Interview: Council Leader John Holdich

In December 2019, we arranged to interview Leader of the City Council John Holdich. The object of the interview back then was simple: after more than four decades of service to city and county councils, John had decided to retire, and would be making way for a new candidate in the May elections. COVID-19 changed those plans, as they changed everyone’s. Elections were cancelled. Retirement plans put on hold. The interview itself went ahead on 24 March – the day after lockdown had been announced by the government – and what would have been a nostalgic reflection on a long and highly successful career became something quite different – very much focused on the here and now...

First, the obvious question… You were going to retire when the May elections came around. What was the sequence of events that led to you not retiring after all?
I took the decision to retire because I was up for election and once elected you stand for election for four years. Although everybody said I could just continue for one or two and then resign, I’m not like that. If I decided to do it for four years, I’d do it for four years. In four years’ time I would be 80, and my arthritis isn’t getting any better, and I thought, ‘I really can’t commit to that’. But then of course, things happened… Now you can’t hold an AGM, you can’t hold meetings in public, and there was no chance of having an election and getting someone else in. So, I talked to my group, and asked them: ‘Considering the difficult circumstances we’re in with this virus would you like me to stay on as leader?’ And they all came back and said, ‘Yes, please!’ So I’m going to do it for another year.

This ‘one last job’ may end up being the biggest challenge of your whole career… In the time you’ve been involved with the City and County Councils, has there been anything that you could compare to this?
No, there hasn’t. There have been epidemics before – measles, flu – but nothing on this scale, or even anywhere near this scale. But I have had a lot of experience over 43 years, and this is the sort of thing where that experience could well count. Although I’ve never experienced anything like this – let’s be honest, no one has – you learn to work with emergency bodies, and I’ve trained in emergency procedures.

When I was a county councillor, I was in charge of emergency planning, so I have some background on what people do – gold command, silver command and all that – and what the systems are. As an example, sometimes there would be a practice based around, say, a train crash or something similar. One of the things I was always taught is that, in emergencies, councillors don’t want to be too ‘hands-on’, but you do need to be across what’s going on, and be able to talk to the officers if and when required.

That’s what is happening now. At the moment, I’m doing everything on the net – I had nine video calls yesterday, some of them work and some of them don’t! But yes, I have experience in social services, housing… You name it, I’ve done it! I don’t want to sound big-headed, but it’s experience in the right place at the right time.

Right now, what are the most immediate challenges?
The Prime Minister has made it quite clear that we’re not following guidance voluntarily and we have to close things down. This does have a financial effect as well. Although the government is putting money into lots of things and they want us to share out some of the money that they’re giving – like rate relief and small grants – there are other areas of impact. If you look at income for the Council, for instance, there’s no one using the car parks, and even though we were very short of traffic wardens last year during summer income from that made a difference of about £300k to us.

So, there are things we can’t do, and things that are costing us money. We’re not fully operational in that respect, but we’re picking up more services and there are more things to do. It’s going to be tough on the Council, nonetheless. I was on a video call with a government surveyor and they said about ‘replenishing our stocks’ – but you just can’t properly cost something like this. We’re taking it day by day.

Presumably one of the knock-on effects is that people may not be able to pay their council tax.
If anyone can’t afford to pay their council tax, please get in touch with us now, because we can put things in place – don’t let it get out of hand. We don’t want people ending up in court. So, I stress – get in touch now so we can work something out. You don’t have to wait until you’re in debt.

How are you managing to keep things going?
83% of our staff are now working from home, we have a number of members of staff off sick with suspected C19; so far, the depot that does refuse collection has about 5% of their staff off and are still managing to operate – although we’re not going to be offering brown bin collection again until July. We won’t charge people for the two months of that missing service – we’ll collect it only once a month during April, May and June. That’s not just about staff going to collect it but it’s also a recycling issue.

We’ve also had to partly close the public parks. We had long debates about that – but we’re closing the bits that you put your hands on, equipment like swings, but trying to leave the rest of the parks, the bits you walk through, open. We’re doing our best all the time, as different advice comes out. We’re handing out grants, doing business rate relief and we’ve hired 300 beds from the private sector in old people’s homes to get people out of hospital quickly so the hospital can respond. We’ve asked for volunteers, and we’ve had hundreds of people so far fill in the form and we’re setting their skills where we can use them, and doing all the relevant checks if they have to go into people’s homes.

A lot of our staff are volunteering into different jobs, if they can’t do their current job. My future daughter-in-law works in the City College, in the health academy, and that’s not functioning right now because of face-to-face, so she’s taken charge of the canteen, which she used to do until about five years ago. So, people are volunteering and we’re getting around it. Funerals are currently still going ahead, keeping attendance to a minimum; the bereavement service requires an appointment, but we are seeking permission from government to do it online. The schools are closed, community centres are closed, libraries are closed. With regard to buses, some services have changed or stopped, so people will need to go online to find out which are running.

This impacts on such a vast array of services, often in unexpected ways…
Yes. I told them they couldn’t close the recycling centres last night, and they came back to me and said they’d had advice from the health officer that they should close. I wanted to know why, because if people aren’t working they may want to tidy their gardens or clear their houses out. But there were concerns that if the Huntingdon and Cambridgeshire ones are closed, then people will come from all over the place to go into our one, which she doesn’t believe is safe. So I reluctantly agreed that should be closed.

This must be a particular nightmare for vulnerable people in the community who rely on help in their homes, and on people visiting them.
As an example, what has happened at the old people’s club in my village, is that all the helpers took four telephone numbers each and have been ringing the members, so the elderly people don’t feel isolated and also to see if there’s anything they want. If they need it, we’ll make sure they get it – medicine, food, or whatever it is. Where I am, and I guess in a lot of other places, there are groups making it clear that if anyone needs anything to let them know.

And if you’re unable to check on someone, you can’t go to the door or whatever – ring them up. People want to feel that they’re not alone. And you feel that even just working from home… Even though I’ve been busy, I have to say, it’s a different way of life! Although I work in an office, I do like to get out and meet people.

People seem to be taking the initiative and pulling together, with lots of people volunteering. Are you finding that?
When Thomas Cook collapsed, I was impressed with the city. After all those redundancies, people really came together – whether it was a free haircut or whatever. But Peterborough has always had that reputation, with people volunteering and wanting to help. They might be frightened about going to someone’s house, but as long as you knock on the door then keep six feet away, you’re OK. But yes, I’m very impressed with the way people have responded. I’ve always been proud of my city.

As a city, Peterborough is perhaps more used to having to fight to make its case, as opposed to, say, Cambridge with which it’s often unfairly compared…
Something like 65% of Peterborough’s properties are in Band A or B, in low-cost areas. If we had a similar level of Band D properties to some other cities our size we would be £21m better off – we wouldn’t be so challenged as we have been. One of the reasons I championed Peterborough becoming a unitary authority in 1997 was that policies were Cambridge-led, and Cambridge is a completely different place to Peterborough, and we needed our own policies. Despite there being shared services these days, we’ve managed to keep our own sovereignty.

The word ‘sovereignty’ is one that has been much argued over in the last few years! Perhaps Peterborough needs to declare independence..?
At times like this, you can’t afford to be independent, can you? You need a little help from your friends. Everything’s happened so quickly, and I think what a lot of people don’t realise is that when announcements are made you still have to get it onto statute, got to get it through the House of Commons, got to have a second reading, then it’s got to have Royal Assent. I understand they’re going to try and do that all this week – normally it takes three months! People think because you made a statement a fortnight ago it’s all going to happen, but it needs legislation. It’s the same with the council; but we’re fortunate here as we have a cabinet, so cabinet members can take certain decisions, if it were a committee set-up it wouldn’t quite be so easy. We’ve been also granted permission to hold virtual meetings, which will speed up the process.

What’s your overall message to people just now?
My message has got to be: follow the rules and the advice. We all need to do that right now. We’ve all seen the pictures of people clustered on beaches and all sorts of things, and it’s selfish – the health service can do without people not following the rules. And if you’ve got any problems, there are people out there who can help. People are going to be getting 80% of their wages if they’re not working, because if services can’t keep their staff during this, are they going to be there when it’s over? What’s more, are the companies going to be there? Are we going to have high unemployment? Are some of these shops ever going to open again? We have to follow the rules, because we’ve got to do our best to get through this as quickly as we can.

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