Marco Cereste – The Big Conversation with Paul Stainton

cathedral_square10:09 Monday 15th September 2014
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

PAUL STAINTON: The big interview on Ask the Boss is with Marco Cereste. Some call him a dictator. Some say he’s a man of the people. He’s the man who leads Peterborough City Council, and has done for a few years now. Contentious; polarises opinion; but who is he? What makes him tick? And what does he really stand for? Well he’s here. Let’s ask him. Morning Marco.
MARCO CERESTE: Hello Paul. How are you?
PAUL STAINTON: Is that a fair intro.?
MARCO CERESTE: Well I don’t know about that. One accepts what it is. (THEY LAUGH)
PAUL STAINTON: Your questions for Marco this morning in what is an interesting time for Peterborough and cities right across the country – if you’ve got something you’d like to ask him, 08459 252000. I suppose let’s start with that, that question. There are those who have been unkind and called you a dictator in the past, and said you don’t listen to people. And yet there are others out there who say actually you’re the most democratic Leader Peterborough City Council has ever had. So who are you?

MARCO CERESTE: I’m a family man, completely and passionately dedicated to my city. And that’s where I start. And so the way I look at everything is, would this be good for my family who live in our city.
PAUL STAINTON: So that’s your starting point.
MARCO CERESTE: That’s my starting point for everything. And because I’ve had I suppose because I’m getting old now, I’ve had so much experience. I know what it’s like to go out to work on a building site and have to pay the bills at the end of the month, or not if you haven’t got enough money. So my view is how can I make .. how can I take my experiences in the past and make life better for the people that elected me, and those people that didn’t elect me but live in the city.
PAUL STAINTON: What are your successes? What do you think you’ve done well? What are the things you’ve failed at? What do you wish you’d done better?
MARCO CERESTE: What do I wish I’d done better. Well I’m still working all the time, as many hours as possible, to try and meet all of our financial obligations in the city. And we need to be very cognisant of the fact that we’ve got some really difficult times that we’re facing.
PAUL STAINTON: We’ll get on to that.
MARCO CERESTE: We’ll get onto that. If you ask me what have we done well, we spent two hundred million on schools. We’ve hugely improved the outcome of the children that go to those schools. We’ve had some of the best results – the last couple of years we’ve had the best results this city has ever had. We’ve now got a city centre and investment in the city as never ever ever before. We’ve got a vacancy rate of less than 9% in the city centre compared with some cities of 27%. That’s a quarter of their shops are empty. And even the ones of ours that are not occupied, we’ve got tenants that are negotiating to go in. I think in the whole of the city centre there’s only two shops that I’m aware of that are not actually being negotiated over at the moment. That’s a tremendous success. 16,000 new jobs in four years, and if you want to be picky, you can say well that’s only 12,000 net, and it’s true, it is only 12,000 net, but isn’t that fantastic, if you think about it. So the city’s gone from being somewhere where most people said yes, well I go through Peterborough regularly, to oh yes, I now come and shop and I enjoy it. It’s a great place. The public realm is fabulous. And the city’s really buzzing.
PAUL STAINTON: What do you wish you’d done better? Do you communicate well do you think? Do you think sometimes you’re misinterpreted? Do you take people with you on this journey? Because all the things you mentioned, and I go through Peterborough a lot, you know I do. And I’ve seen change. And with all the things you mentioned, people should be right behind you, shouldn’t they? Yet you lost overall control of the Council.
MARCO CERESTE: To be fair, I think that anybody would have lost overall control of the Council under the last lot of circumstances. But we’ll put that to one side.
PAUL STAINTON: What do you wish you’d done better?
MARCO CERESTE: What do I wish I’d done better? I just .. it’s the money that worries me. It’s the money that worries me. And we’ve done a lot of things in the city to train our staff, so that we can sell their expertise. We’re not only just saving money in the Council, we’re actually selling the Council’s expertise. We’re doing this where lots of other cities don’t really know where to start. And so that’s doing really really well. I wish we’d have started earlier. I wish we’d have had this drive earlier. But we didn’t, and we are where we are. But who could have ever imagined the world economy collapsing the way it did? It was a pretty good bet it was going to collapse, but we never ever for one minute thought that we’d go probably worse than the 1930’s. So I think hindsight is easy. If we’d have started earlier, and we’d have started to build up our reserves earlier, it would be easier now. But we are where we are, and we’ve got to face the problems. But we’ve out-performed most other places in the UK.
PAUL STAINTON: Are you overly passionate, or are you pig-headed? Because you’ve had some fall-outs, haven’t you?
PAUL STAINTON: Not least with local MP Stewart Jackson, who called you “full of grandiose ideas and vanity projects.”
MARCO CERESTE: Well everybody’s entitled to their opinions.
PAUL STAINTON: But what causes the fall-out? Is it your passion?
MARCO CERESTE: Well I’ve never fallen out with anybody that I know of, but people fall out with me, which I think is different. (HE LAUGHS) And I’m passionate about the city. Absolutely passionate about the city. And if I think something is right, let’s face it, in the end someone’s got to make a decision. The buck stops here. And so if we’ve gone through the process, now I go through the process, I actually am I believe to be hugely democratic within the group or within the local authority. There is a proper process.
PAUL STAINTON: But you fall out within your own group sometimes. There’s a faction in your group that doesn’t like you.
MARCO CERESTE: People are passionate. People are welcome in the group. They don’t have to believe in everything I believe in. That’s one of the nice things. That’s one of the nice things that we have today, is people can actually not only – not only have different opinions within the group, but express them, which is something I think if you think back has never happened in the past. So does that make me a dictator? No. I think it makes me somebody who’s prepared to listen. And I do listen, and we quite often change things because people have come up with a better idea or a different one. But in the end, the worst thing that anybody can do is not make a decision.
PAUL STAINTON: Let’s start with a contentious issue, one that’s caused a lot of problems. Some of the questions from the public this morning. Malc in Thorney. You may think you know what the question is going to be. Malc in Thorney says, “Can you ask Marco why he’s been so pig-headed” – his words ” – about covering top-class arable land in Thorney and Newborough with solar panels (for) which the cost outweighs the gains. He treats the villages outside the city as poor relations, we don’t get bus services, we get all of this foisted upon us. We pay our council tax. Why should we put up with it?” Is that still going ahead? Is it still going to make money, the plan to put wind turbines and solar panels in Newborough and Thorney?
MARCO CERESTE: Well it’s under review I think is the honest thing to say. There’s been a lot of Government policy changes in the recent past, so we’re just looking at it at the moment, and there’ll be a decision made in the next, I would imagine, few weeks about whether or not we take it all forward, or just parts of it, or what bits we do or don’t do. And that’s the absolute truth.
PAUL STAINTON:¬†Right. So there’s a chance then that the majority of it’s not going to happen. It’s not going to work. And that creates another problem, doesn’t it?
MARCO CERESTE: Well the problem is that it would have earned about seven and a half million, contrary to popular belief, or contrary to people prepared to accept that, it would have earned the city about seven and a half million pounds a year, which would have made a huge huge difference to the future finances of the local authority. To put it in context, seven and a half million is the equivalent to about 15% in council tax every year. And that would have produced it for at least twenty years if not thirty. So that not being as successful will have an impact on us in these very very difficult times. So it’s something we absolutely had to consider.
PAUL STAINTON: So you’ve spent your money on that as well, haven’t you? Quite a bit of money.
MARCO CERESTE: Well we’ve spent some money on it, yes.
PAUL STAINTON: Two million? Three million? Something like that?
MARCO CERESTE: It’s close to three million across the entire project.
PAUL STAINTON: Do you wish you’d not spent that now?
MARCO CERESTE: No, because in hindsight you can say yes, well that might have been the right thing or might not have been the right thing. But when you’re .. when I as Council Leader have an opportunity to earn from the assets that the Council own, and extra seven and a half million, I think you would be the first person to criticise me if I didn’t consider it. And when you’ve got some very highly respected people making a proper business case to take this forward, I have .. I have absolutely got to listen to it. And remember, this went through the entire process in the local authority. It’s not as if I made a decision and told everybody that’s what was going to happen. This went through the entire process in the local authority.
PAUL STAINTON: If you’re not going to get the money you expected from that then, and as you say some parts of it may not go forward now, where are you going to get the money from? Because you have a huge shortfall, don’t you? Is it nineteen million pounds you’ve got to find? What’s the plan?
MARCO CERESTE: It’s more like twenty two million we’ve got to find ..
PAUL STAINTON: It’s gone up to twenty two million.
MARCO CERESTE: .. because of the pressures within the local authority itself. As you probably know we introduced some new services in social services to protect some of our girls who were being abused etcetera etcetera etcetera. And that, believe it or not, is costing us the ratepayer about a million pound a year to keep that service in place. So we have built-in pressures coming forward. So the total is about twenty two million. What we have done however, we’ve created a cross-party working group. All the political groups are represented. We’re all working together. We’re looking at some of the options. And that group will come forward with a recommendation to Council.
PAUL STAINTON: We’ve got a question for you a listener.
ANNE: Hello. I’m Anne from Peterborough, and I’d like to ask Mr Cereste the question, why they are getting rid of the community buildings and libraries and that, when they are such an important part of not just the Peterborough community, but the community worldwide.
PAUL STAINTON: Why? Why are we getting rid of community buildings and libraries? Are we?
MARCO CERESTE: No we’re not. There’s a big consultation at the moment to actually understand what people like Anne want us to do. But it’s certainly not something that we want to do. What we’ve done is we have .. we are in the process of allowing the communities to take over community buildings to deliver services from them. That’s something that we are very much in favour of. And there is the consultation on libraries and community buildings I believe has just been completed. And there’s over 3,000 people have responded. We will have a look at that and of course we will act accordingly. But I can assure Anne that we’re not going to willy-nilly close down their local building or their local library. We’ve done everything we possibly could have done in the past to protect their library services, and their community buildings. It may very well be .. again I like to be honest with people .. it may very well be that if we’re going to protect a service, we’re going to need help from the public to help us deliver that service in a different way. But we will do everything we can to protect the services.
PAUL STAINTON: So there’s a potential they could be closed in the future is what you’re saying.
MARCO CERESTE: There’s always a potential that we could be struck by an earthquake. But how likely is that?
PAUL STAINTON: Andy’s responding to what you said about the wind turbines. He says; “Regarding the potential seven and a half million pounds that would have been generated from them, would Mr Cereste care to divulge how and where it would be distributed. Could I obtain an FOI request to enquire about this, and if not why not?
MARCO CERESTE: Well because I mean if you think about it would be impossible for me to tell him how exactly this would be distributed. It would go into the central budget of the local authority, and it would be used on front-line services. It would probably be used to stop us doing what we’re having to do now, or at least part of what we’re having to do now. We can’t rule anything in, and we can’t rule anything out. So we’ve got to deliver the best we possibly can within our city, and try to do everything we can to protect front-line services for those people who need them.
PAUL STAINTON: Another question for you.
FRED MORGAN: Hi, I’m Fred Morgan. My daughter lives in Westwood. Marco, she’s very unhappy about the fact that all the council houses seem to be getting solar panel heating, and she can’t afford to do that. But of course her taxes are paying the council tax and stuff like that.
JOHN DEVINE: She’s got a private residency.
FRED MORGAN: A private residency in the middle of a council estate.
JOHN DEVINE: And she can’t afford to get the solar panels.
FRED MORGAN: She can’t afford the solar panels. The cost of solar panels these days, she’s struggling to live as she’s doing. But the council guys get all their houses done up free, and all the bits and pieces.
PAUL STAINTON: Not council houses, but I get what she .. social housing. They’re getting the double-glazing. They get the solar panels. is that fair?
MARCO CERESTE: We’ve been working with a number of companies very recently, in order to be able to deliver that. Without knowing the exact address and what have you, I can’t give the gentleman’s daughter any specific advice. But what I’d be deli .. I’d absolutely love to do is if she wants to call me at the Council, or drop me an email, I’ll tell her how she can get solar panels, and how she can afford it. because there are a number of schemes that are available which possibly she doesn’t know about, and we’d be able to help her do that.
PAUL STAINTON: Richard in Wisbech who’s a Posh fan says: ” I’ve got a question. Why don’t the people of Peterborough support our football club? 6,000 for the last game is disgraceful, given the amount of people living in the city at around 200,000. We have the best squad ever. By the way, have you done the Ice Bucket Challenge yet Marco, because Paul nominated you.” I don’t think you have, have you? (THEY LAUGH) Is that a disappointment for you, when you effectively stepped in and helped rescue the football club, as a council? Do you think it’s disappointing that so few people go to home games?
MARCO CERESTE: Well obviously I would love to see more people go to the games. Thats’ what the club’s there for. The Club is a huge asset for our city, both socially and economically. And the more people that support it the better. I’m sure that as it does better in the league, and performance if you like improves, and they get promoted, there’ll be more and more people go.
PAUL STAINTON: Barry’s in Farcet Fen. Morning Barry.
BARRY: Good morning Paul.
PAUL STAINTON: You’re through to Marco.
BARRY: Good morning Marco.
MARCO CERESTE: Good morning.
BARRY: Marco, on Friday evening I was out walking with my granddaughter who is training for the Silver Duke of Edinburgh Award. And I went along the Green Wheel from Stanground to Farcet. And I was really disgusted in the state of it. It’s all over grown with brambles and weeds, and all bushes. You can hardly walk along it in places. You have to duck underneath branches that are growing over. We’re trying to, or you’re trying to make it the cycle city, and really that doesn’t come up to scratch at all along there.
PAUL STAINTON: Barry, thank you for that. You’re not the only one to raise that as well. Andrew says “Ask Marco is it’s true the budget for tree maintenance has been slashed. Ask him to take a look at the out of control tree belts around Peterborough. The cycle routes with overhanging branches, brambles hanging, just waiting to take somebody’s eye out, and particularly in Gostwick around Orton Brimbles, the trees overhanging everywhere.”¬†Has the tree budget been cut Marco? Is that what’s going on here?
MARCO CERESTE: No. No no no no no. First of all, if anybody listening in this morning has got any areas where you’ve got brambles or whatever that are dangerous on any of the cycle routes or footpaths, please drop me a note, give me a phone call, and let me have the details and I’ll get that dealt with straight away. Clearly it’s not our policy to have dangerous cycle routes or dangerous footpaths. It’s just that there is a maintenance schedule, and they probably haven’t got round to it yet. So if anybody wants to just let me know where that is, then we’ll get it dealt with as quickly as possible. As far as the tree budget is, as you probably know, about two years ago we put the tree budget up to about a million pounds, and these are really difficult times. So we’ve had to have a look at the tree budget to see whether we absolutely have to spend a million pounds a year on trees, and whether we could reduce that and spend more money on children or elderly or whatever.
PAUL STAINTON: So you are looking at cutting it then.
MARCO CERESTE: No, we’ve decided that we will take some of the money out, I don’t know how much yet. But nothing’s in and nothing’s out. We’ve got to look at all these things and that’s what having a twenty two million pound deficit means.
PAUL STAINTON: This from .. this is from Andy. He says: “ My brown garden waste bin is still awaiting collection after Peterborough City Council themselves rang me after I contacted them that I wouldn’t be subscribing to this additional stealth tax. If Mr Cereste wishes to help out here and collect my unwanted brown bin ..” he gives his address. (LAUGHS) I’m sure he doesn’t. Joanne says: “What percentage of folk have paid for the brown bins, and how much extra is going to landfill? Only two people in our street pay for it.” Has it been a success, paying for the brown bins, or has it just created a lot of controversy you didn’t need to create?
MARCO CERESTE: Well from what I was .. I had a briefing on it two days ago, and I’m being told that it’s all going extremely well.
PAUL STAINTON: How many people have signed up?
MARCO CERESTE: Well I don’t know how many people exactly have signed up, but I have been told that it’s actually getting close to paying for itself now, which was the objective. And remember Paul it is about fairness. There are thousands of people in the city who didn’t have a bin, thousands of elderly who never saw what even a brown bin was. And they were paying the taxes, subsidising the people that had them. So it is a question about being fair, and if you’ve got a brown bin, I’ve got a brown bin, and I pay for two, which costs me just over fifty pounds a year, which means I can get two brown bins full of garden waste collected from my home for a pound a week. I think that is fantastic value. And it would be unreasonable ..
PAUL STAINTON: I think the argument was that people already thought they were paying for it. And you’re asking them to pay again.
MARCO CERESTE: Well we know they weren’t. We introduced brown bins at no extra cost.
PAUL STAINTON: Is it not part of their council tax?
MARCO CERESTE: Well we introduced brown bins as part of the environmental initiatives that we had, as part of the existing council tax. And we haven’t put council tax up for four years. So how would they be paying for the brown bins?
PAUL STAINTON: Do you wish you had put council tax up? Do you wish council tax had gone up over the last ten years, and you perhaps wouldn’t be in the financial mess you’re in now?
MARCO CERESTE: I think there are two issues here. I think if we’d .. again if you want me to be completely honest, what we should have done as an administration is put council tax up to meet inflation, when we didn’t.
PAUL STAINTON: What, five years ago, ten years ago.
MARCO CERESTE; Well, five ten years ago, whenever. Whenever as an administration we thought we were doing the right thing by cutting taxes, in hindsight one could actually wonder whether that was the right thing to do.
PAUL STAINTON: Is that a dig at the previous administration?
MARCO CERESTE: No it’s no dig whatsoever. I’m telling you, it’s easy to have hindsight. It was the right thing to do at the time, but when you think about it now you say, well actually, one of the problems we have now is our tax base. However, if you say the last four years that we haven’t put taxes up .. but don’t forget we’ve been going through the worst economic times this country has ever known. And so by putting council tax up you just take more money out of our citizens’ pockets, which just makes their lives worse. So yes, you could begin to balance the Council’s budget by making your citizens’ life even worse. That’s not my job.
PAUL STAINTON: Robin says: “Will you ask Marco why he won’t recommend the Council install video equipment and stream all Council meetings over the internet. He will tell you ..” says Robin ”’s too expensive, but I can do it for less than a thousand pounds.”
MARCO CERESTE: And I can say to you Robin, you’ve got my vote anytime. I don’t have any problem with the Council streaming in the Council. As soon as the Council makes that decision, and decides that’s what they want, I’m up for it.
PAUL STAINTON: Yes. There’s nothing to hide here.
MARCO CERESTE: I’ve always believed in openness and transparency. And when a council as a council decides that’s what they want, I will support it, I can assure you.
PAUL STAINTON: Do you think people might be surprised by what goes on in Peterborough City Council’s inner sanctum?
MARCO CERESTE: Thay might have some fun. (LAUGHS)
PAUL STAINTON: Gareth in Thorney says,”I’m a green supporter, but with such a vast amount of wind turbines being built in Thorney, I wonder if it’s totally necessary, or if it is just another vanity project.” We’ve covered that, haven’t we?
MARCO CERESTE: I think we’ve done it. It’s not fair to call it a vanity project, if potentially it could earn seven and a half million pounds a year for the local authority and for the public purse, how is it a vanity project? It is a project that was well thought through. Government has now changed its policies. That makes it more difficult to deliver, and we may not deliver it.
PAUL STAINTON: We’re almost out of time. The half an hour has absolutely flown by, so many questions from so many people. And we’ve got a few more to squeeze in as well. But I’ve got to ask you once again, you mentioned this twenty two million pound shortfall. You mentioned the fact that perhaps some of this project at Newborough and Thorney that was going to help pay for that shortfall won’t work. What are your biggest fears. If you don’t find a plan with this cross party meetings that you’re having, if nobody comes up with a plan to find some of this twenty two million, what happens to Peterborough?
MARCO CERESTE: Well we will come up with a plan. It’s only a question of limiting the damage that that plan has. And again, ..
PAUL STAINTON: We’re talking cuts here.
MARCO CERESTE: We’re talking .. well, what we call talking about first is efficiencies, it’s about saving money, doing things better, and earning money for the Council. So creating income for the Council. After we’ve gone through all of that process, then yes, we may have to resort to some cuts.
PAUL STAINTON: What’s the nightmare scenario? If you can’t come up with a plan, if you can’t raise seven, eight, ten, fifteen million pounds, you’ve got this huge black hole, what has to go? Are we talking nuclear option?
MARCO CERESTE: Well nothing is ruled in, and nothing is ruled out. We’ve got to find twenty two million pounds Paul. It’s that or the city goes bust. (LAUGHS) So we have to find it. We will find a solution. It may not be very palatable, but we will find a solution. And I’m confident we’ll find a solution. And that will .. it will be a cross party solution. All the groups will have worked together to come up with what they think is the least worst option, if you understand what I mean. And therefore we’ve got to go there. We going to have to work together. The people of our city have to understand that this is what we’re looking at.
PAUL STAINTON: What’s the time scale on this? How long have you got before Peterborough goes bust?
MARCO CERESTE: No no no. Peterborough’s not going to go bust. Don’t get me wrong. Peterborough is not going to go bust. We might have some difficulties which we will have to overcome over a period of years, but we will not go bust. What we have to absolutely try and do ..
PAUL STAINTON: But you might end up with no libraries. You might end up with no childcare. You might end up with no buses. That’s a real option.
MARCO CERESTE: well nothing is ruled in, and nothing is ruled out. But remember, we’ve been very very very very very very good at managing the public purse in the last few years. If you look at our auditor’s report, it gives us a superb report that tells us that we manage our finances really well. And that’s going to help us meet this very difficult situation. So we will do it.
PAUL STAINTON: Time scale. What’s the time scale?
MARCO CERESTE: Well we’re going to report back to Council I would have thought by January.
PAUL STAINTON: Right. And we’ve got until when to find this money?
MARCO CERESTE: well we’ve got to have a proper plan, because in law we can’t go to Council, the Council can’t approve a budget that’s not in balance. So we’ve got to have a proper plan in place to be effective from 1st April 2015.
PAUL STAINTON: I’ve got a question from Stewart: “What happened to all the renewables being put on brown field land? Why don’t you do that?”
MARCO CERESTE: We’re doing it. We’re doing it big time. We’ve got lots and lots of stuff going up, happening right now. And there’s been some real announcements with the new Green Deals, the new deals, the energy deals the Council’s been promoting. There have been fifteen .. ten houses in our city that’s been chosen to be given up to fifteen thousand pounds each to make those houses more comfortable and more energy-efficient. And that’s been rolled out around the city. There are millions of pounds that we are able to spend in Government grants and subsidies, which we are promoting in the city. And that includes solar panels on the roofs, it means brown field sites, it means double glazing in homes, it means new boilers, it means insulation. Please go onto our website. See if you fall into one of those categories that can get those subsidies, and can get that help. And even if you can’t get that particular help, we’ve got somebody that can tell you what help you can get.
PAUL STAINTON: A couple of quick questions before we let you go, because there’s so many.
MARCO CERESTE: I’m happy to stay. (LAUGHS)
PAUL STAINTON: We’ve got to play a record at some point. This from Margherita: “What are you doing with the bus station in Queensgate? It’s filthy, full of druggies, not a good impression for those coming to the city.” We’ve got a brand spanking new station, we’re going to have Bourges Boulevard, and then we’ve got a disgusting bus station.
MARCO CERESTE: Well they’ve got new owners. They’re going to come forward with a ..
PAUL STAINTON: This is Queensgate, yes?
MARCO CERESTE: Yes, Queensgate. They’ve got new owners. They’re coming forward with a new plan, with a planning application. And I can assure Margharita that there’s going to be a lot of money spent on Queensgate in the next few years. And one of those issues will be the removal of those problems.
PAUL STAINTON: We’ve got to leave it there. Just finally, are you confident for the future of Peterborough, or do you worry?
MARCO CERESTE: Well I worry, believe me. But I’m confident we will deliver the right thing.
PAUL STAINTON: Marco Cereste. He’s the Leader of Peterborough City Council, answering your questions this morning on the Big Conversation.