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Why the secrecy over green capital money? New questions asked

February 8, 2016

I was pretty furious with the patronising fob off reply I received from Bristol Council’s Chief Executive to my request for transparency about the spending of £8million on the city’s year as European green capital. (See my blog of 29th January) The well salaried Ms Yates implied that I was either confused or ignorant and had clearly not appreciated the efforts the council had gone to put all the facts and figures on the table. Silly me!

In fact I had of course availed myself of the facts. I was also aware of the many attempts made by others to get more details, through repeatedly blocked freedom of information requests. It was precisely because of the council’s stonewalling that I decided to intervene. The council does not seem to understand that we now live in an age of transparency, where the public have a right to know how their politicians are spending their taxes.

Frustration with the council’s attitude led to a demonstration being held outside the green capital closing ceremony at the Colston Hall last Friday. I regret that this was necessary and if Ms Yates had not been so dismissive of reasonable requests for information it could have been avoided. Her attitude, one must assume on the orders of Mayor Ferguson, is detracting from the good work that has undoubtedly been done by hundreds of people during Bristol’s year in the environmental spotlight. I’m sure that many of the grants that have been funded from national and local government funds have been well spent and will have made a positive difference.  But unless the council tells us who got what, we can’t be sure. Why on earth must the identity of the lucky recipient of £245,000 to develop a website be kept a secret? Why shouldn’t we know who got paid £138,000 for “The Bristol Method”?

So I’ve had to write a follow up letter to Ms Yates. You can read it below and I will add her response when I receive it.  As well as some detailed questions on the spending during the year I’ve asked her why she thinks the council can defy the requirements of the Local Government Transparency Code. I’ve also asked why the consultants’ report on the structure and governance of Bristol 2015 Limited is being kept a secret. We do at least know it cost us all £8,700 but we don’t know what it said!

This is a big test for the new way of running Bristol with a directly elected Mayor.  I supported that change but strong executive power needs to be balanced by tough scrutiny by councillors.  If councillors are denied basic financial information then they can’t do their job of scrutinising the Mayor. If councillors are kept in the dark then the public will rightly be suspicious that the Mayor has something to hide. During an ITV interview about the lack of transparency last Friday Mayor Ferguson branded the demonstrators “a bunch of lunatics”.  He went on to say most of them were Liberal Democrats. Actually, it’s been great to see people from other parties and outside politics join me in making demands for openness. So, if there’s nothing to hide Mr Mayor, “publish and be damned” because if you don’t it will be you left looking rather silly and somewhat shifty.

 

 

 

STEPHEN WILLIAMS

Former Member of Parliament for Bristol West

By email:swilliams.libdems@gmail.com

 

 

2nd February 2016

 

For the attention of the Chief Executive and Chief Internal Auditor at Bristol City Council

 

Dear Nicola Yates and Melanie Henchy-McCarthy

 

Re: your reply concerning the Government grant of £7million given to Bristol City Council to support European Green Capital 2015

 

I write in response to your letter, dated 28th January 2016, which was the response to mine of the previous day.

Firstly, let me assure you that I did not write my letter from a position of ignorance of the facts. I was of course aware of the limited break down of the £7m DECC grant and £1m city council funding that had been provided to councillors, in particular members of the Audit Committee. I was also aware of the numerous freedom of information requests from members of the public, asking for further information.  It was the refusal of the council to give them a more detailed breakdown that led me to write to you. Your reply simply republishes the information already in the public domain and fails to provide the level of transparency that I would expect from the custodian of taxpayers’ money.

I would appreciate your response to my detailed questions set out below, within the next two weeks. I have two queries about the Local Government Transparency Code and the structure of Bristol 2015 Limited. I have a set of questions about the amounts budgeted and spent from the central and local government funds.

 

  • Local Government Transparency Code

 

The Department of Communities and Local Government published a revised and tightened Local Government Transparency Code in February 2015.  I was Communities Minister in the department at the time and am well aware of the Coalition Government’s intention to require more transparency about expenditure and procurement contracts right across the public sector.  It was an issue that I had campaigned for myself, specifically to open up the public sector to value for money challenge from small businesses, social enterprises and community groups.

The Code requires disclosure of expenditure by local councils of amounts above £500. The details of contracts valued at more than £5,000 should also be disclosed. The information should be published by councils on a monthly basis. It’s now a year since the Code was introduced so Bristol City Council has had plenty of time to comply. The grant of £7million from DECC has been broken down into ten headings, ranging from £2million to £138,892. You decline to publish any detailed information below these amounts. The same applies to the £1million of Bristol Council’s own resources.

Please could you advise me whether you believe the level of detail provided to councillors, campaigners, members of the public and me complies with the Code? Have you taken legal advice in order to justify your compliance or otherwise with the Code?

  • The Structure of Bristol 2015 Limited

It would seem from some of the answers to Freedom of Information requests that part of the reluctance of the council to publish detailed amounts stems from the belief that as some of the expenditure was undertaken by a limited company there is an exemption from FoI requests. Is this the basis for your refusal to be transparent? Have you take legal advice on this issue?

As I understand it, Bristol 2015 Limited was set up by the city council.  The Companies House records for company 08917477 show that on 28 February 2014 the original six subscribing members and directors included Mayor Ferguson and all gave City Hall as their correspondence address. Only one set of abbreviated accounts has been filed so far, to the year ended 28 February 2015.  The cash disclosed on the balance sheet at that point was £557,264. How much of the DECC grant of £7m was transferred to the company during that year (the council was awarded the money in April 2014) and how much has been transferred in the current year to 28 February 2016? How much has been transferred from the city council’s own £1m budget for green capital?

Please confirm whether any of the directors who have served to date (Philippa Bayley, George Robin Paget Ferguson, Carolyn Hassan, Luke Jerram, Guy Orpen, Kulveer Ranger, Andrew Garrad, Helen Bowring, Bevis Watts, Peninah Achieng-Kinserberg, Jane Stephenson, Malcolm Shepherd, Robert Barr and Elizabeth Zeidler plus Quayseco [Burgess Salmon] acting as Company Secretary) have received any emoluments or expenses from the company or the council. Please confirm whether any of the directors and members, their family members or other connected parties, their businesses or professional bodies have received any grants, commissions, awards, contracts or any other benefit financed wholly or in part from the £7million DECC grant or the £1m city council green capital budget.

Please provide details of any city council staff seconded to work for Bristol 2015 Limited and comment on whether their salaries and pension contributions continued to be made by the council or were met by the company. What has been the total payroll cost of seconded staff to date?

Finally on the company, I understand from an FoI request that the council is refusing to publish the report by Grant Thornton on the corporate governance of Bristol 2015 Limited. I was astonished to read in the council’s response that the report was being kept secret as the company only agreed to cooperate with the review if the findings were kept confidential. What concerns led to the commissioning of the review? Why has the council agreed to withhold its findings from the people of Bristol? The report apparently cost £8,700 – was this amount met from DECC money, the council’s green capital budget or other resources? Have you read the report? Has the council taken any action as a result of the report? Has the company taken any action, as far as you are aware, as a result of the report? Will you now publish its findings?

 

  • Expenditure met from the DECC grant of £7million

These questions are based on the council’s audit committee report from 27th November 2015, appendices A and B to item 14, which detailed the forecast or budgeted expenditure from the grant and the outturn to date.

1.Summits £1,679,409 forecast (with £979,153 outturn to November)

How many of these summits have been held in Bristol?

Please break down the costs between venue hire, speaker fees, hotel costs of delegates, entertaining and subsistence for delegates and travel costs of delegates split between motor car, train, air and any other mode of transport.

Specifically for the Paris COP21 climate change conference, how many delegates were funded to attend? It is a matter of record that Mayor Ferguson attended, how many people attended as part of his retinue? What were the travel, hotel and subsistence costs? Will the closing event scheduled for this coming Friday at the Colston Hall be met from this budget or another? Please state the cost of the event and any associated events.

 2. Green Tech £561,253 (£536,825)

It is stated that these plans were scaled back from the original £1.4m budget for green technology prizes.  How many competitions were eventually staged? What was the cost of the competitions and the value of the prizes? Where can I find a list of the prize winners? Who were the judges?

3. Schools £1,111,134 (£577,639)

How much has been paid direct to Bristol schools? Please list the amounts received by each school. How much has been paid to organisations other than Bristol schools? Please list each recipient with the amount received. What assurances have been received that the amounts were used to fund new activities, in addition to those already carried out by schools as part of their regular curriculum?

4. Neighbourhood arts £349,273 (£254,245)

Please list the projects that have or are to receive funding, with the amounts. Who decided which projects would receive funding? Was it Bristol 2015 Limited, councillors, council officers or some other organisation?  I assume these projects were separate to the Arts Council funding of approximately £750,000 that I believe has also been spent on green capital art projects?

5. Local funding £261,851 (£201,468)

Please list the projects that have or are to receive funding, with the amounts. Who decided which projects would receive funding? Was it Bristol 2015 Limited, councillors, council officers or some other organisation?

6. Strategic, small and neighbourhood grants £2,000,000 (£1,935,637)

Please define the three categories and state the total amount allocated to each of them. Please list the projects that have or are to receive funding, with the amounts. Who decided which projects would receive funding? Was it Bristol 2015 Limited, councillors, council officers or some other organisation?

7. Volunteers £272,228 (£166,505)

How many people have volunteered? Was the voluntary activity for funded green capital events or for organisations that might be associated with sustainability organisations in the city?  What is the split of expenditure between managing volunteers or for the expenses of volunteers? Please list any organisations that received money for organising volunteers.

8. City dressing & public awareness £347,230 (£277,692)

In plain English and in the normal language used in accounts may I assume this is advertising and marketing? Please list the companies and consultancies that received payment for advertising and marketing, together with the amounts. Please further analyse the expenditure by format, viz advertising on billboards and other public display points, advertisements in publications, advertorials in publications and any other examples of “city dressing and public awareness”.

9.Welcome events £277,784

First, I should declare that I was a guest at the dinner in MShed that marked the first day of Bristol as European Green Capital. Please state the cost of that event and the number of attendees. Please list the other welcome events and split the costs between venue hire, speaker fees, hospitality and travel. Did Bristol meet the cost of any guests from outside the city?

10. The Bristol Method £138,892 (£87,575)

This is worthy of a prize in itself as the most obscure description I have ever seen in a list of accounting categories. I have looked at the Bristol 2015 web site (see further questions below) and this is described as a knowledge transfer programme. Please could you elaborate? Has anyone been paid to develop “The Bristol Method”? Will this knowledge transfer continue beyond this week once green capital status has passed to Ljubljana?

 

  • Expenditure met from Bristol City Council’s green capital budget £1million

1. Commissioned partner Go Green £140,000

Who are this organisation? Who is the beneficial owner? What activities were funded from the grant, over and above what the organisation was already doing in the course of its business?

2. Commissioned partner Big Green Week £140,000

Who are this organisation? Who is the beneficial owner? What activities were funded from the grant, over and above what the organisation was already doing in the course of its business?

3. Happy City £25,000

Who are this organisation? Who is the beneficial owner? What activities were funded from the grant, over and above what the organisation was already doing in the course of its business?

4. Solar balloon £80,000 (£76,316)

Who are this organisation? Who is the beneficial owner? What activities were funded from the grant, over and above what the organisation was already doing in the course of its business? Where is or was the balloon? Where is it now? Is it owned by the council or was the payment a hire fee?

5. Web site and digital £245,000

To whom was the payment made? Would I be correct to assume this is for the development and maintenance of www.bristol2015.co.uk ? The site does not mention who built it, which is quite unusual.  The Terms and Conditions section states that it is owned by Bristol2015 Limited. The privacy section states that the data is held jointly by the company and the council. Will full control of the site pass to the council when the green capital year comes to an end this month? Was any part of the £245,000 for activities other than the web site I have mentioned? What specifically were the digital activities? The website is not interactive.

6. Support costs £410,000

Were these Bristol City Council in house recharges or payments to external organisations? Please analyse.

 

  • Conclusion

Given that I have derived my questions from the council’s own reports to its Audit Committee and that the amounts are very precise, I do not anticipate you having any difficulty in answering my questions.

For 17 years prior to my election as Bristol West’s MP in 2005 I was a corporate tax consultant, working with the accounts of large and complex organisations every day.  I was also a member of Bristol City Council and as Leader of the Opposition on the council sat on the main finance committees. In all that time I have not come across such an opaque set of arrangements in either the private sector or public sector as those that are the subject of this letter. It is simply not credible for you to maintain that you do not have access to the financial detail that lies behind the 16 broad, and in accounting terms somewhat odd, categories that have been used for the very limited disclosure of expenditure sourced from taxpayers’ money.

The public have every right to know how their money is being spent. I trust that you will now furnish them with at the very least the information I have requested in this letter. If you maintain your refusal to be open and transparent then I will have to ask my former colleagues at DCLG to intervene.

Yours sincerely

 

Stephen Williams

Former MP for Bristol West 2005-2015

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Robin Bowers permalink
    February 8, 2016 12:51 pm

    Thank you Stephen for stepping up to the plate and giving these persons running Bristol something to do and think about .

    For so long now people have been Petitioning , writing , attending meetings and trying to make contact with these people but have only been pushed aside and ignored .

    I am sure that your very detailed demands in the above letter will of no doubt have ruffled some feathers and had a few bums twitching .

    I myself believe that there have been a lot of underhand dealings during Fergusons term in office aswell as his lack of willingness to sit and listen to the citizens of Bristol .

    The people of Bristool are right behind you on this one , lets hope we can get to the bottom of it all and some justice dished out .

    I really cannot believe that the British Government have allowed this to happen , it’s as though they are unaware what the people of Bristol have had to put up with .

    I think it would be a good idea if you could raise some of the issues in Parliament .

    There is no smoke without fire .

    Yours

    Robin Bowers.

  2. February 8, 2016 2:27 pm

    Thanks Robin. I hope nothing underhand has taken place but organisations that refuse reasonable requests for transparency usually have something to hide.

  3. Mr Stephen Norman permalink
    February 8, 2016 3:08 pm

    Well done Mr Williams the public do have the right to know where this money went and without wishing to sound facetious it is common knowledge that a certain organisation in Bedminster received substantial funding. I am aware of further what one can only describe as dubious dealings around a certain ferry boat company so yes there is a urgent need for transparency in local government in Bristol and I do wonder if it is not the merchant ventures who seem to be benefiting most from the great Bristol give away in this statement I refer to the selling off of a major asset to the city Avonmouth Docks which I know the Lib Dems attempted to get transparency on, this particular project was given the code name Victoria in papers in the disguise of so called commercial sensitivity ?

  4. February 8, 2016 4:50 pm

    Thanks Stephen Norman. I think the Council will be forced to publish everything but they may be determined to hold out until beyond the Mayoral election. Once the details are published I think there will be lots of issues that will alarm people. Their failure to disclose very basic information, such as who was paid £245,000 for a quite basic website, is baffling unless you assume there is something fishy going on.

  5. Robin Bowers permalink
    February 8, 2016 6:08 pm

    We should be able to see these figures before Ferguson is allowed to stand for re election .
    Not that I think he will get re elected
    But I have a funny feeling that he has already got that rigged

    Can we not get a legal decision to avoid this ?

  6. February 8, 2016 6:31 pm

    There’s a partial list of payments of around £2.2m (as at March 2015) from BCC to Bristol 2015 Ltd here:

    https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/bristol_2015_ltd#incoming-715405

    A further £3.7m was paid to Bristol 2015 in October 2015 according to the £500 plus payments:

    http://www2.bristol.gov.uk/968/500/2015/10/

    • February 8, 2016 6:58 pm

      Thanks Bristol Citizen. The first FoI disclosure perfectly illustrates the problem, sums transferring to the company with no explanation of what was on the invoice from Bristol2015 Limited.
      The second list appears to be the council’s compliance with the LG Transparency Code. But the amounts actually net to zero and anyway there’s no narrative to explain, so it’s meaningless! We’ll all have to keep pushing. Astonishing that we need to.

  7. February 8, 2016 6:48 pm

    The Local Government Transparency Code should flush them out. But I’m surprised they’re not complying already.

  8. April 6, 2016 8:29 pm

    Al,though I voted for you from 2010 and then rejected you, in the election of 2015 (in response to several of the policies that you supported in the coalition). I must commend you on the blog ‘regarding Green Capital 2015’ 

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