Council partnership with Chinese government called in for scrutiny

10:25 Friday 23rd January 2015
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

PAUL STAINTON: A scheme that could see money from the Chinese government invested in Peterborough has been called in now by city councillors. The Peterborough Liberal Democrats have objected to the deal, because they say the country’s human rights record just isn’t good enough. The scheme would see foreign money from China used to develop parts of Peterborough. Well the Tory Cabinet called it a unique idea that would help regenerate the city when money was at a premium. And according to Amnesty International, China has the worst human rights record in the world. But in these austere times, can we afford such morals? Nick Sandford is the Leader of Peterborough’s Liberal Democrat party. He’s also standing for Parliament in North West Cambridgeshire. Morning Nick.
NICK SANDFORD: Good morning Paul.
PAUL STAINTON: What’s your beef?
NICK SANDFORD: Well I think one of the things you said. This scheme that Peterborough City Council has signed up to is unique. As far as I know there is no other council in the country that has entered into a partnership with an overseas regime, in order to bring money into Peterborough. And the concern mentioned, I think it was a couple of years ago that Amnesty International mentioned that China had the worst human rights record in the world. I understand, to be fair to them, it has improved slightly, but looking this morning at some figures from Amnesty International, over 500,000 people in China are currently enduring punitive detention without trial. There’s widespread use of torture, harassment, surveillance, house arrest, the suppression of a whole range of religious and ethnic minorities, the suppression of people with disabilities, homosexuals, a whole range of different things. I think we really have to question. This is not a private company in China entering into an arrangement. It’s a company that the Chinese government wholly owns.
PAUL STAINTON: But when it comes to investment, when it comes to money, when it comes to improving the city of Peterborough, can we afford morals like that?

NICK SANDFORD: Well I thought that Peterborough City Council had some sort of ethical policy. They certainly have environmental policies, but you could also question some of the environmental policies. I think China opens one coal-fired power station every week. But I was told by a senior officer I was talking to that Peterborough City Council doesn’t actually have an ethical policy. Now an increasing number of private companies do have criteria that they apply when they look to enter into partnership. Now I think some of us question why a local authority that’s function is to provide basic services to local people, why we need to engage in these massive international partnerships. But even if we assume that we do need to have an international partnership, why couldn’t it be with a German company, with a company from Holland or the United States or somewhere like that?
PAUL STAINTON: Well the Eurozone’s flat as anything, isn’t it? There’s very little investment coming from there. What Peterborough City Council are saying, the officers, is that this is blue sky thinking, out of the box. They’re looking for growth elsewhere. Eric Pickles encouraged it, and they’re jumping on that bandwagon.
NICK SANDFORD: I think what we’re questioning really, have they looked at alternatives? Because I can’t believe this company is the only company in the world that can offer Peterborough City Council the services that it’s looking for. There seems to be an awful lot about Peterborough City Council that’s surrounded by secrecy. They’ve recently, to carry out some major city centre developments, they’ve set up a thing called the Peterborough Investment Company, which again is supposed to have international governments investing in it, and private investors. When we’ve asked, who are these international governments, who are these private investors, we’ve been told it’s confidential information. So what ethical criteria are they applying? Could we have President Assad investing? There could be all sorts of answers.
PAUL STAINTON: The new King of Saudia Arabia perhaps will put a few quid in. Beheading people for sorcery at the moment.
NICK SANDFORD: There are different degrees. Saudi Arabia has a very bad policy that they execute loads of people. They don’t execute as many people as China. According to Amnesty International, China executes more people than any other place in the world.
PAUL STAINTON: But if Peterborough City Council come back to you and say, look, we’ve explored all these options, we’ve been to Germany, we’ve been to Europe, there’s no money available, we can’t get it, this is a great deal, we’ve got all this cash, would that be alright?
NICK SANDFORD: Well the call-in process is to some extent a procedural thing. We as Opposition councillors can’t prevent the Cabinet from taking a legitimate decision. What we can do is under this call-in process we can ask for it to be reviewed by Scrutiny Committee. So they need to ask questions. Have they looked at alternatives? Have they applied any ethical criteria? Have they for instance consulted the people of Peterborough to see if they’re happy to be effectively going into partnership with the Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party? I don’t think that they have, because all the papers that I’ve seen for this scheme seem to indicate that this was the only company that they considered.
PAUL STAINTON: And what happens now?
NICK SANDFORD: Well what happens is .. just to be fair it is just a couple of Liberal Democrat councillors. A couple of Labour councillors have signed the notice also. What that means is that the decision is put on hold, and the Council now has about ten working days to convene a meeting of the Sustainable Growth Scrutiny Committee. They can either then decide to just allow the decision to go through, or they can refer it back to the Cabinet and say can you reconsider it. But what we’re asking for is we’re asking for it to go to the Full Council, so that all councillors can have an opportunity. Because if this genuinely is a massive opportunity for Peterborough as the Cabinet is saying, just hanging on a few weeks and just examining some of these ethical issues that we’re bringing forward, that shouldn’t be a problem.
PAUL STAINTON: Nick, thank you for that. Nick Sandford, Leader of the Liberal Democrats in Peterborough, and standing as a Parliamentary candidate in North West Cambridgeshire. Well councillor Gavin Elsey who revealed this ground-breaking deal on this show a week ago says, “Peterborough City Council is committed to working and trading fairly, whilst achieving the best possible deal for the city. Our strategic partnership with the Chinese company AVIC will bring experience, expertise and investment into the city to improve everything. The deal is exactly the kind of investment the LibDem Business Secretary Vince Cable encouraged when he visited Beijing on 28th May last year.