Councils who provide over £1m a year to Welcome to Yorkshire are rallying behind the under-fire tourism agency as inquiries into Sir Gary Verity’s departure loom. Chris Burn reports.
Hull City Council leader Stephen Brady was as surprised as anyone by the shock news of Sir Gary Verity’s resignation on health grounds following concerns being raised about the Welcome to Yorkshire chief executive’s expenses claims and behaviour towards staff. But he feels he shouldn’t have been – Brady was a member of the tourism agency’s board.
Speaking prior to his resignation yesterday, Brady told The Yorkshire Post that as a newly-appointed member of the board in December who had only attended one meeting in early March in the role, he was in the dark about the allegations involving Sir Gary.
He has now decided to quit the 12-person board, which includes three other council leaders and Leeds Council chief executive Tom Riordan who acts in an ‘observer’ role.
“When he left it was obviously a big shock because when you go on a board you need the necessary information,” he said. “You want to be sure you have all the facts at your disposal. But I found out through the media. I absolutely didn’t have a clue. I was obviously very surprised by not being given the facts.”
The Hull City Council leader’s resignation follows a difficult few weeks for the tourism agency after Sir Gary’s departure was announced on March 22, two days before a Sunday Times investigation into allegations against the chief executive was published. Since then, two parallel independent investigations into Verity’s expense claims and allegations of bullying staff have been ordered, while West Yorkshire Police has asked for an urgent meeting to help it determine whether criminal offences may have been committed.
Meanwhile, huge scrutiny has been placed upon the way in which the tourism agency, which is a private company but receives around half of its £4m annual income from public funds, uses money that ultimately comes from local taxpayers through council subscriptions and grants. Last Wednesday, Sheffield Council announced it intended to withhold its annual £50,000 subscription until the investigations into the circumstances around the chief executive’s departure are complete.
However, when The Yorkshire Post contacted the region’s other councils to establish their stance, no other local authority is currently planning a similar measure – although Barnsley said it would make an “informed decision” on future funding when the inquiries are complete, while Scarborough said officers were “reviewing the council’s position”. However, most authorities offered support to Welcome to Yorkshire and highlighted its importance to promoting their areas. Paul Shevlin, chief executive of Craven District Council, said its £10,000 per year annual contribution has “provided great value for money for Craven residents and businesses, due to the work of Welcome to Yorkshire to raise the profile of the area”. He added: “It is of course right that the current allegations are being investigated fully. However, we continue to support the work of the team at Welcome to Yorkshire, and particularly the events such as the Tour de Yorkshire and the 2019 UCI Road World Championships, which do so much to highlight our wonderful area.”
That Devlin’s stance is shared by other local authorities is perhaps of little surprise – since Welcome to Yorkshire was formed in 2009 as a successor to the Yorkshire Tourist Board – driven by the tenacious Verity who famously secured the opening stage for the Tour de France in 2014 for the region – the value of tourism to the regional economy has increased by almost 50 per cent to £9bn a year.
But the public body due to have the biggest say on the future of its taxpayer funding is one yet to have its first meeting. The newly-created North and West Yorkshire Business Rates Pool is to be made up of 14 councils who will put around £19m collected from increased business rates into a combined fund used to support economic growth.
It will be the result of a merger of the Leeds City Region Business Rates Pool – made up of Bradford, Calderdale, Harrogate, Kirklees, Leeds, Wakefield and York – and the North Yorkshire pool authorities of that area’s county council, plus Craven, Hambleton, Richmondshire, Ryedale, Scarborough. Selby District Council is also joining the new organisation, which has yet to meet to formalise its constitution and agree spending plans.
The Leeds City Region pool provided £2.7m of funding in subscriptions and grants to Welcome to Yorkshire in the past three years, while the North Yorkshire pool was making a combined annual contribution of £250,000.
Tim Swift, chair of the Leeds City Region pool board and leader of Calderdale Council, issued a statement last week saying “any misuse of public funds is completely unacceptable” and that an urgent meeting was being sought to set conditions for the granting of future funding. But he added: “The councils represented on the board will continue to support the Welcome to Yorkshire team and work with them to deliver the flagship events in the region and county.”
Richard Cooper, leader of Harrogate Borough Council and a member of the Welcome to Yorkshire board as well as the Leeds rates pool, says while the agency’s governance issues will be examined in the inquiries, there is little doubt over its successes. “I don’t think anyone can question the amount of money being brought into Yorkshire by the many events we have had.”
Carl Les, another Welcome to Yorkshire board member and leader of North Yorkshire County Council, which directly contributes over £84,000 a year to the agency, says he also firmly believes it represents value for money for taxpayers. “We get the publicity that is engendered, that level of promotion that Welcome to Yorkshire do and do so well. Welcome to Yorkshire have really put Yorkshire on the map and not just for cycling. It is well worth our while spending £80,000 per year.”
He says he believes there will be plenty of applicants to replace the “larger than life” Verity. “It is a very sad end to a glittering career. But Welcome to Yorkshire isn’t just Gary, there is a team of 40 people who have worked well to deliver good results. I’m sure the board will be prepared to learn the lessons and maybe the board needs to be strengthened.”
Les rejects the idea that council leaders making funding decisions about the tourism agency may be too close to Welcome to Yorkshire – instead arguing their presence on the board increases assurance that public money is being spent properly.
Les has a simple message for other council leaders. “Look at the results that have been achieved over the last ten years and think ‘do these results represent value for money for our investment?’ If they do, the organisation is still there, made up of very talented people. It is not just one person.”
Yorkshire ‘won’t be same without Verity’
East Riding of Yorkshire council leader Stephen Parnaby is another recent appointee to the Welcome to Yorkshire board, having joined in December.
He says while he has little knowledge of the issues surrounding Verity’s departure, he knew and liked the ex-chief executive on a personal level.
Speaking in a personal capacity, he says: “I have known Gary since he was originally appointed. He has done a terrific job for Yorkshire. Yorkshire will not be the same without Sir Gary. I caveat that with I don’t know what has happened beyond that.”
Parnaby says of the future for the agency: “I have got lots of thoughts but let’s wait until the investigations come out. We shouldn’t predict their findings and what the board will do.”