A DIFFICULT – even disastrous – year at Welcome to Yorkshire is now compounded by its inability to be more transparent over the expenditure of taxpayers’ money in the wake of the resignations of former chief executive Sir Gary Verity and the troubled tourism organisation’s chair Ron McMillan.
This newspaper’s Editorial was very clear, in the wake of Sir Gary’s departure over his expenses and personal conduct, that Freedom of Information laws should be extended to those bodies which are in receipt of public funds. It urged WTY to take the lead.
“What has Welcome to Yorkshire to fear? Not only would it help to restore trust – and, maybe, win the back the confidence of those councils withholding money until these matters are cleared up – but it would also help convince MPs that all public servants entrusted with taxpayers’ money do need to be scrutinised more effectively in the future,” The Yorkshire Post argued.
Yet, six months after Sir Gary resigned, the real sadness is that WTY appears to have learned little about its responsibilities to the public purse as a company which receives half of its £4m a year budget from local councils. This much is clear after it emerged that the body had ‘‘borrowed’’ £500,000 from North Yorkshire County Council – a local authority not immune from funding pressures – in a controversial move condemned as a “bailout” by Lib Dem peer Paul Scriven who continues to highlight WTY’s governance failings.
Though the loan extension facility was secured some time ago, it has only now been activated. And while it is secured against WTY-owned property if it is not repaid – a rate of interest appears to have been agreed – the organisation will not reveal the “one-off costs” which necessitated this arrangement.
It can’t continue acting as ‘‘judge and jury’’ and treating questions about its financial affairs, and governance, in the same manner as a carefully-controlled and micro-managed PR event.
I’ve spent much of the past week asking WTY communications director Marie Christopher-Davey to set out the purpose of the loan and how this public money is going to be spent.
I also noted that a failure to do so would be a breach of her organisation’s promise to councils to be more transparent in return for their continued support – and asked why this matter did not feature in the minutes of the latest board meeting.
After four days, I was offered this holding response from interim chair, Keith Stewart, who said: “We are still working through what those figures are so can’t give a breakdown at this time but a full breakdown will be available as soon as we’re in a position to do so.”
To me, this reads like that WTY will not – or does not – know how this £500,000 will be spent. Pressed further, WTY then said the loan “enables the business to offset the one-off costs the organisation has faced” – officials still won’t explain the “one-off costs” in question – and implement changes to its governance.
But Welcome to Yorkshire – according to its last board papers – is clearly in flux as it seeks a new chief executive and tries to put in place very basic HR policies for its staff. Possible guidelines for a new code of conduct being discussed include “standards of behaviour, confidentiality, noise level, language and standards of dress”. Quite.
However public sector contractors are expected to abide by certain standards so why should WTY be exempt? Now the UCI cycling championships have finished, local authorities must make total transparency – and clear spending plans – a precondition of all future funding for WTY, starting with the £1m that councillors will be asked to sanction on Monday. If councillors don’t know precisely how this taxpayer’s money is to be spent, it should be withheld.
After all, the public interest demands nothing less if there is to be any chance of Welcome to Yorkshire retaining sufficient trust to move forward in its current guise.
HEALTH Secretary Matt Hancock’s willingness to say – or do – anything to remain in the limelight now appears to be limitless.
Asked last Sunday morning if Boris Johnson had “questions to answer” about accusations he had squeezed the thigh of journalist Charlotte Edwardes 20 year ago, Hancock said: “No. Boris has never lectured other people about their private lives.” By the evening, the Cabinet minister had changed his story and was telling Channel Four News: “I know Charlotte well and I entirely trust what she has to say.”
TALKING of Matt Hancock, he began the week by lauding the construction of 40 “new” hospitals in a £13bn project. Yet, when pressed, he had to concede that the number was, in fact, “six” and that the remaining schemes were the “rebuilding” of existing hospitals. This is exactly this type of disingenuous claptrap that drives a wedge of mistrust between the people and their politicians.
MORE bad news on the banking front. Not content with shutting branches across Yorkshire, many of Santander’s remaining stores in market towns or suburbs no longer open on a Saturday morning – as I discovered to my cost.
The reason, I am told, is that they want to focus on a Monday to Friday service – or encourage people to travel to larger towns and cities where branches do open on a Saturday. It doesn’t, however, help those who hold down full-time jobs.
ALL the best to Yorkshire’s very own Betty Boothroyd – still the only female Speaker of the House of Commons – who turns 90 on Tuesday. She would never have allowed herself to become the story if she’d been in the Speaker’s hotseat during Brexit. Unlike John Bercow.