Ex-MPs, council leaders, the Bristol Post… everyone’s got something to say – or something to hide – on the latest Green Capital finances debacle. Today an intense row broke out between local politicians regarding Green Capital spending and transparency, with the Bristol Post newspaper also targeted with accusations of bias.
While the Cable’s been engaged in a year-long struggle for transparency in the Green Capital project’s funding, it’s taken the rest of the local press longer to realise the public’s concerns over transparency were warranted. The council – or the council-owned private company Bristol 2015 Ltd, through which the project funding was administered – appear to be hiding details of where the £7million government grant went.
The spark to the latest public argument was an open letter from ex-LibDem MP for Bristol West, Stephen Williams, which was published in Bristol24/7. (Bristol24/7, who incidentally had a sponsorship deal with Green Capital.)
He criticises the fact that the council have refused to publish details of the spending because they say it’s the responsibility of Bristol 2015 Ltd, which as a private entity is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. An FOI request then revealed that the £7million had never been transferred to Bristol 2015 Ltd.
“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,”
states Williams in the open letter.
“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.”
Council leader Nicola Yates then waded into the debate with her own open letter, claiming that “since the money was awarded, when Bristol received the £7m of public funding, it has consistently been reported to the City Council’s audit committee to ensure proper scrutiny of the spending of public funds”. She added that a detailed review of Green Capital year was being developed.
The Bristol Post’s comment section has become the site where heated debate continues amid allegations of censorship of comments, prompting questions of where the Post’s own loyalty lies.
Former Bristol councillor Christian Martin (another Lib Dem) contacted the Cable after his comment was deleted three times without explanation. The comment in question?
“We have been asking for transparent publication of all the accounts for Green Capital for months now. Indeed before Green Capital year even began we asked officers repeatedly for a detailed budget for the year – none was forthcoming. Now after the year has concluded we are still in need of line by line accounts being published so that we can assess the impact for all in Bristol and the value for money of the £8m spent.
That the council claim they have done two internal audits of accounts for Bristol 2015 Ltd but won’t publish those audits is risible – it’s tantamount to Sepp Blatter being allowed by FIFA to investigate his own conduct whilst remaining in post at FIFA. Many questions remain unanswered – £1.6m on summits to which no Bristolians were included. £245,000 on a website that was information only and very basic? £76,000 on hiring a solar hot air balloon – the practical application of which is lost on Bristol? £272,000 on volunteers? etc etc
George Ferguson promised transparency and openness and now hides and secrets away the true detail of where public was spent. What are they trying to hide? What don’t they want us to know? We need these published asap so that we can assess whether it was wonderful jolly for a few or a legacy building accolade for the whole of Bristol.”
The Post’s website doesn’t have a clear comment policy document, leaving the reason for the removal of Martin’s comments a mystery. The usual ban on abusive language is in place, along with ambiguous guidance that “You can express a strong opinion but please do not go over the top.”
With the local elections coming up, politicking from parties and candidates based on valid local concerns is bound to go through the roof. But this shouldn’t detract from the quest for honesty and transparency for Bristol residents on questions of huge public expenditure projects like the Green Capital.
Watch this space for more independent, non-partisan and challenging reporting from the Cable.