From ‘accidental politician’ to Peterborough’s council leader - John Holdich reflects on 45 years in public office
He was an accidental politician who ended up spending 45 years in public office, a chapter which finally ended on May 6 this year.
Politics has dominated more than half of John Holdich’s life, continuing a family legacy of 141 years which has now concluded, albeit with the legacy of a street named after his great-great-grandfather.
Few people in Peterborough will have experienced more as a councillor than the man from Glinton who has held almost every role going inside the Town Hall, not to mention dozens of appointments to outside bodies, being a campaign manager for an MP and holding down jobs across a wide range of professions, on top of an MBE.
It’s remarkable to think, therefore, that it all began in 1977 with John being put down as a paper candidate for the then Minster ward in elections for Cambridgeshire County Council - a favour to the Conservative Party which sparked a shock victory and was the catalyst for a political career which saw him become arguably the most influential person in Peterborough and lead the city’s recent regeneration.
And by departing after a relatively successful local elections - which saw the Tories increase their number of councillors - it proved that not all politicians depart the scene as failures.
All of this was discussed in a lengthy sit down interview in the run-up to the recent polling day where a retirement brought upon by ill health but delayed by 12 months due to the coronavirus pandemic was officially confirmed, and a new chapter involving holidays and Gary Barlow concerts with his patient wife of 56 years Barbara began.
The journey began for the 76-year-old at St Christopher’s School in Oundle and Lincoln Road School for Boys, as he recalled.
“I was what you’d call a latchkey kid in those days. My parents both worked very hard and my father (Fred) worked very hard as a councillor for 47 years. I never saw a great deal of my parents. I used to come home, eat a loaf of bread, and when I was 15 I was 16 stone and only five stone two. I soon got out of that. When I got married at 21 I was 11 stone seven and six foot two.
“I was determined, because I saw so much of my father being a councillor, that I wouldn’t do it.
“Then a lady said to me, ‘John, will you put yourself as a paper candidate for Minster ward’ which is now Central ward.
“I said ‘no,’ but she said ‘go on, you won’t have to do any work, just put your name forward’.
“I said ‘oh, alright’ so I put my name forward. Next thing I know she walked me up down the roads and I was welcomed with open arms. Everybody wanted you to go in and have a cup of tea, which I did. And I won it by 108 votes.”
The driving force behind his surprise election victory was Prime Minister James Callahan taking away tax relief, he said.
“Four years later, when I was up for election in the same seat, I knew they were going to vote Labour. I had 40 per cent of the electorate against me before I started.
“In the meantime a seat came up here (for the city council) and I put in for it and got it, so I was dual-hatted for a while. Then the rest was history.
“I was determined I wasn’t going to be a councillor, but it gets in your blood.
“It’s still good fun and I think I helped build the city in the right way.”
Life for a young John began in King’s Gardens, off Dogsthorpe Road, before moves to Lime Tree Avenue in Central ward then Granville Street.
“In those days it was an old market town where everybody sort of knew everybody. There were a lot of characters around,” he said.
“A lot of people have said to me ‘you’ve taken the heart out of the city, Holdich’ - and I wasn’t responsible for this - ‘when you took the market out of the city centre’.
“My first job was helping my uncle on the market. The characters there and the atmosphere and the lights, you can’t have today. It took a bit of character out of the city centre (when it moved).
“It’s a larger town now but with a small town mentality in many ways. I think that’s one of the successes of it.”
Having initially hated the idea of politics, John served on the county council from 1977 to 1981, then again from 1989 to 1998 (representing 23 villages) before Peterborough set up on its own.
He was also elected as a Peterborough city councillor for Glinton, a relationship which ran from 1979 to 2021 and where he continues to live now.
Representing two distinct areas was “good for you because you could see how the other half live”.
And just like any good politician he bolstered his standing by exaggerating his influence, on that occasion over the fight against Castor being designated a township, an issue which reared its head again four decades later.
“I made my reputation from stopping the Castor township,” John recalled.
“There were four of us and we would claim we defeated it. Actually, the Labour government at the time ran out of money and they pulled it, but everybody was claiming it!
“Castor was supposed to be something different to the Ortons.”
During his time as a city councillor John has held cabinet positions for housing and social services and education.
He finally fulfilled the role of leader in 2015 after the surprise defeat of Marco Cereste in those year’s elections.
Retirement due to arthritis was meant to come last year but was delayed by 12 months to help Peterborough come through the current pandemic - “I didn’t think it was big-headed for me to say to my group ‘I’ve got all this experience, if you want me to stay here I will’.
A staunch supporter of local government who admits outsourcing services feels like a defeat, John believes the future of councils has been strengthened by their work in supporting communities throughout Covid-19.
“I think the pandemic has shown the Government can’t do without local government.
“I believe the future is bright, I just wish there wasn’t so much politics in it because it’s ridiculous at local government area. I hope in my reign I managed to work with people and gain the respect of most parties.”
His biggest achievements, he said, include recent regeneration projects such as the £120 million Fletton Quays development on the South Bank, but his main regret is he has not been able to go further, including getting the long-awaited North Westgate scheme up and running after numerous efforts.
There is also particular pride at the modernisation of the city’s schools (even though results have continued to lag) and the transfer of council housing stock to Cross Keys Homes.
“I got the sack off the Cabinet one year because I was producing too much social housing!”
As for the future, John, a dad of two and grandfather, intends to stay on with organisations including City College Peterborough - where he has been chair of governors for 43 years - and Opportunity Peterborough, and there is no intention of becoming “one of these politicians who keeps coming back and says ‘I’d do it another way’”.
Instead, there are trips abroad and a number of concerts to look forward to with Barbara whose unswerving support he hopes to reward in the years to come.
“I couldn’t do this job without my family,” John added. “I certainly couldn’t do this job without my wife. Councillors do get abused, and when on the phone she gets it first off. She takes it more personally than me - I’ve got a thicker skin over the years.
“She doesn’t like me coming under attack.
“We need to spend some time together and enjoy the time we’ve got left.”