Where has the Bristol Green Capital Money Gone?
Why on earth is Bristol City Council being so stubborn about revealing how it’s spent over £8mllion on Bristol’s year as European Green Capital? Questions from elected councillors and other campaigners have all been rebuffed. The council is trying to hide behind Bristol 2015 Limited, the company it set up to manage the year’s events. They claim it is exempt from freedom of information requests. This is despite the fact that virtually all of the budget it has to spend comes from the taxpayer – £7million from central government and £1million from Bristol council tax payers.
The Green Capital year ends next week. There will be a “closing ceremony”, with no doubt lots of chatter over canapes and warm white wine. Maybe the cost of this event will come out of the £277,784 forecast to be spent on “welcome events” or perhaps it will be met from the enormous sum of £1,679,409 to be spent on “summits”. Who knows?! And that’s the problem. The council is refusing to disclose any detail below the ten very broad headings it publishes about the £7m national government money and the six it has for the £1m of local money.
This is simply unacceptable. It may also be a breach of the law. I was Communities Minister in the Coalition Government. In February 2015 the Department of Communities and Local Government published the Local Government Transparency Code https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/local-government-transparency-code-2015
The Code requires full transparency of spending by local councils in England, down to quite a low level. Expenditure of over £500 must be disclosed as must the details of contracts worth more than £5,000. It seems to me that Bristol City Council is either in full breach of the code or, being charitable, is not acting within the spirit of the law.
Several freedom of information campaigners have tried to prise more detail out of the council. All have been rebuffed or fobbed off. Take a look at https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/search/Bristol%20Green%20Capital/all
I share their frustration for a very good reason. In 2013 the council approached me to ask both for my ideas on what should be done during green capital year and for help in securing government finance. As to ideas, I said I wanted to see tangible outcomes that would make Bristol a more sustainable, cleaner city. Perhaps a project with the city’s primary schools to reduce the number of children who are driven to school. Or insulating more homes of people in fuel poverty. For the money, I went away and spoke to my Lib Dem colleagues in government, Danny Alexander the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. After many discussions Danny authorised a £7million grant, to be overseen by DECC. Danny joined me in Bristol on 25th April 2014 to announce the good news. Now I’m concerned that much of that money may have been frittered away.
My exasperation at Bristol City Council’s refusal to be open about how it has spent a large amount of taxpayers’ money led me to write an open letter to Nicola Yates, the Chief Executive of the council. She has replied, also with an open letter. Both are reproduced below. In Ms Yates’s letter you will find links to the council’s audit committee reports, with the 16 expenditure categories below which they refuse to disclose any more detail. For those short of time and patience just look at Appendix B of the report of 27 November 2015. https://www2.bristol.gov.uk/committee/2015/sc/sc015/1127_14.pdf
Ask yourself, what could there be embarrassing to hide beneath the £1,679,409 on summits. How many people went to the Paris conference? What were their hotel and subsistence costs? Does anyone have the faintest idea about what the heck is the “Bristol Method”, costing £138,892?? I wonder who got the lucrative £245,000 to develop a web site? Nice money if you can get it.
I will carry on insisting to the council that they publish the full detail, in compliance with the Code, well before the Mayoral and council elections in May. I’m sure Mayor George Ferguson will be mightily embarrassed by the obduracy of his highly paid officers. I’ve known George for 30 years. I was on his campaign committee when he stood for Liberal MP for Bristol West in the 1987 general election. Freedom of Information was one of the SDP/Liberal Alliance’s main campaigns. I chaired the big election campaign rally at the Anson Rooms. The guest speakers were Shirley Williams and Des Wilson. Who was Des?, you ask! Well he was best known for being chair of the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Oh the irony! Over to you, George and Nicola.
MY LETTER TO THE COUNCIL
Former Member of Parliament for Bristol West
27th January 2016
An Open Letter to the Chief Executive and Chief Internal Auditor at Bristol City Council
Dear Nicola Yates and Melanie Henchy-McCarthy
The Government grant of £7million given to Bristol City Council to support European Green Capital 2015
I am writing to you in order to request full transparency about the spending of the £7million government grant that was given to Bristol in order to make our designation as European Green Capital 2015 a success. In late 2013 I was approached by Kris Donaldson, who was representing the council, asking for my help in securing government support for Bristol as the council alone could not afford a viable programme. I was pleased to help as one of the city’s MPs, not as a government minister.
In April 2014 Bristol was awarded £7million of public funding after I had personally lobbied the Treasury and the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) for the money. Since that time it has not been readily apparent how the council has used the funds. Now in January 2016 it has come to my attention, through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, that Bristol City Council did not transfer the £7m to Bristol 2015 Ltd. I have been informed by councillors that they were told the company was set up by the mayor to help administer the Green Capital events of the last year. The latest reply from the City Council to the FOI states:
“There is no agreement on the transfer of £7 million between DECC and Bristol City Council to transfer money to Bristol 2015 Ltd. and no transfer has taken place.”
Furthermore, the Memorandum of Understanding (a document outlining the agreements and obligations between DECC and Bristol City Council) also states the Council may be obliged to disclose information relating to the funding of the Green Capital under the FOI Act and that it must use “reasonable endeavours” to assist and cooperate with such requests. However as recently as the Full Council on 19th January 2016, the Mayor has continued to refuse to release any detailed information about the financial accounts of the Green Capital to any members of the public. This is bemusing to say the least; at every turn the concerns raised by Lib Dem councillors and campaigners regarding the finances of the Green Capital have been brushed aside on the supposition that Bristol 2015 Ltd, which they were told on multiple occasions had been given all of the £7m, was not subject to the Freedom of Information Act or indeed to any public accountability. Given the revelation in the FOI that the £7m never left the Council’s coffers, further attempts to hide behind the faceless and unaccountable private company, Bristol 2015 Ltd, is no longer a credible option for the council.
I am proud of the role my local Liberal Democrat colleagues played in securing the Green Capital status for Bristol. It was our administration that presented the bid that eventually lost out to Copenhagen, the clear favourite. That bid and the subsequent successful one in 2013 would of course have been made credible by many of the policies put in place by the council under the leadership of Barbara Janke and her team of executive members.
Now that the Green Capital year is over there will no doubt be a review of the success or otherwise of the period and whether there is a meaningful legacy for Bristolians. Key to any appraisal of the year will be full transparency of the amounts of public money spent during the year. The public (and the media) now expect all parts of the public sector to be fully transparent. It is not credible to refuse to publish the line by line accounts detailing the use to which the £7 million received from the government plus the £1.3m of the council’s money was put. A continuance of the stubborn refusal to be open about the use of such a large amount of public money will no doubt lead to speculation about what there is to hide. There are plenty of people who will claim that much of the money was frittered away on talking shops, fatuous “art” projects and mutual back slapping by people already committed to sustainable living. The only way to scotch such conjecture is to fully account for the full £8.3million of taxpayers’ money.
I look forward to receiving your prompt assurance that the full detailed accounts will be published in good time for public scrutiny well before the elections in May.
Former MP for Bristol West 2005-2015
THE REPLY FROM THE COUNCIL
28th January 2016
An open letter to Stephen Williams, Former Member of Parliament for Bristol West
Dear Stephen Williams,
Response to open letter: the Government grant of £7m given to Bristol City Council to support European Green Capital
I believe that you have been somewhat misinformed regarding transparency about the spending of the £7m government grant that was given to Bristol in order to make our designation as European Green Capital a success. The Green Capital ‘commonly asked questions’ section of Bristol City Council’s website https://www.bristol.gov.uk/bristol-green-capital/green-capital-commonly-asked-questions covers a number of the points you raise, so I can therefore respond promptly, as I have all of the key facts to hand. The resource was created to help ensure transparency and for ease of reference by interested parties during Bristol’s Green Capital year. Since the money was awarded, when Bristol received the £7m of public funding, it has consistently been reported to the City Council’s audit committee to ensure proper scrutiny of the spending of public funds. So far it has been presented four times: 1. 23rd September 2014 https://www2.bristol.gov.uk/committee/2014/sc/agenda/0923_1800_sc015.html 2. 7 th November 2014 https://www2.bristol.gov.uk/committee/2014/sc/agenda/1107_0930_sc015.html 3. 24thApril 2015 https://www2.bristol.gov.uk/committee/2015/sc/agenda/0424_0930_sc015.html 4. 27th November 2015 https://www2.bristol.gov.uk/committee/2015/sc/agenda/1127_0930_sc015.html In addition, Bristol City Council reports to the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) on a monthly basis and Bristol City Council’s various Scrutiny Committees have formally reviewed the approach to European Green Capital on five occasions: 1. February 2014: Planning and Transport Scrutiny Commission (subsequently replaced by the Place Scrutiny Commission), Presentation and discussion on overall approach to delivery of the award, including the institutional arrangements. 2. July 2014: Place Scrutiny, Report on institutional arrangements and governance, funding and the outline programme. 3. October 2014: Overview and Scrutiny Management Board, Report in response to questions from the Chair of the Overview and Scrutiny Management Board. 4. November 2014: Audit Committee, Report on governance arrangements in place in relation to Bristol 2015 Ltd and a financial update on grant funding and external sponsorship. 5. November 2014: Overview and Scrutiny Management Board, Report on the process for the grant programme including application and decision processes. It is correct that Bristol City Council did not transfer the £7m from DECC to Bristol 2015 Ltd. Funds have been made available to Bristol 2015 Ltd via a contract with Bristol City Council to enable delivery of specific aspects of their programme. This funding was released gradually throughout the year as work was undertaken. This was done to protect public money and ensure due diligence. It is a very common way of ensuring that activities funded by the public purse are properly delivered and accounted for. The Memorandum of Understanding (a document outlining the agreements and obligations between DECC and Bristol City Council) does indeed state that Bristol City Council may be obliged to disclose information relating to the funding of Green Capital under the FOI Act and that it must use “reasonable endeavours” to assist and co-operate with such requests. I believe that via the scrutiny processes outlined above, information relating to all public funding has been duly disclosed. You will be aware that the FOI Act relates to information held by public bodies and every FOI request relating to public funding has been responded to. Now that the Green Capital year is over we are progressing a review of the period. A detailed review of Green Capital year is being developed which will inform members of the Overview and Scrutiny Management Board before they meet on 2 March to evaluate 2015 activities. In addition, there will also be further opportunity to look at how the year has been funded when the Council’s Audit Committee meets on 11 March. This will bring the total number of times that the Green Capital project has been through the scrutiny process to 11. Regarding your comments about arts projects, I would direct you to Arts Council England, who awarded Bristol Cultural Development Partnership (BCDP) £744,564 through its Exceptional awards programme to deliver an extraordinary arts programme, as part of Bristol’s year as European Green Capital. These projects were not funded by DECC or Bristol City Council. We are grateful to Arts Council England for recognising the opportunity presented by the year and choosing to invest in it. Your last paragraph refers to full detailed accounts being published in good time for public scrutiny well before the elections in May. As I mentioned above, there will be further opportunity for scrutiny when the Council’s Audit Committee meets on 11 March. To deal with your point about a line by line budget, we are not able produce that level of detail because we do not hold it. To clarify, we do not hold this level of detail for any of the Council’s suppliers of goods and services. However if the premise of your concern is a misuse of public funds and the information I have outlined already is not sufficient, I would also add that Bristol 2015 Ltd limited has been the subject of two internal audits from Bristol City Council to ensure appropriate financial processes are in place and followed. In addition, the company has been subject to its own external audit to ensure financial probity. Bristol City Council allocated £1m to the Bristol 2015 programme. This was agreed at a Cabinet meeting on 27 June 2013. An extra £200,000 has been specifically allocated to the One Tree Per Child project, which is now being managed directly by the City Council. So the correct total in terms of Bristol City Council’s contribution to Bristol 2015 Ltd is £1m not £1.3m, bringing the total amount of public funding the Council is responsible for to £8m, of which 25% (£2m) was distributed through grants across the city with the reminder available to Bristol 2015 Ltd to deliver against its contractual obligations. I’m sorry that you did not have the opportunity to avail yourself of this information before you wrote your letter, but I am pleased that we share pride in the role that we and colleagues across the city have played in securing Green Capital status for the city.
Nicola Yates OBE
City Director Bristol City Council