Thurston House is an historic manor house, standing in its own grounds and located within a stone’s throw of Peterborough city centre, which has been allowed to fall into disrepair. The owners of the property, Accent Nene, would like to clear the site for social housing, but last night Peterborough City Council voted narrowly to reject that application. Leader of Peterborough City Council Marco Cereste tells the BBC’s Paul Stainton why he voted to see the building demolished. Broadcast at 08:10 on Thursday 15th July 2010 in the Peterborough Breakfast Show on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire.
STAINTON: Good news this morning for people trying to keep historic Thurston House. It will now not be demolished following a Council vote last night. The future of the Victorian manor house on Lincoln Road was debated for over three hours after a plan to convert it into social housing was passed last week. However planning permission was overturned, with councillors voting nineteen for and seventeen against. Earlier Conservative MP for Peterborough Stewart Jackson crtiticised the project and Council leaders. (TAPE)
JACKSON: .. because it was about not just saving a part of Peterborough’s heritage but it was a wider issue. It’s all very well for the Leader of the Council and the ruling group to talk about Peterborough being an aspirational city and ambitious for the future, and then at the same time really viscerally push as I know they did this poorer quality social housing project. (LIVE)
STAINTON: Ellie Bird from Growborough who said that she’d chain herself to the door if the decision had gone the other way was delighted too. (TAPE)
BIRD: I think really we’re meant to be the environmental capital and we should be conserving beautiful areas of our city. How can we be an environmental capital if we’re quite happy to knock down such a beatiful building? (LIVE)
STAINTON: Council Leader Marco Cereste is on the line this morning. Morning Marco.
CERESTE: Hello. Good morning. How are you Paul?
STAINTON: I’m good thank you. This has turned into quite a big issue. Why do you think that is?
CERESTE: Well I think because everybody’s right. It’s one of those very very difficult issues that no-one can ever get right. The house is historically is a (INAUDIBLE) part of the city. It could be a very nice house to keep. And some people are of the opinion that’s it’s going to be very difficult to preserve. And I’m not convinced that even after last night’s vote, in three years time that house will still be there.
STAINTON: Is that because of the value of the land, and it’s all to do with money here?
CERESTE: Yes I think so, yes. I give you the example, where I live, and I won’t say where I live, but where I live is a Grade I listed building. When I bought it it had been on the market for ten years, because no-one would take on the restoration and pay the cost. I spent three times as much on the house as I actually paid for it to restore it and to conserve it for the future. And that I think is the problem with Thurston House, or Gayhurst, whichever way whatever you want to call it. And it’s a lovely lovely old house and it would be great if it could be conserved, and if it can be protected and conserved then I shall be as pleased as the next man. But if it can’t then there are people in this city that do need high quality social housing, and to say that the scheme was poor quality whatever is a complete and total nonsense. It is without question one of the finest social housing schemes that has come forward to the city. The architects are absolutely eminent. They have won award after award after award for social housing when awards have been open to normal private housing as well as social housing. The quality of the build is excellent. And of course the standard has to be higher, because social housing standards are higher believe it or not than private housing standards.
STAINTON: You disagree with Stewart Jackson then? Because he criticised the project.
CERESTE: What I say is I think it’s unfair to turn round and say that social housing is poor quality, when it’s actually not true. So I stand right in .. I’m a typical politician with this one. I sit right on the fence. The house is a nice house. It should be preserved if it could be. But we in this city have lots and lots … in fact we’ve got six thousand four hundred people on the housing register who need homes. So me, I was quite happy with the decision whichever way it went last night ..
STAINTON: Which way did you vote Marco?
CERESTE: Well you know that’s for me and my conscience the same as everybody else but you know ..
STAINTON: Is it?
CERESTE: Yes of course it is. But to say that the housing scheme was a bad scheme is not right.
STAINTON: So you’re not going to tell us which way you voted.
CERESTE: Well I voted for the scheme if you really want to know. But I am a conservationist and I will be the first one to be delighted if the property is preserved. I suspect that it won’t be. And if it’s not then what I’d like to see there is something that benefits the city, and thirty four high quality, and i keep repeating this, thirty four high quality affordable hosuing scheme in the city centre, in the city centre, that’s thirty four homes for people in this city that need homes. These are not workless you know benefit scroungers. These are thirty four people who live in our city who need homes.
STAINTON: Can’t the Council bring some pressure to bear so that everybody’s happy here, so that the house is kept and the scheme incorporates the house?
CERESTE: Absolutely. That is exactly what I’d like to see. And we will have that conversation, and we’ve got probably some land around it, and it’s time that now all the landowners got together and actually saw if there was an alternative that makes that scheme viable by putting the land that we own together, so that we come up with a different scheme. It may produce enough funds to then protect Thurston House, which would be a great thing, and we get some decent housing in the city centre for people who need it. And social housing is not about workless scroungers. And I think it’s really unfair that people start having that opinion of people who live in social housing.
STAINTON: This disagreement, is it bigger than just about the house? Is it more about the disagreements in the Conservative group as a whole? You sound like you’re all coming at this from different angles.
CERESTE: There isn’t any disagreement in the Conservative group. The Conservative group realises that the reality of it is that we have had thirteen years of appalling financial management by a Labour government, which we, all of us, every single one of us, are now going to have to pay for. And we are going to have to pay really dearly. And the only way, the only way I repeat, that this city will come through the next four or five years intact and still be a really nice place to live, is if we continue to meet our obligations wherever we can. And it’s going to be really really difficult to do that. And one of the ways that we can continue to meet our obligations is to attract new business into the city and provide housing. Because this new Government is enlightened enough to actually say that they will reward local authorities who provide residential private housing and social housing and attract new business into their city, which is what we need to do.
STAINTON: One councillor we spoke to this morning thinks that this decision will be overturned on appeal. Accent Nene will get their way. Do you expect that to happen? Or will you be as I said earlier bringing some pressure to bear to try and change things around so that everybody’s happy?
CERESTE: Well I will personally get involved in this now. I’ve not been involved in any of this. I don’t know why people keep using my name as if I’m the big bad wolf that’s been pushing this. I’ve not been in any way involved in this process until we got .. until the Council meeting last night. And like everybody else I’m entitled to my opinion. I’m a conservationist. I’d love to see Thurston House survive and be protected. I don’t think it will. But we’re going to try. The reality of it is that it is a really good scheme. Neither side is ever going to win in this situation, because if we protect the house it will be really great, and there’ll be those people that will say fabulous. But there are .. and what no-one seems to have said .. the amount of emails and correspondence that I’ve had saying I really need a home. I spoke to a young man the other day on the telephone. He phoned me in my office and do you know it upset me for the entire day, his predicament. So we have to understand that the city’s not just about any single issue. We’ve got to understand the city’s full of issues. There are people out there who are tremendous people in work trying hard, trying to get their lives together, trying to make a fist of it, and they’ve got nowhere to live.
STAINTON: It’s where we put the houses though, I suppose, isn’t it Marco? That’s the thing.
CERESTE: Absolutely. I absolutely .. but you’re never going to get it right are you? When they built my house there was nothing round it. I used to live in a village outside of Peterborough. I now live in the middle of Peterborough. That’s the way life goes. We are having three thousand babies a year in Peterborough. Three thousand! Think about it. Three thousand babies a year. And we’re obviously pretty healthy because less than half of that number are dying.
STAINTON: But I think people in Werrington will probably understand your analogies this morning about houses surrounding it. (THEY LAUGH). (note: Werrington was a small village until Peterborough spread out to engulf it.) Marco. Thank you for coming on. Marco Cereste Leader of Peterborough City Council, going to do his best to ensure that if Thurston House can be saved it will be saved. It has been saved for now. It won’t be demolished following a Council vote last night. But as Marco was saying he doesn’t really expect it to be here in three years time.