Marco Cereste on the abandoned renewable energy schemes

10:10 Wednesday 8th October 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

PAUL STAINTON: There’s concern this morning about the £3 million that’s been invested in the three solar park energy projects in Peterborough. Now two of them have been scrapped. Your comments this morning range from “a victory for Nimbyism” to ” has common sense prevailed over a poorly consulted project?“. Some people have called for a full-scale investigation into the actions of Peterborough City Council, and the way monies have been spent. So, has he been negligent or was he wise? Was he thinking outside of the box? Well let’s speak to the man who trumpeted this venture from the very start. let’s speak to Marco Cereste, Leader of Peterborough City Council. Marco, good morning.
MARCO CERESTE: Hello Paul. How are you doing?
PAUL STAINTON: Thank you for coming on. I’m fine. How are you this morning, and where does this leave Peterborough City Council and this £22 million black hole?

MARCO CERESTE: Well we will find a solution to the £22 million. It may not be very palatable, and it may not be very nice, but we will find a solution to it. It would have been far better for everybody in our city to have got the income from the renewable energy scheme, but there you are. We are where we are. Fortunately we live in a country where people can object and have their say about projects that are going forward, and in this particular case they delayed it long enough for it to be killed by various Government announcements.
PAUL STAINTON: You sound bitter.
MARCO CERESTE: I’m not bitter. I’m disappointed my friend. You know me. My heart has got Peterborough engraved on it. I’m a bit like a Blackpool stick of rock. If you were to cut me in half it would have Peterborough engraved all the way round it. When I see things like this which I think will damage our city it really disappoints me, and I take it very personal.
PAUL STAINTON: Nevertheless we’ve spent, as a city a heck of a lot of money, haven’t we, trying to get this project off the ground? The MP for Peterborough has been quite scathing, Stewart Jackson, about the way you’ve gone about this. Other people have been scathing about the way you’ve gone about it as well, not necessarily the idea, but just the way it was all handled.
MARCO CERESTE: Well with hindsight we can always do something better, and ..
PAUL STAINTON: You say hindsight. We’ve been talking about this for quite a while now.
MARCO CERESTE: Well you know with hindsight everybody can say whatever they like. If this had gone ahead, and it had been approved, then some people would be saying that and some people would be saying isn’t that great for our city. What is disappointing is that we are where we are. It was a well-thought through scheme, and you know, let’s face it, people have been building solar farms all round the country, and they’re all highly successful. Some of our pension funds own them. We are getting money and having our pensions paid by the income that are produced by solar farms. So we weren’t trying to do anything that was particularly difficult, or something that hadn’t been done. So you know ..
PAUL STAINTON: But you were trying to do it on decent farmland.
MARCO CERESTE: Well, you know, we have an estate. We have a farm estate. We have buildings. We have offices. We have houses. It is our duty to maximise the income we get from those investments that the city has. Now you know we give it to our Planning Services. Planning Services said that it could align with our policy. And so we took that decision to go ahead with it. Now you know I think it was the right decision at the time, and the city would have benefited hugely. You’re talking about £130 million in income over the period, over the lifetime of the project.
PAUL STAINTON: Well many people have disputed that.Many people have disputed that, haven’t they?
MARCO CERESTE: No no. They can dispute what you like, but I can show you the numbers. Everybody disputes you. When you’re objecting to something you dispute it. They try and find all sorts of reasons why it won’t work.
PAUL STAINTON: Nevertheless now we are where we are, aren’t we? we’re not going to get that income. We’re not going to get that income, and we’re £3 million worse off. Quite a few people have called for an investigation this morning. Some people have called for you personally to step down, or somebody to take the blame for this. Have a listen to what Mike Greene said earlier. (TAPE)
MIKE GREENE: If this was a business, and this level of expenditure on a scheme that they’d been advised a year ago or more that didn’t stack up, and that was against Government legislation, if this was a business, this would I believe, in my opinion, be gross misconduct, incompetence, and/or maladministration, and would lead to a Chief Executive being taken out of the business, if they’d done that.
PAUL STAINTON: What’s your response Marco?
MARCO CERESTE: Well I’m not going to respond to that person.
PAUL STAINTON: Has there been gross misconduct? Has there been negligence here?
MARCO CERESTE: Let’s look at the principle. Let’s think of the principle. I’m not going to get involved in individual personal attacks on me from someone who’s been doing it for years.
PAUL STAINTON: Marco let me rephrase it then. Has there been any negligence here? Has there been any gross misconduct? Has somebody mismanaged things here? Is it an officer? Is it the idea? Is it you that needs to look at yourself now Marco and consider your position?
MARCO CERESTE: Well I do that all of the time. I .. I .. I have a duty in this city to make the books balance.
PAUL STAINTON: But you’ve cost the city £3 million.
MARCO CERESTE: Well hang on a minute. We can talk about that in a second. I have a duty to make the books balance, and I was brought a project which had got really good support. It had got really good advice behind it. And the sort of thing that was happening all over the country. All over the place that people have built solar farms, solar parks that work and are generating really good income for those people that have invested in them. And the added advantage was that the proposal was to put it on land which the Council already owned. In those circumstances it was the right decision, at the time, in the interests of the 187,000 people who live in our city.
PAUL STAINTON: But isn’t that the real reason why it all fell down, because of your idea to put it on that farmland? If you’d put it somewhere else or done something else, it would have worked possibly.
MARCO CERESTE: Well first of all you couldn’t put it somewhere else, because we don’t have land .. we only own what we own. And at the time that was looked into very carefully, and the advice that I was given was that it was perfectly appropriate to put it where we put it. The finances .. the finances added up were even better, because we’d get a better return on the Council’s income, and we’d have had six and a half or seven million pounds a year coming in for twenty years. Now that was the proposition that was put on the table, and there is absolutely nothing in that that would lead us to believe that that wouldn’t work. Now, as far as the expenditure, don’t forget that this is only part of (UNCLEAR). The projects that we have now decided not to go ahead with is only part of the renewable energy schemes that we’re bringing forward in the city. And you will get announcements over the next few weeks about what other things will be done.
PAUL STAINTON: Michael Sly no less from the NFU says “a serious review of Peterborough City Council’s actions is now required.” Other people have called for you to look at your position in this. You’ve cost the city, at the moment, £3 million.
MARCO CERESTE: I haven’t cost the city anything at the moment, because there are other projects that are going to be announced, and once the Cabinet’s approved them we’ll see them come through. And they’re all part of our renewable energy scheme. And I genuinely believe that what we have spent will be recovered. Secondly, anybody wants to review anything that we’ve ever done, please come and do so. There is no .. there is .. nobody’s got anything to hide. And we’re quite happy to cooperate with anybody that wants to come and have a look at what we’ve done. It’s all been done fully above board, by the proper procedure, and we have the right people in there that advise the Council on what we should do. And as far as I’m aware, none of the advice that was given was wrong. But (there have been) changes of Government legislation and Government support to these projects, and that’s why we are where we are. And no-one would have been able to predict that.
PAUL STAINTON: But you put all your eggs in one basket, as Andy on email remarks just now. You put all your eggs in that basket, and that was a failure, wasn’t it?
MARCO CERESTE: No we haven’t. I’ve just said to you there will be announcements coming forward in the next few weeks (UNCLEAR) from our renewable energy project which will generate income for the city, for people in this city. There’ll be new things being brought forward which we’re working on right now. But this all goes to Cabinet. Once the Cabinet has approved it, if the Cabinet approves the new schemes, then, you know, it will all become public, and it’s all been generated from the work that we’ve been doing on this particular project.
PAUL STAINTON: I look at this £3 million. I look at AECOM for technical advice, £1.3 million, planning applications fees, a quarter of a million, compensation costs, £1 20,00, Pinsent Mason getting almost £450,000 for whatever they did, Deloitte financial modeling getting £350,000. I look at these massive massive numbers, these massive figures, as the people of Peterborough will, and they will look at their care homes. They will look at their services. They will see this money and look at bus services. All the things that have been cut, or changed, or not delivered. And they will quantify that in that context. Do you understand that?
MARCO CERESTE: I do understand that, and I am as disappointed as you are. But what I’m trying to say to you is that only part of the project has been abandoned. There are other things coming forward which I’m relatively confident will recover any spend that we’ve made, and will deliver a profit and something interesting for the community. Now I can’t say too much, because it’s like everything, you know,. we have to go through a proper process. Now once the Cabinet have had a look at what we’re doing, we’ll come forward with the new proposals, and the city will see that their money has not been wasted, that there is an income stream from what we’re trying to do, and that the city will benefit. But it will not benefit to the tune of seven and a half million pounds a year, which those schemes, had they not been delayed on, we would have been able to deliver for the benefit of our city.
PAUL STAINTON: These new schemes, are they going to cost more money?
MARCO CERESTE: Well, no, this is all rolled up in what we’re doing now. So you know it’s alll the fruition of the work that we’ve done is coming forward right at this moment. And we should be announcing them any day now. But they have to go through a proper process. But the point you, everybody, needs to understand is had we been successful in delivering this, and there was no reason to believe that we couldn’t be successful, this city would have been financially stable into the future. And we would have had for the next twenty years somewhere between six and a half million and seven million income, if not more.
PAUL STAINTON: Is there anything regarding this .. is there anything regarding this and the £3 million that has been spent, the people that have been upset over this, is there anything to reproach yourself over? Is anybody going to take the can for it going wrong?Because it hasn’t gone right, has it?
MARCO CERESTE: Well listen. You know, nobody wants to upset .. and I’m really sorry for those people that got upset, and farmers you know were placed in a difficult situation. And nobody enjoys upsetting anybody, but in the final analysis we have our books to balance in the city, and we have a duty to get the best that we can from the assets that the Council owns.
PAUL STAINTON: Trouble is you’re not balancing them, are you?
MARCO CERESTE: Well we are balancing them. You can’t say we haven’t, because you know de facto we’ve never yet not balanced our books in the last (UNCLEAR) years.
PAUL STAINTON: But you’re not confident you will with this £22million black hole.
MARCO CERESTE: No no no no no no no no. I just said to you we will balance our books this year, is what I said to you. And I can guarantee we will balance our books this year. What I said to you is you might not like some of the things we have to do. But we will balance our books. And If we’d had the seven and a half million going forward, it would have meant that we could have protected front line services in this city, certainly for the next 20 years. Now that’s going to be a problem, and we might have to make cuts that none of us are going to like.
PAUL STAINTON: Just finally, are you looking at your own position over this? Or not?
MARCO CERESTE: Well of course I often look at my own position, but I genuinely believe that the right decision was made based on the information that was placed before me at the time.
PAUL STAINTON: Marco thank you for coming on this morning.