How Peterborough secured a new university after years of trying

The opening of Peterborough’s new university will be “the biggest legacy” of John Holdich’s time as city council leader. But securing it was no easy process.

By Joel Lamy
Tuesday, 18th May 2021, 4:55 am

The recently retired chief at the Town Hall had been put in charge of securing a fully-fledged university when he was made previously cabinet member for education, and despite his best efforts progress had stalled by the time he had moved into the top job.

But the creation of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority - led by a new metro mayor - accelerated the project once again, with Mr Holdich leading negotiations for Peterborough to get a university included in the devolution agreement with the Government.

Recalling the long fight, Mr Holdich told the Peterborough Telegraph: “When Marco (Cereste) took over as leader he was going through all the roles, and all the roles I thought I was good at went to someone else.

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John Holdich and cabinet member Lynne Ayres at the site of the new university

“Then he said ‘right Holdich, you know how to open doors. You are going to do education and you are going to build us a university’.

“It started alright. Marco employed without telling me a lady who I found out had baggage with Anglia Ruskin University and I refused to work with her. Then I found out he was paying her, so I said ‘alright, I better use her’.

“To be perfectly frank she was brilliant with me because it’s a different world and she knew it. We were told to set up, because it was government policy, a multi-university.

“I had Middlesex involved, I had Cranfield involved, I had Anglia Ruskin involved and we were going to build something, then the Government changed its mind. You had to have 1,000 students before you can get anywhere.

Opening of the new classrooms at Fulbridge Academy. John Holdich and Charles Swift in a Year 5-6 class EMN-140912-232404009

“I had Cranfield set up at the city college.

“Later on I was part of the negotiation team (with the Government) for the combined authority and it came down to me and the guy from Cambridge and I was supporting him to get more money for Cambridge for housing and I said ‘you’ve got to support me to get the university’.

“We got £100 million for Norfolk, Suffolk, Peterborough and Cambridgeshire for affordable housing. So when we all fell out (Suffolk and Norfolk never joined the combined authority), we went for the lot and got the £100 million, but we wanted more. It went to £125 million then £150 million and £170 million and the civil servant said to the lord (running the negotiations), ‘you can’t make decisions like that,’ and he said ‘I just have done’.

“He turned to me and said ‘your university is in there, but there ain’t any money for it. But I’ll tell you where to get it from’.

“It was out of date where we could get the money, but at least it was in there so the combined authority had to produce it.”

ARU Peterborough, run by Anglia Ruskin, is due to open next year, and Mr Holdich said: “It’s got to be the future of Peterborough - we’ve got to re-skill our own workforce and bring in talent from other places.”

The former leader was sceptical when offered the education role, but was persuaded by council chief executive Gillian Beasley to take it up.

However, despite millions spent on improving the infrastructure to accommodate rising pupil numbers, results remained stubbornly low.

“I modernised, built or extended all our schools,” Mr Holdich said. “I know I got quite a bit of blame the attainment rates never matched it, but I didn’t teach and we weren’t in control of the schools. But I was quite proud of the fact that schools had all the educational facilities in them that the kids could learn.

“I brought in this firm and they did a survey into (why the results were low) and came back with exactly the same answers that we got. We’ve got a lot of deprived areas in Peterborough where the support is not good and the ambition is not good.

“Academies seem to be the best thing since sliced bread but our schools are doing better than them.

“It takes a long time to change attitudes and alter ambition, but the university will do that.”