Council bosses 'wasted millions keeping Welcome to Yorkshire afloat', claims Paul Scriven

Local councils wrongly "wasted" millions of pounds keeping Welcome to Yorkshire afloat despite years of financial problems, a Yorkshire peer has said.

Council leaders instead intend to work with businesses to establish a new Destination Marketing Organisation for the region.

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But Lord Scriven said today's decision is one that could have been made years ago following long-running and well-documented financial problems in the wake of the departure of its first chief executive Sir Gary Verity in March 2019.

Welcome to Yorkshire's final This Is Y conference took place shortly after Gary Verity's departure as chief executive in March 2019. Picture: James Hardisty

Sir Gary left on health grounds in the midst of concerns about expense spending and treatment of staff - leading to two costly inquiries being ordered.

West Yorkshire Police investigated the expenses spending but determined no action would be taken. Sir Gary repaid over £44,000 to Welcome to Yorkshire.

In September 2019 Welcome to Yorkshire was granted an emergency £500,000 loan by North Yorkshire County Council at a seven per cent interest rate after reaching a point where it would have been unable to pay staff without the advance.

In January 2020, James Mason joined the organisation as its new chief executive on a salary of £130,000 a year - over £100,000 less than Sir Gary's £243,000 salary had been. He set out his ambitions to reduce the organisation's reliance on public funding but those attempts were held back - partly as a result of the pandemic.

Paul Scriven has been a long-standing critic of Welcome to Yorkshire

By August 2020, he had halved the number of staff working for the organisation from 49 employees to just 22.

In February 2021, Welcome to Yorkshire recorded a £200,000 loss in its most recent set of accounts covering two years up to March 2020. It received around £1.2m in the form of an emergency bailout from local councils in summer 2020.

The plea for that extra cash came after £1m of expected business rates pool money from local councils was not delivered due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic combined with the organisation’s decision to suspend membership fees for tourism businesses at the start of the coronavirus crisis.

The £500,000 loan to North Yorkshire County Council was eventually paid back last year through the sale of a Welcome to Yorkshire-owned building in York that had originally belonged to its predecessor organisation, the Yorkshire Tourist Board.

Former Welcome to Yorkshire chief executive Sir Gary Verity

Mr Mason left the organisation in October 2021 in the midst of an ongoing investigation into an unspecified complaint about his conduct. He denied his departure was linked the complaint and four board members resigned in apparent protest at him leaving.

Welcome to Yorkshire failed to replace him as chief executive and council leaders sitting on the Yorkshire Leaders' Board, which meets in private, ordered a review into whether they should continue to support the organisation in its current guise. That led to today's decision to end public funding for the agency, resulting in it being plunged into administration.

Lord Scriven said of today's announcement: "This is a really sad consequence of council leaders, mayors and senior officers of councils putting their heads in the sand and avoiding the difficult and painful decisions that had to be made years ago. It has the net effect that millions of pounds has been wasted.

"Welcome to Yorkshire has sold its only asset to clear its debts and the taxpayer and Yorkshire businesses have been left with nothing and nobody to promote the county at a regional level.

James Mason replaced Gary Verity as Welcome to Yorkshire chief executive but left the organisation himself in October 2021

"I feel very sorry for the staff who have tried their hardest despite poor leadership.

"Looking forward, we have to be clear that Yorkshire tourism isn't just about the organisation that promotes it, it is about the thousands of small and medium-sized businesses who welcome people to our wonderful county."

Lord Scriven said tourism businesses should be in the "driving seat" of decisions about the new organisation to replace Welcome to Yorkshire instead of "council leaders who have failed the tourism industry".

He said the new organisation should be driven by the private sector and potentially follow the model used in Cornwall. In 2015, Cornwall Council ended public sector funding of Visit Cornwall, giving it a one-off £300,000 sum to support its transition into a Community Interest Company funded by the private sector.

As part of the changes, Visit Cornwall stopped putting on events and the Cornwall Tourism Awards and focused on supporting and promoting the work of its members.

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