Bristol green capital enquiry report is a limewash…at least on the finances
The report of the independent enquiry into Bristol’s year as European Green Capital is a big disappointment. In fact it could be described as limewash, covering over the cracks in the financial credibility of the council and the company it set up to deliver the programme of events in 2015.
It was a year ago that I first started asking questions about how the council and its company, Bristol 2015 Limited, had spent over £8million pounds of taxpayers’ money. I was alerted to the fact that various people had been rebuffed when making quite routine freedom of information requests about the awarding of contracts by the company. The company and the council were refusing to disclose details of expenditure. The vast bulk of the expenditure was financed by a £7m grant from the coalition government. As I had been instrumental in obtaining this grant for Bristol, I had a legitimate reason for putting my own questions to the council. But I got stonewalled too. But I persisted and I was pleased when the new Mayor, Marvin Rees, announced he would appoint an independent person to look at the issues.
Mayor Rees was as good as his word and last November I gave oral and written evidence to retired senior civil servant Steve Bundred. I stressed that my sole concern was the lack of financial transparency. I was always a keen supporter of Bristol Green Capital and the hundreds of activities that it spawned. I just wanted all the facts out in the open.
Unfortunately, today’s report does nothing to clear up concerns about the spending of our money. This may not be Mr Bundred’s fault. He was hampered by terms of reference that did not include the company’s financial practices. In the most telling phrase in the report Bundred admits that his focus was not on the finances but rather it was on “learning from successes.” In other words, he was pronouncing the year itself a great achievement, which I have never doubted, with the finances just a minor issue. Bizarrely, he asserts that “suspicions were wholly unfounded, as the council has subsequently established.” He offers no evidence for the council’s finding that all was sound on the money front.
Bundred does acknowledge the central point of my complaint, that the company should have anticipated requests for transparency. He goes on to say that he beleives that “avoidance of freedom of information responsibilities can never be a legitimate objective of a public body.” This rather leaves hanging in the air the question whether the company was set up expressly to avoid financial scrutiny. He does at least say that future big projects that involve the private sector should have transparency embedded from the start.
So what have we learned? Not very much. We still don’t know who were the beneficiaries of some very lucrative contracts for PR and digital comms. If the money had been spent directly by the council then we would know about every £500. As it is, we are still in the dark. Bundred’s report could have shone a light, recommending that the council publish all the information that it holds. But he didn’t, so all we can hope for now is that some public spirited whistle blower does the right thing.
This is all a great shame. I am proud of the fact that Bristol won the award of green capital. Some great things were done in 2015. Thousands of school children know more about how to live in a sustainable city. Many community groups delivered great local projects. Thousands of people volunteered their time. Sustainability and transparency should go hand in hand. The public expect both from their political leaders. But in 2015 only one of them was delivered.
You can read more about the questions I asked in my blogs in January, February, March and June 2016.
This is the link to Bundred’s report https://www.bristol.gov.uk/bristol-green-capital