TODAY’S exposé into the mismanagement of West Yorkshire Combined Authority following a protracted investigation matters for three very sound reasons.
First, it is hard-earned taxpayers’ money which has been spent on exclusive networking events, a soaring wage bill, lavish lunches, non-existent conferences, aborted rebranding exercises and so on – all while running up a £4m budget shortfall.
Second, this key public body – responsible for West Yorkshire’s economic development – and other senior officials have clearly not learned from the governance failings which left the former marketing agency Leeds and Partners mired in scandal. Why not?
Third, the devolution of policy powers from London to the region demands robust scrutiny, accountability and transparency protocols being in place from the outset to ensure that budgets are spent wisely and prudently. This has clearly not been happening with the rigour that taxpayers have every right to expect.
If Ministers and MPs had been so cavalier with public funds, it would be a national scandal with questions being asked in the Houses of Parliament. Just because the culprit is a major regional quango in this instance doesn’t lessen the seriousness of the failings catalogued by The Yorkshire Post and their wider ramifications.
Quite the opposite. WYCA’s reluctance to answer many of this newspaper’s questions in a timely, and straightforward, manner, points to one of two conclusions – either this organisation has not fully grasped its probity requirements or has been trying to mask flawed financial controls and record keeping.
Either way managing director Ben Still – who enjoys a salary package of £172,000 a year – needs to do far more to reassure residents that he, and his extensive top team, are getting to grips with the highlighted issues after senior Kirklees councillor Robert Light, chairman of WYCA’s own scrutiny committee, said previous decision-making “has not had the rigour, due process or transparency expected of a public body using public money”.
Of course, there will be occasions when money on hospitality and entertainment is justifiable if it helps to attract inward investors. That’s accepted. Yet spending £7,000 on two lunches at a prestigious Mayfair restaurant in London, or £1,600 so a private chauffeur could ferry business delegates to and from Leeds Bradford Airport, are two examples which point to local government largesse rather than austerity.
Moving forward, WYCA does now have an opportunity to transform its procedures. This investigation only began many months ago when this newspaper criticised the body’s out-of-date website for making reference to a forthcoming meeting that had already taken place, prompting a number of whistle-blowers to come forward.
Like The Yorkshire Post, they believe that a well-managed organisation should have nothing fear from publishing every decision, expenditure and expense online in a clear, transparent and easy-to-follow manner. Not only would this help to change WYCA’s still questionable culture, but offering a gold standard would help to increase awareness about its important remit and responsibilities.
And it could be transformative. For, if the Combined Authority rose to the challenge rather than appointing more executives to obfuscate and suppress the release of information, the pressure would be on every other public body in Britain to do likewise. Over to you, Ben Still.