Making the announcement at this week's full council meeting (November 10) of Peterborough City Council, Cllr Peter Hiller, cabinet member for Investments, said: “The recommendation is that council authorise the re-allocation of the capital programme budget for the university access and slip-roads to deliver the car park by 2022, utilising the ‘Getting Building Funding Grant’, and £500k of council matched funding.”
However, Cllr Christian Hogg had reservations about the use of the funding, and said: “I’m not against the funding of the university, but we’ve all been told that we need to put our plans ‘on-hold’, pending review.
“It is certainly the view of our (Liberal Democrats) group that this project should be included in that, that this cost should be shelved until such time as we have had the chance to look at our finances across the board to see if this expenditure is in fact still needed.
“We have said at recent meetings that there are going to have to be some strong decisions made – unpalatable decisions in terms of cutting back on our finances, specifically the Capital Programme.
“I therefore think it would right and proper to send the message back to government that we’re taking this responsibility onboard, and that projects such as this be shelved until we undertake a proper review as we have been told we have to do.”
Cllr Nicola Day had similar concerns: “I’ve read through this report, and given our financial position it is very clear from central government that we must halt any non-statutory services from our Capital budget.”
Cllr Andy Coles, Cabinet Member for Finance, replied: “I just want to answer the concerns of Cllrs Hogg and Day by saying that the original sum set-aside for the car park project was £2m.
“We have managed to reduce that sum by £1.5m leaving just one quarter of the original and making a huge saving in the process.
“The remaining £500k required to complete the car park and access roads to it is, in fact, an ‘invest-to-save’ programme, because once the car park is built, we will then lease the 128 spaces to the university and receive rental from them which will pay-off the entire sum.
“So, rather than a Capital expenditure, the car park project has no cost to the council in real terms, and we are therefore content that this is an entirely appropriate use of funds, bearing in mind we’re also saving on £1.5m of borrowing.”
Cllr Nick Sandford, Leader of the LibDems Group, was not convinced however, and responded: “We’ve been given two very specific instructions by central government to cease anything other than the most absolutely essential or legally required capital spending.
“There might be requirements for this car park, but I don’t think it is absolutely essential or a legal necessity.
“We’ve also been instructed to align our budget to the corporate priorities of the council, and while those ‘priorities’ are very unclear if you look on the council website, I thought that one of our priorities was to get Peterborough to carbon-zero as a city by 2030.
“Why then are we building yet more car-parks? How are we going to achieve carbon-zero status if we continue to promote fossil-fuel vehicles?
“I appreciate the university might require a car park, but I’m not clear from the report how large it is, whether it is a car park for the university or a car park for the regional swimming pool.
“I’m not sure this is in-line with our corporate priorities or an essential expenditure at this time, so I cannot support this money being used in this way at this time when central government have given us such clear instructions and are literally looking at us under the microscope – I will not be supporting the proposal.”
Cllr Shaz Nawaz, Leader of the Labour Group, added: “It is no secret that my group is extremely supportive of the university project; however, we were all in a meeting just last night where the Leader of the Council, Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald made it very clear that all capital expenditure was to be considered ‘on-hold’.
“While we support this proposal in principle, I would remined Cllrs Hiller and Coles that we are ‘under the microscope’, as my colleague puts it, by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
“If they challenge us and question is as to why we went ahead with this particular project, rather than setting it aside so as not to compromise or even jeopardise other priorities, then what answer will we have available for MHCLG to demonstrate that we’ve done our homework, and that we’re on top of our game?”
Council leader Cllr Wayne Fitzgerald summed up by saying: “The position is this – we have a capital budget that we’re trying to reduce.
“But we wouldn’t reduce or not spend on something that made us money, because that’s the whole point in supporting our budget and I think Cllr Coles explained very clearly – this is not costing us any money.
“The failure to do it affects the viability of the university, so I don’t understand what the issue is.
“I want to make our position very clear to you all: if a commercial proposition comes to the council that sees a commercial return for the council, and is fully secured and guaranteed, we would be stupid not to take advantage of the opportunity not to make money for the council to support our budget.”
In addition to the £500k funding for the new car park, members were also asked to approve the commitment to invest a £20m capital grant into the Phase Three build and draw down the funding to mobilise the activities and milestones identified within the Business Case to achieve the completion of university Phase Three teaching building by end March 2024, including the Living Lab and University Quarter Cultural Hub.
This would be the second academic building on the ARUP site, following the £31m Phase One building and the £16m Phase Two research building that will house Photocentric, who will be developing cutting-edge technologies linked to carbon-zero products and equipment.
Members voted by majority (For=49, Against=9), to approve the funding for the car park.
Anglia Ruskin University Peterborough have committed to deliver up to 2,000 students for the 2022/23 academic year, rising to 3,000 by 2024/25 and up to 4,000 by 2025/26, with an aspirational target of up to 12,500 students by 2030/31.
By Rob Alexander
Local Democracy Reporting Service