Following concerns raised by local Liberal Democrats over the finances of the arms-length company called Bristol 2015 Ltd, which was set up by the Council to run the city's green capital year, former Bristol West Lib Dem MP Stephen Williams has been asking questions, in an open letter, about where the money has been spent.
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
You can read more on Stephen's thoughts on the missing millions here.