There will be no independent inquiry into why Bristol City Council continued to pump millions of pounds into debt-ridden firm Bristol Energy.
Opposition councillors accused the council of hiding “behind a legal clock of commercial confidentiality” and called for an independent inquiry at an extraordinary meeting of Bristol City Council yesterday (May 26).
But the motion was blocked by Labour councillors, who hold the majority at City Hall.
Bristol Energy, which was set up by the previous administration in 2015 under former mayor George Feguson and is still owned by the council, has soaked up £35 million of council tax payers’ money and posted total losses of £32.5 million so far.
But few financial details about the company have been made public. As such, opposition parties have accused the council of withholding important information from the public, such as the appointment of a new managing director to oversee the possible sale of the company.
The motion brought by Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors claimed they had been “gagged” and accused the Labour administration of taking big decisions on Bristol Energy without proper scrutiny.
Opposition groups united to support the motion, but were “bitterly disappointed” when it was voted down by Labour members.
The Labour-led council argues that releasing the information would put Bristol Energy at a commercial disadvantage against private companies in a highly competitive energy market.
At the meeting Mr Rees defended himself and his administration against accusations of “secrecy” and financial mismanagement in relation to the council’s handling of Bristol Energy during the past four years.
The mayor blamed the previous administration for creating the company. He said the current administration had acted in the company’s “best interests” by withholding sensitive commercial information – which will also protect taxpayers’ money.
Mr Rees said the previous administration had been “single minded” about looking at the “upsides of getting into the energy market”.
He added: “They had the party and we’ve been left to cope with the hangover.”
He said £12 million was invested into the company by the previous cross-party administration, led by former mayor George Ferguson, and his own Labour cabinet had “allocated” another £23 million since taking over in May 2016.
He said the company had 99,000 business and residential customers at the end of April, reflecting “minimal” growth over the past year.
But Conservative group leader Mark Weston described the company as “haemorrhaging money” as he brought his motion to the extraordinary full council meeting.
Cllr Weston said it was time for the administration to accept Bristol Energy was a “dead weight” on council finances and it should be “released”.
“What we want is an inquiry,” he said. “Let us investigate exactly what happened, when it happened, the funding that goes with it, because I fear we have a bombshell about to explode in this city’s finances that is going to cost us millions.”
Seconding the motion, Lib Dem group leader Gary Hopkins said it was obvious more than two years ago that Bristol Energy was in trouble and accused the mayor of a “cover up” once he realised the company was beyond rescue.
Speaking on behalf of the Green group in support of the motion, councillor Jerome Thomas said the council had acted with “inappropriate secrecy” in relation to Bristol Energy and the public knew more about the finances of British Gas and Scottish Power than they did about the energy company their council tax had paid for.
“Greater openness would have meant that problems with Bristol Energy would have been identified and communicated earlier and suitable corrective action could have been taken,” he added.
Labour member Estella Tinknell called for the opposition councillors to withdraw their “completely counterproductive” motion and instead work together to ensure Bristol Energy has a “positive and constructive future”.
A second exempt motion about Bristol Energy was discussed behind closed doors during the second half of the extraordinary meeting.
Mr Rees said councillors and the public will be able to ask questions about Bristol Energy’s finances at a cabinet meeting on 2 June.