Bristol Green Capital spending – the farce continues
I spent the morning in one of the most farcical council meetings I’ve ever attended. Bristol Council’s Audit Committee is the closest thing the city has to the Public Accounts Committee, Parliament’s spending watchdog. The meeting was supposed to consider Bristol’s year as European Green Capital. But at 9.30am as the meeting started the chair announced that there was no one from Bristol 2015 Limited present to answer the questions from either the public or the councillors. But the meeting went ahead, going round in circles until 11.15 when the chair announced that someone from the company was on their way. The councillors could make their points again but the public (ie me!) could not.
The company representative was Nicola Yates. She is one of the public sector’s well remunerated double hatters. She is paid £160,000 (plus benefits) as Bristol Council’s City Director. She was also appointed as Chief Executive of Bristol 2015 Limited. For her second job she was given a salary of £18,000….in order to prove her independence from the council. Such is the ludicrous charade that Bristol 2015 Limited is nothing to do with the council and therefore outside the scope of local government transparency rules.
Still, I had high hopes of a bravura performance from Ms Yates. If anyone could answer questions about Bristol council tax payers’ money, central government grants and their spending by Bristol 2015 Limited, surely it was Nicola. All my questions would be answered. All my foxes shot. I could go back into political retirement. But what a let down. Nicola wasn’t adequately prepared for the meeting. She hadn’t seen the questions before. She couldn’t be expected to know the answers as she doesn’t carry information around in her head. Nicola seemed perturbed that anyone could think she might know anything about such trifling matters.
But it might not be all Ms Yates’s fault. Assistant Mayor Geoff Gollop (Con, Westbury on Trym) owned up to the fact that he had advised the company not to send a representative. He went on to say that it was unreasonable to expect the company to reveal details of expenditure that he wouldn’t have to disclose if the spending was by a council department. This is plain wrong. If the £8million of public money had been spent directly by Bristol Council then we would know about every £500 of expenditure and the details of every contract over £5,000. That’s what the Local Government Transparency Code requires. I don’t know whether Geoff, who I’ve always liked and respected, was acting on his own volition or on the orders of his boss Mayor Ferguson.
So the farce continues. We can’t be told how our money has been spent because it was spent by a private company. A company that was set up by the council, with the Mayor as its first board director and with the council’s top official as its chief exec. This may be lawful but it most certainly breaches the spirit and intention of the transparency code. The code was not meant to encompass genuine private sector contractors who provide services to the council, such as waste collection or leisure centre management. But those companies have multiple clients in both the public and private sectors and are accountable to their shareholders. Bristol 2015 Limited is very much a creature of Bristol City Council but it seems is accountable to no one.
This is a situation that I will urge the Department of Communities and Local Government to address. The National Audit Office should also be concerned about the use of single purpose companies to deliver a public service without transparency or accountability. Parliament’s spending watchdog could take an interest. But the poor watchdogs in Bristol have been made to look like lobotomised poodles, unable to get straight answers to very easy questions. Unfair on them but a fraud on the public of Bristol and taxpayers nationwide who chipped in £7million for the city to spend. The continued obstinate refusal to be open about spending is also unfair to the many groups in Bristol who have delivered sustainable projects and have acted in good faith. It may be that Bristol’s year as Green Capital has had a beneficial impact on the city. But if we can’t be told how all the money’s been spent then how can anyone be sure of the impact?