Peterborough City Council risks bankruptcy and forced asset sales

The dire state of the council’s finances comes as a shock, but not a surprise after over a decade of Conservative austerity started by George Osborne and Eric Pickles

Not that I’m bitter or anything – I only lost my entire civil service career in the bonfire of austerity in 2011, although I chose to jump rather than be pushed. A longtime opponent of what he saw as irresponsible municipal socialism, David Cameron let the former Communities Secretary have a free hand in tearing down what had become seen in many quarters an over-bureaucratic system of local government. Local government needed an overhaul at the time – it still does, just not like that. For this was a sector in 2010 that was trying to get its head around this new fangled social media phenomenon.

“Why has Peterborough City Council imploded?”

It hasn’t. Yet. Come back to me this time next year and things might be different. Read this from the Peterborough Telegraph. Now see the official response from The Government and the Minister Kemi Badenoch MP (Cons – Saffron Walden).

Basically the Minister has required Peterborough City Council to go through its asset register and decide which ones it will sell off to help plug the funding gap. Hence the headline that Peterborough’s Town Hall might be sold off. Personally I don’t think the town hall will go *unless* things are that bad. In part because when you look at the council’s asset register here, and filter out the schools and other essential service buildings, there are enough plots of land in principle that could be sold to meet the Minister’s demands. The problem is that selling assets to plug a revenue gap is very poor financial management. At some stage you run out of assets to sell, but the demands on your revenue streams (especially during a pandemic and following an avoidable economic shock like Brexit) stay high.

So, how did Peterborough get into that situation, and why should it matter to Cambridge and Cambridgeshire?

The city of Peterborough – a local history crash course

How do you tell the story of a city in a paragraph? You don’t – you head to their civic museum and hope they can tell you. Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery – based in a Georgian mansion. Which is a contrast from the Museum of Cambridge’s former public house. Peterborough Cathedral is more than worth seeing – a huge building that should dominate the city as it used to until the familiar pattern of post-war traffic engineering and brutalist architecture stepped in.

The two most recent significant political historical developments imposed on the city by Whitehall were the various restructures of local government, and the decision by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government to designate Peterborough a third generation new town.

The latter decision – including the creation of the Peterborough Development Corporation resulted in a massive increase in the population of the city, from under 100,000 to just over 200,000 today. The story is told in more detail here by Alex Grant. They also have a civic society organisation – Peterborough Civic Society which is a sister organisation to Cambridge Past, Present, & Future.

The evolution of Peterborough’s local government

I’m not going to pretend to know the detail, let alone the historical figures active in Peterborough throughout this time period. It’s not my story to tell. Hence the links to the competent organisations above. But a brief background knowledge is useful for Cambridge people because our localities are tied up with the history of Peterborough. This map of historic Cambridgeshire from this history of our county published in I think 1959 shows the county with lots of tiny district councils and an upper tier of four shire-level county councils.

Above – Cambridgeshire in 1945

This explains why some documents refer to “Cambridge County Council”. Or “The Isle of Ely Council”. They refer to the pale shaded areas, and explain why for example the town of March has not one, but two municipal buildings – one for the town council, and one for the Isle of Ely as the shire council. Then in the late 1950s the Conservatives started their own efforts to rationalise and condense the number of local councils. The result was Cambridge County merging with the Isle of Ely to form Cambridgeshire & the Isle of Ely County Council, while Huntingdon and Peterborough were merged. You can just make out the outlines of the two in the Royal Commission maps below – denoted in the thicker black line.

Above – abandoned proposals to create two new unitary councils for Cambridgeshire & Peterborough from the Royal Commission on Local Government in England 1966-69.

In the end, Edward Heath appointed Peter Walker as Environment Secretary (Which in those days covered local government & housing) who reformed local government to the structures & boundaries many of us in rural areas, towns, and small cities are familiar with today. In Cambridgeshire’s case, that meant having all of the districts we currently have, plus Peterborough.

Peterborough breaks away from Cambridgeshire

Peterborough in the 1990s had a very influential MP – the then Conservative Party Chairman the late Brian Mawhinney MP. A John Major loyalist, he was always on the telly at a time when fewer and fewer of Major’s MPs wanted to be seen with him as the 1990s wore on. (Major was the longtime MP for Huntingdon down the road – his son James Major went to Hills Road Sixth Form College a few years before me and so was regularly in the local papers. I think they treated him as a successor to Prince Edward).

It was the then Mr Mawhinney who made the case for Peterborough becoming a unitary council – not least because of the rapid growth in its population. This led to an independent review of a number of local council areas in the mid-1990s, one of which was Cambridgeshire & Peterborough.

Above – yes, I did buy a copy of that report. I am that sad.

And thus Peterborough became a Unitary Council in 1998 – but still kept some functions (eg Police & Fire) tied to Cambridgeshire.

Peterborough City Council – a long history of Conservative-led councils?

If you look at their election results since unitary status, most of the councils have either been majority Conservative, or minority Conservative-led. Again, without wanting to speculate too much due to not knowing the detail, you can assume that politically they will have wanted to have kept council tax rises down to a minimum, similar to their counterparts in Cambridgeshire, while their more progressive opponents are more likely to have called for rises to compensate for austerity and cuts from central government grants.

Again, things won’t necessarily have been the same year-on-year due to the nature of local government finances. Sometimes Tory-led councils have to put up council taxes higher than they would like, and Labour-run councils have to make cuts to spending where they rather would not. But with council tax being a regressive property-based tax that was only supposed to be a stop-gap after the Poll Tax non-payment campaign (why else would your council tax be indexed to house prices in 1991?), options for local councils to raise revenue from elsewhere are very limited. (Business rates are aggregated, then shared out equitably, which is why Cambridge’s businesses complain they see so little of their business rates – most of it is redistributed to poorer parts of the country).

Successive Conservative governments encouraging low council tax rises for party-political purposes

There was only going to be one inevitable outcome of councils having their central government grants cut, and being strongly encouraged to minimise local taxation rises: Huge service cuts. Amongst the problems that arise with this such as the massive rise in poverty and inequality that we see on our streets everywhere, there comes a big public administration issue. There are a number of services local councils *are required by law* to provide – known as statutory services. This is where a previous Government has tabled legislation in Parliament requiring local councils to make provisions for such services. For example Libraries under the Libraries Act 1850 & subsequent legislation. The legislation also states how such services shall be funded. Sometimes it will be ‘a penny on the rates’ or ‘from central funds’. For party political purposes again, it’s easier for ministers to say such services will be funded by enabling councils to increase council taxes ‘if they need it’. It means councils led by other political parties get blamed for any rises, rather than if it is an income tax rise.

“What do you do if you have such a big gap between the revenue coming in, and the funding required to deliver council services that the law requires?”

That’s sort of where they are now – and it feels like a matter of time before other councils get to that stage. And it happened to a nearby council – Northamptonshire County Council which ministers gave permission for that council to sell off its HQ and use the capital receipts to spend plugging a revenue gap in 2018. This led to an enforced restructure leading to two new unitary councils.

What does this mean for Cambridgeshire County Council, and for Nik Johnson the Mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough?

In a way I think Peterborough can count itself very lucky to have Dr Nik Johnson in post as Mayor. That’s not to say it will be easy for him – it won’t. For many in Peterborough City Council this will be unprecedented for them, and not a pleasant experience. Politicians of different dispositions may well be tempted to take a very different view, from exploiting the party-political angle of this or perhaps to respond aggressively to ministers – irrespective whether it’s the same party or not.

Dr Johnson has his Local Transport and Connectivity Plan in an early consultation phase. How will ministerial actions affect his policy formulation? Because Peterborough is his biggest city. Cambridge might have the biggest name globally, but it is the smaller of the pair. Strangely we have three cities in our county, and each of them is run by a different type of council: Peterborough is a Unitary Council, Cambridge City is a lower tier borough/district level council, and the City of Ely Council is at the town/parish council tier.

For Greater Cambridge, having such a serious development that inevitably will require careful handling and attention may not be helpful. The impact may not be direct, but they will feel some of the political shockwaves in partnership working. For example the ability to resource joint ventures or employ staff to attend regular meetings. In some areas that cross-boundary partnership working may cease because of the inevitable spending cuts.

“How does all this look in the face of the Owen Paterson vote?”

The one day conference by the Institute for Government on 04 Nov 2021 now becomes required viewing…

….because the keynote speaker is Lord Evans, the Chair on the Committee for Standards in Public Life.

….and 24 hours before that vote, his committee released this damning report on the conduct of Johnson’s administration, with over 30 recommendations on actions that need carrying out to restore the public’s trust in politics.

I’ll hold fire till then.

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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