Question time for councils over scrutiny of Welcome to Yorkshire and Sir Gary Verity – Tom Richmond

WELCOME To Yorkshire’s new-found transparency after the troubled tourism agency incurred £500,000 of costs following the resignations of the now disgraced ex-chief executive Sir Gary Verity, and former chairman Ron McMillan, is testimony to the pressure exerted by this newspaper and others.

Sir Gary Verity is the former chief executive of Welcome to Yorkshire.

Part of the overhaul which became conditional on councils providing £1m of funding this month, and outgoing Wakefield Council leader Peter Box becoming the new chair of WTY, it contrasts with the organisation’s obfuscation just months ago when it was still judge and jury on its own affairs.

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When councillors signed off £320,000 in late June amid mounting concerns about the absence of basic governance – or HR – policies, Welcome to Yorkshire’s communications chief told me that there would be “greater accountability and oversight” in a “transparent and flexible way”. That did not happen, did it?

The Welcome to Yorkshire team - including commercial director Peter Dodd (centre) - with their gold medial-winning exhibt at the Chelsea Flower Show which went three times over budget.

They also stonewalled calls for WTY to volunteer to become compliant with Freedom of Information laws as part of a new spirit of openness. “We’re not an organisation that is subject to Freedom of Information,” they said.

Now Coun Box has conceded that this approach had flaws. Asked if WTY should have been more open and transparent after Sir Gary quit, he told The Yorkshire Post: “Frankly, yes, but the board and I will operate in an open, honest and transparent way.” That’s good.

Asked about the lessons learned, he went on: “It’s less about the communications at WTY – they’ve a good team – we need better governance, financial and strategic planning. I want us to be an open organisation. Everyone here has signed up to that.” Note the word ‘everyone’ – that’s encouraging.

Peter Box is the new chair of Welcome to Yorkshire.

He also promised openness: “I am committed to being as open as possible. The Board will discuss how we become more open. By being more open, journalists and others, can actually get information much quicker than having to go through the FOI route.” We will hold him to that.

And he wants meetings held in public: “I will be asking the board to hold future board meetings in public and aim for them to be webcast. I’d like to take these meetings across the county and give the opportunity for people to question us.” We also look forward to this.

Such assurances seemingly mark a total change in the culture of Welcome to Yorkshire which receives half of its £4m-a-year budget from taxpayers via local councils.

But there is one other area that must not be left unchallenged – and that is why past directors, including council leaders, chief executives and representatives, did not sufficiently challenge Welcome to Yorkshire’s management regime, the “cult” of Sir Gary and the “culture of spend now, worry about it later” now condemned by Coun Box and others.

Given that redacted reports into Sir Gary’s legacy – even the Chelsea Flower Show display cost £250,000 instead of the budgeted £80,000 – came hours before the multi-millionaire former executives of travel firm Thomas Cook were held to account by Parliament’s Business Committee, and told by Leeds MP Rachel Reeves to pay back some of their pay, it may yet require a similar Commons inquiry to get to the bottom of Welcome to Yorkshire’s many errors.

For, while the tourism body has done exceptional work over the past decade and wants a greater share of its funding to come from the private sector in future, its reputation has been left in tatters by a scandal that could, and should, have been avoided if there was proper oversight in the first place. As such, today’s question is this – who governs the governors?

FAIR play to Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, for getting in touch after my critical column on Tuesday about inaction on rail franchises – and the need for urgent action.

Unlike those who – misguidedly – still want to give Northern’s management the benefit of the doubt, and blame falling performance on Network Rail, Mr Shapps does appear to grasp the urgency of the situation.

The following day, he told MPs: “I entirely believe we cannot carry on just thinking it’s OK for trains not to arrive or Sunday services not being in place. That simply has to change.”

Angry that 57 per cent of Northern services – just over one in two – arrive “on time”, he is now considering whether to nationalise the franchise and put in place a so-called ‘Operator of Last Resort’ controlled by the Government.

At least the Minister does appear to accept that the status quo is unacceptable – even more so after it emerged that the Pacers will remain in service next year.

Describing the ancient trains as a “symbol of the old railway continuing”, he added: “That is very frustrating and it all plays into the overall concern I have about the set-up.” At last...

PROOF the Tories are not the only party divided by Brexit is illustrated by this letter on the EU: “It is deeply corrupt and only answers to fat cat multi-national corporations and greedy bankers. The sooner we are shot of it, the better.” If you think they’re the words of an ardent right-wing Brexiteer, you’d be mistaken. They were written by Ronnie Campbell – Labour MP for Blyth Valley.

A GREAT idea from former Thirsk and Malton MP Anne McIntosh as a new rural commission is launched in North Yorkshire – the Tory peer says every new civil servant appointed by Defra “should spend three months embedded in a rural environment” to experience the impact of their policies on the countryside.

Given these echo comments earlier this year by the Bishop of Ripon, please can Theresa Villiers, the desperately disappointing Environment Secretary, make the necessary arrangements. And if not, why not?