EXACTLY four weeks after chief executive Sir Gary Verity’s resignation was confirmed – and councils here started to stop their funding until they had received satisfactory answers – Welcome to Yorkshire has accepted that it must now reform if it is to command the confidence of staff and taxpayers.
This recognition appears to leave the troubled tourism body in better shape now than it was at the start of the week. Chairman Ron McMillan has, quite rightly, resigned over his ineffectual governance and auditors will now examine every expense claim made by WTY’s senior management team over the past six years.
This move – and confirmation that the key findings will be made public – is a necessary first step towards regaining the lost trust. So, too, is the invitation to past and present staff to take part in a separate inquiry into the organisation’s behavioural culture. That its recommendations will be placed in the public domain is also welcome as part of the greater transparency sought after Sir Gary quit over a £40,000 expense claim – subsequently repaid – and his conduct towards colleagues.
Yet, while such introspection is imperative given that WTY receives around half of its £4m annual income from public funds, it is also a timely opportunity – 10 years after its inception – to reappraise and redefine its values, ethos and objectives.
Tourism is one of Yorkshire’s great success stories – it is now reputed to be worth £9bn a year – and the whole WTY team, together with many others, have raised the area’s national and international profile. A knee-jerk reaction to “errors of judgment” made by Sir Gary – or anyone else – should not be allowed to jeopardise this.
However this does not excuse a cavalier attitude towards the spending of taxpayers’ money. Quite the opposite. Such responsibilty also requires the highest standards of probity, a test that WTY will have to pass when Keith Stewart, the new interim chair, is replaced by a new figurehead and a board of directors which maximises the county’s talents and also reflects the diversity of this region’s people.
As such, it is hoped the role’s prestige will attract individuals who can fulfil this undertaking – people of the calibre of, say, William Hague, the former Foreign Secretary; Tory peer Margaret Eaton who led Bradford Council before chairing the Local Government Association; ex-Thirsk and Malton MP Anne McIntosh who chaired Parliament’s Environment Committee or Right Reverend James Jones, the distinguished bishop who lives near Malton.
Yet the recruitment of a new chair and chief executive is also the time for a very public discussion about WTY’s future strategy. For, while audacious events like the 2014 Grand Départ and Tour de Yorkshire have put the county on the map ahead of this September’s UCI Road World Championships, a commonly-held view that such a strong focus on cycling has, and continues to, come at the expense of other sectors like the food industry or promotion of Yorkshire’s coast. What should be the priority for the decade ahead?
And then there is the analysis being planned into the benefits accrued from WTY’s sponsorship of major events, such as the Scarborough Cricket Festival or the Ebor race meeting at York, when these pre-eminent events already showcase the best of Yorkshire. Likewise its annual award-winning exhibit at the Chelsea Flower Show.
These promotions might be effective use of WTY funds, but the question should, nevertheless, be asked. And the point is this. Nothing should be off limits if Welcome to Yorkshire – and the wider tourism industry – is to make the most of the unexpected opportunity which has now emerged from the past month’s turmoil.