Peterborough City Council leader claims civil servants ‘trying to undermine’ affordable housing programme

Civil servants have been “trying to undermine” a decision to award Cambridgeshire £170 million in affordable housing funds, the leader of the Peterborough City Council has said, as councillors debated a government letter criticising the combined authority programme.

Tuesday, 30th March 2021, 2:46 pm
Council leader John Holdich

The remark was one of a number of comments critical of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government made by senior Conservative councillors at the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority board meeting on March 24.

Councillors were discussing how to proceed with the combined authority’s £100 million affordable housing programme. In 2017 the government committed £100 million to help deliver 2,000 affordable homes in five years as part of the devolution deal with Cambridgeshire, with £70 million made available specifically for 500 new council homes in the city.

Earlier this month, the minister for regional growth and local government, Conservative MP Luke Hall, notified the combined authority that the government will  not continue to fund the £100 million Cambridgeshire programme “on its current basis” because of “insufficient delivery progress and that the value for money being achieved is below our expectations”.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The government said it will consider providing further funding subject to changes being made, and the combined authority housing committee and board have since agreed to a number of the government’s requested changes which could see the outstanding £45 million in funds be released.

The leader of Cambridge City Council, Labour councillor Lewis Herbert, responded to criticisms of civil servants by Conservative councillors in the meeting, and said: “I do not blame civil servants and I think it is a cheap and nasty line to try and blame public servants”.

Conservative John Holdich, leader of Peterborough City Council, told the meeting that the £170 million in funds were agreed with government only after negotiation. He said a lord chairing a meeting on the devolution deal had originally only gone as high as £125 million, but that the lord then relented to pressure from Cambridgeshire leaders, and agreed to £170 million. Cllr Holdich said civil servants had said no to offering Cambridgeshire that much money, and that when £170 million was agreed a civil servant said “you can’t take that decision”. Cllr Holdich said the lord replied “I just have”.

Referring to civil servants, Cllr Holdich told the combined authority board meeting: “I think they have been trying to undermine that decision ever since”.

He added: “I do blame them”.

The leader of Fenland District Council, Conservative Chris Boden, told the meeting “there are matters of regret with the information that we have received from MHCLG”.

He said: “I regret it’s taken MHCLG so very long – given how well known these issues have been – to have responded to this authority and to the people of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough”.

The leader of East Cambridgeshire District Council, Conservative Anna Bailey, said: “MHCLG tied us up in knots for months” over whether the programme’s end date was March 2021 or March 2022.

She said: “What was not helpful was that MHCLG blew two massive holes in the delivery of our affordable housing programme.

“The first massive hole that they blew in our programme was that they failed to provide the correct legislation for affordable rental homes which put many months of lack of delivery in terms of affordable rental homes into our delivery programme”.

She added: “The second huge hole that they blew in our programme is this issue of ongoing different matters being raised by civil servants – not by ministers – on a regular basis for months on end while they would not let us draw down our next tranche of funding which clearly put a massive hole in our delivery timetable, eight-nine months, probably more”.

The mayor and leader of combined authority, Conservative James Palmer, said: “The government has accepted it will be a five-year deal – they have given us the extra year. What they haven’t given us back is the almost 12 months that they stopped us delivering housing and that hasn’t been mentioned, and I think that’s a shameful situation”.

In the period he claimed was lost to the programme, the combined authority “probably lost around 500 homes because of that delay”, the mayor said.

Mr Palmer said: “I absolutely am prepared to work alongside government.

“It has been almost impossible for this authority to deal with the individuals involved over the course of the last 12 months or more, they have not been happy to sit down and discuss ways to solve problems that they have brought to us, and they have continuously moved the goalposts on the issue.

“The big issue six months ago was four years or five, that changed at Christmas to value for money”.

He added: “I accept this [the changes being made to the programme]. I think it is frustrating. I think it could have been handled better by central government in my view, but I believe that we will do everything we can to hit that 2,000 target”.

The latest statement made by MHCLG on the situation, issued before the board meeting, said: “The programme was behind schedule and not on track to deliver value for money.

“We remain committed to the devolution deal, and will continue to work with the combined authority to consider if further funding can be made available to support the delivery of more affordable housing in the local area.”

Cambridge City Council’s £70 million affordable housing programme, also agreed as part of the devolution agreement, has not be criticised by the government. As part of the changes requested by MHCLG, the combined authority has now agreed to end its involvement with the city council’s programme, and all the remaining funds will now be paid directly to Cambridge City Council.