David Sanders – costly errors and accountability at Peterborough City Council

09:23 Wednesday 25th October 2015
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

PAUL STAINTON: Today marks the end. It’s a momentous day, the end of Peterborough City Council’s solar dreams. Let’s call it that. The plan to use Grade I farming land to build a big green energy park, or a series of them. At today’s Cabinet meeting, which is underway right now, the Council will confirm they’re dropping plans for the third and final site on America Farm, the last strand of this three-pronged dream. It means all three plans are now dead in the water. But the whole venture has cost the taxpayer, you and me and everybody else, over £3 million. And not a penny’s coming back from it. The original proposal from the Council claimed the project could make millions of pounds, but the project was constantly hindered by objections from locals, reductions in the tariff from the Government, and the fact the land is right next to Flag Fen, so it needed to be excavated. Councillor David Sanders is the councillor for Thorney and Eye, and he’s with us this morning. David, morning. David morning.
DAVID SANDERS: Good morning. Can you hear me OK?
PAUL STAINTON: Yes I’ve got you now. I’ve got you now.
PAUL STAINTON: Now this was at one time billed as the Leader Marco Cereste’s vanity project by Stewart Jackson MP and others. There were accusations farmers weren’t listened to. I was still doing Breakfast at the time when it was first mooted. I had a lady in here crying, who’d lived on a farm for many many years, saying they’d not been consulted. Was this just a bad idea from the start? Was it a good idea that was badly managed? Or was it just a punt?
DAVID SANDERS: (LAUGHS) it was a bad idea from the start Paul. All your previous speakers on the radio who I fully concur with. We weren’t listened to. It was a vanity project. It was bulldozed through. It’s no secret that Marco and I are not seeing eye to eye, so I don’t think anybody will be surprised when I say that it was a dictator trying to push something through. Fellow councillors .. apart from a handful of us, we didn’t go along with it, fought it from the beginning. Other councillors didn’t I suggest look into it, understand it and digest it enough to form an honest opinion. So we are where we are, and it’s a shambles, and I’m horrified by the amount of money that’s been spent.
PAUL STAINTON: And you’re a Conservative. You’re part of Marco’s group. He’s not Leader any more of course. John Holdich is. John Holdich says we need to move on now. Learn lessons from it. But before we move on, should somebody be held to account here? Because this was a gamble with tax payers’ cash. This has gone south. This money has gone at a time when we need it the most.
DAVID SANDERS: Yes. Somebody should be accountable to it. Now I personally get on with John Harrison. I don’t dislike him as a chap.
PAUL STAINTON: Let’s just explain who he is.
DAVID SANDERS: John Harrison is the Director of Resources, the Director of Finance at Peterborough City Council. Personally I like the chap. Let’s get this clear. But let’s face facts. At the beginning of this in its infancy we as local councillors were kept in the dark. They tried to keep it suppressed. When it did surface, his accounts that came to committees, the figures for us to look at at the Scrutiny Committees as we all now, the figures were often not adding up correctly. So there is a mis-match of figures there to begin with, which is incompetent.
PAUL STAINTON: So John Harrison is Council officer in charge of all of this, and he dropped a big one. That’s what you’re saying.
DAVID SANDERS: Yes. He dropped a big one. Now he would have taken my legs away and those in my ward, the farmers and everybody. he would have taken my legs away had he got his own way. Now I’m afraid now the repercussions from that is this. That he should resign, in my opinion . He is the man accountable. And I’m dreaming, I know I’m dreaming when I say this, but he should go, to set a precedent to other council officers, that this should not happen. £3 million of taxpayers’ money Paul. Can I go further by saying that allegedly Marco Cereste is a businessman. Would he have wasted £3 million of his own money and lost that if it had been his own money? I think not. Would John Harrison have used his own money on this project without doing due diligence? He’d have been bankrupt if he’d tried. No. It’s all fine and dandy doing it with other people’s money, ie the taxpayers’. That’s why I’m hacked off Paul.
PAUL STAINTON: John Harrison on over £100,000 a year. You think it’s time for him to fall on his sword.
DAVID SANDERS: Yes. For £100,000 we expect professional accountancy advice. And we’re £3 million in debt and it didn’t go ahead. Sorry and all that but who is accountable if he’s not?
PAUL STAINTON: The argument is of course they were trying to secure Peterborough’s energy future. They thought they’d got a plan. The Government kept moving the goalposts. They thought it was financially viable. It would have kept the lights on.
DAVID SANDERS: (LAUGHS) They thought. They thought a lot of things, but they didn’t .. If they were intelligent enough, even a simpleton like me knew that the Government were going to change the goalposts. Stewart Jackson told me. Stewart Jackson told them. Did they listen? No. If they’d listened to Stewart Jackson, they’d have understood the Government’s thoughts. But they chose to ignore it, hence they’re now £3 million in debt. Once again that’s why I’m hacked off, and that’s why a lot of people are hacked off.
PAUL STAINTON: How do we ensure this never happens again, that council money is not gambled in this way? Do safeguards need to be put in?
DAVID SANDERS: You start sacking a few senior officers, that’ll send a clear message Paul.
PAUL STAINTON: That’s David Sanders, councillor David Sanders, Conservative. Part of the ruling Conservative group. He stood against the plans from the very start. He’s called for senior people at the Council to fall on their swords. John Harrison in charge of this plan effectively, on over £100,000 a year at the Council. He’s called for him to resign this morning.