Yorkshire faces being sidelined over Tour after Whitehall plot

Whitehall officials engaged in a secret plot with a London-based tourism agency to remove Yorkshire’s name from next year’s hosting of the Tour de France and rebrand it as an all-England event, explosive new documents reveal.

Leeds Town hall puts out the flags for the Tour de France
Leeds Town hall puts out the flags for the Tour de France

Minutes of a private meeting of senior sports officials in central London show how the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has decided to market the event as the “England” Grand Départ, in a clear snub to the Yorkshire tourism bosses who last year beat the Government’s own Scottish-based bid to secure the event for the region.

The minutes form part of a tranche of documents released to the Yorkshire Post under Freedom of Information laws, which reveal the depth of the tension and mistrust between Whitehall and the Yorkshire-based team that secured the 2014 Grand Départ.

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The heavily-censored documents reveal that UK Sport, the Government’s sports funding quango, considered the event to be a “very high risk project” with “significant financial and logistical challenges”.

It advised the Government in March not to give public money to the event planned by tourism agency Welcome to Yorkshire due to concern over the “financial and logistical viability of the plans”. It also expressed “limited confidence in Welcome to Yorkshire’s leadership of the event”.

Most contentious, however, is the revelation that DCMS and UK Sport sought to bypass Yorkshire altogether in the marketing of the event, via the national tourism agency VisitEngland.

“(UK Sport) officers met with DCMS and VisitEngland,” the minutes from a private meeting on March 13 state.

“They discussed marketing the event as ‘England’, and the opportunities for VisitEngland to be involved in this. VisitEngland confirmed they would be keen to lead, and would provide...”

The rest of the note has been redacted by UK Sport’s lawyers.

The issue around how the Grand Départ is marketed remains hugely contentious, with the opportunity to showcase Yorkshire as a tourism destination to a global audience widely seen as the central benefit to hosting one of the world’s biggest sporting events.

Welcome to Yorkshire’s request for funding for a new tourism strategy to capitalise on the event was refused by Sports Minister Hugh Robertson in April, however, on the advice of UK Sport.

In a letter seen by the Yorkshire Post, Mr Robertson made clear that “neither (UK Sport) or I are convinced this event needs an expensive marketing strategy”, and that “there is a need to consider the branding for this event outside Yorkshire, to ensure we present a consistent message”.

VisitEngland, he said, would be asked to “do some urgent thinking about how we can achieve this”.

It is now clear the agency has been tasked to market the event as “England’s” Grand Départ, capitalising on the fact that following the two days of racing through Yorkshire’s most spectacular countryside, there will be a third stage between Cambridge and London as the cyclists make their way to France.

Last month, exactly a year before the Grand Départ takes place in Leeds, Visit England sent out its first Tour de France press release from its offices in central London.

Tellingly, the press release was titled “England gears up to host Tour de France 2014”. It made 11 separate references to “England”, and just one to “Yorkshire” – a mention of the Yorkshire Wolds in the final paragraph.

“England has embarked on a cycling revolution,” the press release began. “July 5 marks one year to go until the world’s biggest cycle race comes to English shores.”

The release was defended by James Berresford, chief executive of VisitEngland, who insisted the agency was simply doing its job.

“Our job as the national tourist board is to support all destinations in England linked with the Tour de France including Yorkshire, host to the Grand Départ, as well as Cambridge and London,” Mr Berresford said.

“We have been asked by the Government to make the most of this incredibly exciting event to market cycling tourism opportunities in England, and our strategy will be to highlight all the great destinations around England in which to enjoy this great sport.”

Relations between the Yorkshire team which secured the event and sports officials in London have been hugely strained ever since Welcome to Yorkshire launched its bid last year to bring the Tour to the region.

DCMS, UK Sport and VisitEngland’s sister tourism agency VisitBritain all backed a rival bid which would have seen the race start in Edinburgh, just months before the Scottish independence referendum.

Rows over how the event would be funded exploded after Yorkshire’s success was confirmed last December. It was finally announced last month that a new Tour de France body will be set up to oversee the event, chaired by former UK Sport and Wakefield Trinity chairman Sir Rodney Walker.

A funding deal has been agreed that will see Yorkshire’s councils contribute £11m and the Treasury £10m, with Welcome to Yorkshire stripped of overall control but given a key role in organising an arts festival in the lead-up and ensuring the event has a successful legacy. Nonetheless, officials at the agency privately suspect DCMS and UK Sport of harbouring bitter sentiments over their success in beating off the Scottish bid, and will see the engagement of Visit-England as a further attempt to sideline them.

A DCMS spokesman denied this was the case, insisting it will work closely with both tourism agencies to give the event maximum exposure.

“We are completely committed to helping make the Tour De France 2014 Grand Départ in Yorkshire and the Cambridge to London stage a great success, and are contributing up to 
£10m of exchequer funding to 
make that happen,” the spokesman said.

“We are working in close collaboration with all the key stakeholders including Welcome to Yorkshire and VisitEngland to maximise the benefits of hosting the start of the world’s biggest cycle race.”