Scandal-hit tourism agency Welcome to Yorkshire intends to reduce its reliance on public sector funding under its new leadership team – but wants more time to repay a £500,000 council loan which kept the organisation afloat last year.
New chief executive James Mason told The Yorkshire Post that the private company, which currently receives around half of its funding from the taxpayer, will work to increase the percentage of its revenue coming from the private sector by building membership levels and increasing commercial opportunities.
“The 50/50 split needs to be weighted 60/40 or 70/30 in the future. Can that happen? I don’t know but that is what we have got to aim to do,” he said.
Mr Mason said one of the issues to be discussed at the organisation’s next board meeting later this month will be the terms of repayment for a £500,000 loan Welcome to Yorkshire (WtY) took out last September from North Yorkshire County Council. Among WtY’s board members are North Yorkshire County Council leader Carl Les.
The loan, which prevented the financially-troubled organisation from running out of money which would have left it unable to pay staff that month, is currently due to be repaid in full by this November. The organisation has struggled to recover from the fallout from the resignation of ex-chief executive Sir Gary Verity last March amidst bullying and expenses spending allegations.
Independent investigators were subsequently unable to determine whether almost £1m of expense claims by Sir Gary and other senior managers had been “reasonable”, with Sir Gary repaying over £25,000 in expenses found to have been incurred “not wholly for the benefit” of WtY.
Mr Mason said of the potential loan extension: “It is an ongoing conversation and naturally we would like to look at the payment terms of that. I think after the next board meeting we will have a clearer picture. We would like to give ourselves as long as possible but at the same time respect the fact that is a loan that has been given in good grace to us.”
At a meeting on Thursday, leaders of 14 councils in North and West Yorkshire are expected to approve the release of a further £666,000 in funding for Welcome to Yorkshire after a report by Kirklees Council chief executive Jacqui Gedman, confirmed “significant progress” has been made in improving the management of the organisation.
The £660,000 figure is part of a £1m grant from the business rates pool which was agreed in October on the basis that improvements were made. At that meeting, council leaders were told the agency was “reliant” on getting the money to survive.
But another report going to the council leaders who make up the North and West Yorkshire Business Rates Pool this week said there are no current plans for that committee to continue funding WtY into the next financial year.
“No provision has been made from this pool to fund Welcome to Yorkshire beyond March 31 2020,” it says.
Mr Mason said talks about future funding from the business rates pool are “ongoing” and he hopes to persuade local authorities to continue to back the agency as a new strategy is introduced.
“I’m hoping that all stakeholders will give me and my team an opportunity to speak with them and understand the challenges we face. It has been well-documented the options for Welcome to Yorkshire should go in the future included winding things up and I think the right decision was made that we need Welcome to Yorkshire as an agency that can market the county. But I think it is important we all understand internally and externally we need to stand on our own two feet.”
‘Personal memberships’ plan mooted
Welcome to Yorkshire could introduce “personal memberships” for individuals who want to back its work and support the region’s tourism industry, Mr Mason has said.
Membership is currently only open to tourism-related businesses but Mr Mason said early discussions are taking place about introducing a new tier of membership to help improve the company’s financial position. “We need to be entrepreneurial, be commercial, develop new income streams and look at ways we can grow membership.”
He said the organisation also needs to represent taxpayers effectively given its public sector funding.