Council leaders who have provided millions in funding to Welcome to Yorkshire have warned the tourism agency’s chairman that its long-term financing is in question unless a “new leadership culture” is implemented immediately following the departure of ex-chief executive Sir Gary Verity after an expenses scandal.
Members of the Leeds City Region Business Rates Pool - made up of the leaders of Bradford, Calderdale, Harrogate, Kirklees, Leeds, Wakefield and York - today published a public letter to WTY chairman Ron McMillan criticising the current failure to agree terms of reference for two inquiries into Verity’s controversial departure and demanding “rapid changes in governance” to make the organisation more transparent.
The letter to Mr McMillan has been released after the group of council leaders had previously requested an urgent meeting with him following Sir Gary’s resignation on health grounds in the wake of allegations about his expense claims and behaviour towards staff.
Sir Gary, who resigned on March 22, is reported to have repaid around £40,000 after making “errors of judgement” in relation to expense claims at WTY, which is a private firm but receives around half of its £4m annual income from the public purse.
Tim Swift, leader of Calderdale Council and chair of the rates pool which has given £2.7m of funding in subscriptions and grants to Welcome to Yorkshire in the past three years, said WTY should be publishing expense details and opening board meetings to public scrutiny with “immediate effect” to restore public confidence.
Coun Swift said: “As council leaders we are committed to supporting the Welcome to Yorkshire team, and will continue to work with them to deliver flagship events such as the Tour de Yorkshire in the region and county.
“Whilst we do not wish to withhold short term funding, which would undermine upcoming events and the hard work of the Welcome to Yorkshire team, we are clear that we do wish to see the above rapid changes in governance in order to have reassurance over our long-term funding.”
His comments follow Sheffield and Hull councils announcing they would be withholding further funds for WTY until two independent inquiries that WTY has ordered are completed. Hull Council leader Stephen Brady also resigned from the WTY board after saying he had been 'kept in the dark' about allegations against Verity. Richard Cooper, leader of Harrogate Borough Council and a Welcome to Yorkshire board member, told The Yorkshire Post earlier this week that WTY should publish all spending over £250 in the same way that local authorities are required to.
Coun Swift also criticised the current failure to set terms of reference for the independent reviews.
“We, as Leeds City Region Business Rates Pool members, are disappointed with the lack of pace of the review, which we would have expected to be progressing with far more speed. As well as being frustrated with the pace, we also understand there has so far been a failure to agree the terms of the independent review."
He added: “We would have expected by now for there to be a robust plan in place in the progress towards a transparent approach, and for this to have been shared with partners.
“In light of this, we are clear that Welcome to Yorkshire need a transition to a new leadership culture to take forward the necessary changes in terms of strengthened transparency, accountability and diversity of the governance of public resources, which should include open board meetings, agendas and papers published in advance, and publication of expenses with immediate effect. These steps are required in order to move to a more open approach and restore confidence in the organisation as it transitions.”
He said the council leaders would have preferred to have communicated their feelings at a face-to-face meeting “but feel that the above issues need to be addressed now”.
Mr McMillan said today that the terms of the investigations are “close” to being agreed, with organisations set to be appointed next week to carry them out.
He said: “As chairman of the Welcome to Yorkshire board, I welcome the retained support of the Leeds City Region leaders to our organisation and am clear that transition to a new leadership culture with greater transparency, accountability and governance needs to happen at pace.
“The parameters of the two independent investigations are close to being confirmed and we expect to have appointed the parties who will carry these investigations out within the next week.”
Sheffield peer Lord Scriven, who successfully asked Sheffield Council to withhold their annual £50,000 subscription to WTY last week, said today that Mr McMillan should consider his position.
"He needs to go. He is part of the problem, not part of the solution," he said.
The Leeds City Region business rates pool is in the process of being disbanded to make way for a larger organisation which will have a vital say in the future of public funding for WTY.
The newly-created North and West Yorkshire Business Rates Pool is to be made up of 14 councils who will put around £19m collected from increased business rates into a combined fund used to support economic growth.
It will be a merger of the Leeds City Region Business Rates Pool and the North Yorkshire pool authorities of that area’s county council, plus Craven, Hambleton, Richmondshire, Ryedale, Scarborough. Selby District Council is also joining the new organisation, which has yet to meet to formalise its constitution and agree spending plans.
The North Yorkshire pool was making a combined annual contribution of £250,000 to WTY.