Following controversy over use of public money for Green Capital, Alec Saelens and Joe Smith chatted with people concerned, seeking transparency about how the money had been distributed.
On December 20th 2014 The Bristol Cable ran a story online showing that out of 32 Strategic Grants awarded by Bristol 2015 Ltd, 10 had gone to organisations with personal and professional links to the Bristol 2015 Board of Directors
George Ferguson, Mayor of Bristol and Board member of Bristol 2015 Ltd, emailed us saying it was an ‘outrageous’ article ‘simply designed to cause maximum discontent.’ Helen Bell from Bristol 2015’s PR team also got in touch to say Board members ‘had no involvement whatsoever in reviewing or judging the applications for strategic grants.’ Both felt we’d reported the situation unfairly. George Ferguson also felt our push to publish before Grants were officially announced hadn’t left him sufficient time to respond.
We initially wrote that story in order to raise public awareness of potential conflicts of interest surrounding the handing out of £1.35m public money in Strategic Grants, and to shed light on the process at a time when information was hard to find in the public domain.
In order to clarify the facts we recently went to a meeting with Bristol 2015 Ltd. where we spoke to Helen Bell, Chair of the Board Andrew Garrad, and Board member and Chair of Green Capital Partnership Liz Ziegler. We were told Board members
“were appointed because they are leaders in their respective fields and are therefore connected to some of the key sustainability organisations in Bristol.”
In total we found 13 Strategic Grants totalling over £574,000 had gone to organisations with links to Bristol 2015 staff . However we were told that the selection process kept the decision-making “at arm’s length” from board members and their interests. Once bid applications were submitted to Bristol 2015 Ltd they were channelled through for external review from KPMG (multinational accounting firm) as well as legal and finance advisers within the Council before getting to an Assessment Panel.
The key to the independence of this process was the 3 person Assessment Panel, chosen and appointed by Bristol 2015, which Helen Bell said
“was made up of impartial Council officers and external experts – there were no elected members, Board members or Bristol 2015 employees involved.”
A conflicted Assessment Panel
We had to ask Bristol 2015 Ltd. to get all the names of the three Independent Assessment Panel members, but after doing some research we discovered that panellist Jim Longhurst works at UWE as Associate Dean of the Faculty of Environment and Technology- the same Faculty which the Panel recommended for a grant of £50,000, and Anna Farthing is a Director of Bristol Festivals which also got £50,000.
Zoe Sear, Marketing and Communications Director for Bristol 2015 Ltd, said:
“A register of conflicts of interests for the Panel was recorded throughout the assessment. The process was overseen by a Project Manager […] in The Mayor’s Office to ensure that it was fair, consistent and robust.”
However, with access to the ‘Register of conflicts of interests’ of the Panel we realised that Jim Longhurst’ status was only an ‘Employee of UWE’, whilst his Faculty’s £50,000 project was not even included in his list of 18 potential conflicts of interest. Anna Farthing’s position within Bristol Festivals is acknowledged as ‘Board Member’, but the organisation’s bid for Strategic Funding is omitted from her list. For his part, the third panelist Alex Minshull put forward 9 projects for which he may be conflicted. We asked Jim Longhurst and Anna Farthing for comment, but at the time of going to print, we were still waiting for their responses.
Fair enough if the board had links to bidding organisations, but the Assessment Panel too? Is it so hard to find three people in Bristol qualified to judge these grant applications who don’t also work for organisations applying for grants?
Andrew Garrad responded that normal conflict of interest procedures would have been followed by the independent Assessment Panel. Stephen Wray the Council’s Project Manager who oversaw the bid review process said
“the two panel members absented themselves from the room during the discussions on those applications that I identified as constituting a conflict of interest.”
However, considering the Register of conflicts of interests clearly overlooked two cases- questions remain over the thoroughness of the process.
In a meeting with George Ferguson, we asked him to clarify this situation. We put it to him that if the Assessment Panel were awarding money to organisations they worked for, surely this constituted a conflict of interest? He replied:
“I honestly don’t know, it’s the first time I’ve heard that. […] If that was true, that is so. I was not involved at all in the appointing of the members of the selection panel.”
We then asked Mark Brain, Chair of Bristol Council’s Audit Committee, (which oversees Council spending) if he had seen Bristol 2015 Ltd.’s books. He replied:
“The Audit Committee does not have responsibility for oversight of the company’s finances only the contribution of resources by Bristol City Council to it and only then from the perspective of governance and risk. Bristol 2015 Ltd. will have its own audit arrangements.”
Bristol 2015 Ltd. is a private company set up with £1.2m of public money, so-far it has spent £1.1m of that – including £200,000 on developing a website. It has been tasked with distributing a further £7m of public money over 2015. It seems remarkable that Bristol 2015 Ltd. is not obliged to make its full accounts available to scrutiny by the public or elected officials.
What impact on Bristol’s community groups?
Councillors have repeatedly raised issues regarding the inclusivity of Green Capital and the short time span for applying to Strategic funding in particular. In a public meeting in October Labour Cllr Margaret Hickman said:
“There are people who don’t know how to fill in grant application forms, there are organisations that don’t have bank accounts. If we’re really serious about Green Capital impacting on people it hasn’t reached before, we need to address this.”
She went on to say that Green Capital would not be ‘game changing’ for Bristol unless greater efforts were made to steer the programme towards peripheral communities.
Green Cllr Rob Telford said
“ Questions have been asked about the funding arrangements and the membership of the independent panel, and that is not the best start to our Green Capital year which I think Bristolians really want to get behind.”
Ashley Community Housing were denied funding for an inner city gardening project with disadvantaged people. The group’s business manager Richard Thickpenny said
“we obviously feel disappointed our innovative project was overlooked in favour of projects which seem to have significantly less impact.”
From the perspective of unsuccessful grant applicants there are persistent questions to be asked regarding the process and outcome. Steve Glover of the Severn Project, told the Bristol Cable
“we are bitterly disappointed – not for ourselves but for the city. […] It would seem that more transparency is needed, and we would call on those responsible to provide the information that would put a stop to the claims of favouritism.”
Whilst much smaller funding streams were also available it remains to be seen how much money from the Strategic Grants fund will reach Bristol’s more marginal communities (see our Inclusion article). As a private company dealing with large sums of public money, it is important that Bristol 2015 Ltd is seen to be transparent and accountable to elected officials and the public.