid to the Government for its Levelling Up fund.

If approved, this will deliver a second teaching building and new and improved public culture and sports facilities at ARU Peterborough, which is also springing up on the Embankment.

However, due to the tight timescale for phase three to be delivered, it is anticipated the extra contribution from the combined authority would get works progressing sooner with the money later returned back to the mayoral body.

The mayor says during his briefing: “I don’t understand why we are giving more money. We have given £20 million (to the project). Why are we now giving £600,000?”

Informed that the money would be paid back, he remarks: “You have to trust people in this game.”

There is also a discussion on climate change, in particular the combined authority board recently agreeing to adopt 31 recommendations made in a review by Baroness Brown in order to make the county carbon neutral by 2050.

There was a bitter split amongst the board under the previous regime, and although tensions are now less fraught it is clear the environment will be a dividing line.

“Bridget (Smith,) is all about the environment. I’m on the same page so it’s a bit easier,” Dr Johnson says, referring to the leader of South Cambridgeshire District Council who will shortly be taking up the new role of environment and climate change lead at the mayoral body.

Nigel shows the PT a tool which rounds up media coverage of the combined authority before the meeting comes to an end and the PT can grab a quick word with the mayor before his next engagement.

On Baroness Brown’s recommendations, he says: “They are ambitious and challenging. In certain areas they are more challenging than others.”

Referring to some Conservative members on the board who were against adopting the Brown commission’s report, he adds that the issue has “really put the cat among the pigeons”.

“There are some sceptical people and we need to be ambitious, but realistic.”

Next is a meeting with Nigel, Jo Whatley (executive assistant and office manager) and head of communications Emily Martin to discuss his diary for the week.

Emily explains to the PT the desire to bring the 3Cs into practice through four ‘pillars’ - public health, culture, volunteering and climate change - which are to be embedded into everything the combined authority does.

The week is now fully up and running and things are starting to happen a bit quicker.

There is a meeting with the Trades Union Congress where Dr Johnson says he wants a union official on the combined authority’s Business Board, as well as union representation for combined authority staff.

This is followed by a brief chat about a staffing issue, before preparations begin for a live Sky News interview with Adam Boulton as today is ‘Freedom Day’, or as Dr Johnson prefers to call it, ‘Back to Business Day’.

In between Googling who he will be interviewed alongside (it’s Andy Preston, Mayor of Middlesbrough), altering the lighting and making sure he has notes in front of his laptop screen, the mayor talks to the PT about his meeting with Andy Burnham and the different political challenges they face.

“Andy can come up with a policy and his board will support it all the way. I can’t do that. It’s like getting a four-year-old to taste medicine.

“Andy is really supportive. We spoke positively about how mayors can make a real difference. At national level Andy has a very positive image and Sadiq Khan to some extent.

“At the same time, Keir Starmer is doing stuff but is not in power.

“I really want to help demonstrate what Labour in power can achieve.”

There are clear nerves ahead of the interview, in particular due to Mr Boulton’s reputation as a fierce interrogator.

“I have good days and bad days. I’m in a positive mood today,” the mayor says.

During the interview Nigel hands over a note to Dr Johnson before sitting back down.

“He’s shaped up a lot (with the media) since his first hustings,” he tells the PT, and fortunately that is not a jinx with both men appearing pleased with how things went.

The rest of the day includes another confidential meeting, as well as a virtual speech for the National Bus Summit (where he highlights his aims to deliver a “high tech, zero carbon transport system” for Peterborough and Fenland and putting need over profit), an online meeting of the Business Board and a visit to the Chambers of Commerce from 5.30pm for ‘Back to Business Day’.

It is mentioned to the mayor that he seems far more relaxed in person than in front of a screen, something he does not try to deny.

“I like face-to-face contact, there’s no shame in saying that.

“The move towards more digital meetings, you don’t get the nuance of body language and can’t interact in the same way. You can’t riff or explore. It takes away from the human angle.

“Through Covid at the hospital I was encouraged to do video conferencing with patients but I refused to do it. I said the patients need one-to-ones, although I did a few telephone calls.”

Despite the hectic schedule and the frustrations of virtual meetings, Dr Johnson is always happy to answer questions and seems genuinely interested in the person shadowing him, asking about hobbies, background and general health.

He sounds genuinely agitated when talking about a friend in his 50s who has not had a Covid jab yet, but that is unsurprising for a man who has made public health one of his main priorities as mayor.

“I want people in Fenland to say ‘that mayor might be Labour and Co-operative but he’s not like all the others’.

“Living in PE7 should not come with a health warning - that’s what I’m trying to achieve.”

Getting to grips with being mayor has not been an easy transition, as Nigel admits: “No one prepares you (for what comes next). We came in the first day and did not know what to expect. It’s been full on ever since and I’ve not had time to think.

“There’s no booklet on how to do it - you learn on the job. He will make mistakes, but mistakes with a good intention.

“But Nik has never attacked an opponent - he’s always positive. It’s the sharpest learning curve and there’s no time for any self-doubt.”

So what about the future for a man who lost his father during the election campaign, who on his first day in office checked whether the cleaner was receiving the Living Wage, and who wearily acknowledges: “Everyone wants to be my friend because they think I have money.”

“I recognise I’m initially only here for four years but my ambitions might need a longer period of time. It’s something I will consider.

“(The job) is different. Things take longer than the medical world. There’s a sense of completion in hospital - you make a management plan, a diagnosis and you get a huge amount of satisfaction.

“The absolute joy for me here is passing the climate change recommendations. That was as big a thrill as some of my best days as a doctor in terms of achievement.”

Having stood twice to be an MP in Huntingdon (which for a Labour politician is as likely to result in victory as a Conservative in Liverpool), this could be the defining political role for Dr Johnson.

After that, the 51-year-old might return full-time to the NHS and continue supporting families as he has done for the past 30 years, saying hello to them as he is out shopping, and continuing to embarrass himself in front of his children by his lack of knowledge about TikTok.

You suspect he would secretly enjoy that, but only if he has delivered compassion, co-operation and community.