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Tories in disarray at Peterborough City Council as 3 councillors quit party

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A company – in which its employees are the majority shareholders – has played a part in the decision by three Conservative members of Peterborough City Council to resign.

Barnack Estates is one of the city’s leading development companies whose chairman is Rob Facer, a successful local businessman who first began in 1997 by building industrial estates.

At that stage the Barnack business consisted of a confectionery, storage, and logistics business.

It was founded by Mr Facer in Shrewsbury Avenue, Peterborough and has since moved premises 5 times as it has expanded. Currently the head office is in Orton Southgate, Peterborough.

Horse Bridge

Horsey Bridge Development,
Cardea, Peterborough
Friday 19 May 2023.
Picture by Terry Harris.

“Between 2004 and present day we have built over 2 million square feet of quality warehousing in Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire,” he boasts proudly, on the company website.

In 2021 it turned in a net profit before tax of £3,955,795 to the delight of its workforce who, in October of that year, became the majority shareholders through a transfer to an employee ownership scheme.

But the company is land hungry, pointing out in its annual accounts that “a shortage of deliverable land and public sector delivery continues to delay opportunities for development”.

Barnack’s quest for fresh opportunities led to them submitting an application to build a 15-acre business park between Stanground and Whittlesey near Horsey Bridge.

But refusal of that application by the city council planning committee, and a subsequent attempt to force a change of mind, is central to the decision by the three Conservatives to quit.

The site lies on the northern side of the A605 Peterborough to Whittlesey road, with the River Nene/Kings Dyke running along the northern boundary.

Barnack Estates believes they could create around 400 jobs while city council officers believe these estimates “are considered to be a best-case scenario, nonetheless the quantum of economic benefit to the local economy is likely to be considerable”.

Among objectors was Fenland District Council who fear it could signal erosion of the border between Whittlesey and Peterborough.

The city council planning committee voted 6-2 (with one abstention) to refuse the application claiming Barnack Estates had failed to demonstrate there was insufficient land elsewhere in the city.

The three Conservative councillors, all planning committee members, could have allowed the applicant to submit an appeal to the Planning Inspectorate and allow the issue to be settled by the Government inspector.

However, Peterborough City Council has a ‘planning review committee’ which allows for a decision of its planning committee to be challenged. Which is what three councillors did.

It has not helped matters that Mr Facer has been a donor to the Conservatives, is president of the Peterborough Conservative Association where the chairman is city council leader Wayne Fitzgerald.

Categorically there is no suggestion that Mr Facer, nor Barnack Estates, have done anything wrong; indeed the company has been transparent throughout. In short Barnack believes the new industrial estate will be a major asset to Peterborough and city council planners backed the application, recommending it for approval.

But to revitalise the application, and see it to a speedy and satisfactory conclusion, step forward three Conservative members of Peterborough City Council.

Cllr Ishfaq Hussain, Cllr Scott Warren and Cllr Lindsay Sharp took advantage of the rarely used procedural tactic to upend the planning committee’s decision to refuse permission for the business park has caused mayhem.

All were signatories to the ‘call in’ of the planning application – and in so doing have created a political maelstrom that threatens the leadership of Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald.

It has led to three other Conservative councillors quitting the party – ironically days before Cllr Fitzgerald was expected to announce on Monday the shape of his administration for the coming year.

With the political make-up of the city council thrown to the wind, Cllr Fitzgerald appears to no longer have a workable majority.

Crucially the rules of proportionality – which dictates representation of political groups on committees – is in disarray. A report prepared by city council officers will have to be hastily amended over the weekend.

The resignations have undermined Cllr Fitzgerald who only a fortnight ago celebrated his party increasing their numbers from 28 to 30, just one seat short of a majority. Now he’s suddenly three short of a majority.

Cllr Peter Hiller (Glinton and Castor), Cllr Brian Rush (Stanground South) and Cllr Ray Bisby (Stanground South) all quit to join the independent group Peterborough First.

These are key figures in Peterborough political life, Cllr Rush for instance having been a councillor for more than 20 years and at the annual meeting of Peterborough Conservatives only a week ago was appointed treasurer.

And Cllr Risby has been a key player, too, and coincidentally represents, along with Cllr Rush, Stanground.

He was also, from 2017, deputy Police and Crime Commissioner for Cambridgeshire, subsequently stepping up to acting P&CC when Jason Ablewhite was forced to quit.

“To be a councillor is a privilege, a rewarding role gifted to us by residents who deserve to be represented by people who put their interests first,” he says.

“While we don’t always get things right, I love the many positive things about our community and being able to support residents with problems and get them back into a good place.”

He is now about to do that outside the Conservative group.

His fellow Stanground Conservative councillor, Cllr Rush, once again re-elected in May 2023, was first elected to the city council in 2000.

Cllr Hiller represents a rural ward comprising Castor, Ailsworth, Glinton, Marholm, Maxey, Etton, Northborough, Deeping Gate, and parts of Peakirk.

First elected to Northborough ward in a 2006 by-election he was re-elected in 2011. Following subsequent boundary changes the ward joined with other parishes to become Glinton and Castor ward where he was re-elected in May 2023.

Cllr Chris Harper, chair of the planning committee felt the three Conservatives who ‘called in’ the decision displayed “a complete lack of respect for the democratic decision-making process of the planning committee after they voted 6 to 2 with 1 abstention to refuse the application

“This, whilst extremely unusual, is permissible under the constitution.”

The dissenting councillors, however, claimed that “the decision, and the thought process that was followed by the committee to reach the decision, were both defective.

“Neither reason given for refusal of planning permission is arguable, nor supported by robust empirical evidence”.

The big surprise among the resignations is undoubtedly that of Cllr Bisby who has admitted the planning application for Horsey Bridge was “amongst other things” that prompted his resignation.

He told the local democracy reporting service: “It’s against my principles. I can’t vote for it, it’s the wrong thing.”

Cllr Hiller says he has no single area of concern but didn’t want to “go along with the political self-interest of the current administration”.

“I want to represent my rural ward, that I have for 17 years now, as an independent free from any political mantras, any particular dogmas – call it what you will.

“I’m not naming names or slagging off the current administration, that’s not something I wish to do, but it’s what I’ve decided to do and that’s what I’ve done.”

Meanwhile city council planning officers, awaiting the outcome of any local appeals procedure, are unable to publicly log the outcome of the Horsey Bridge application.

Which is still attracting comment on the city council planning portal.

“It looks to me that however many times this application gets rejected, someone in high places will get it passed,” says a recent comment.

“Someone once said that if voting really mattered they wouldn’t let us do it. “Unfortunately, I’m beginning to believe this to be true.”

The correspondence has been heavily redacted, probably for legal reasons.

Cllr Fitzgerald is a tenacious and often contentious figure who has fought hard for investment and increased prosperity for Peterborough.

He won’t take kindly to this rebellion by three of his troops (a fourth potential resignation is being mouthed in some circles) and Monday’s full council meeting will determine if he retains his grasp on the levers of power.

Cllr Fitzgerald is not available for comment but did find time to block this journalist earlier today from viewing his tweets.

Horsey Bridge Development,
Cardea, Peterborough
Friday 19 May 2023.
Picture by Terry Harris.

His deputy, Cllr Steve Allen, was more forthcoming.

He was disappointed but “what I think is even more disappointing, is that the people who elected these members as Conservatives now find that, within a week of the election, they’re independent.

“That is not really a democratic decision to get elected and then a couple of days later change your mind. I think that does need calling out.”

He told the local democracy reporting service that he “doesn’t have a view on Horsey Bridge”.

 

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