A postponed debate over Bristol City Council’s loss-making energy company arguably threw up more questions than it answered as calls for an inquiry were rejected.
An extraordinary meeting on Tuesday, May 26 saw opposition councillors unite to back the motion for more transparency, including an independent examination of the troubled firm, amid concerns major decisions are being taken “behind a legal cloak of commercial confidentiality”.
The motion was lost by just two votes, with Labour members present all voting against.
The setting may have changed, but the fractious exchanges across the virtual council chamber continued as Gary Hopkins, a Lib Dem councillor for Knowle, warned “the public will not forgive any member who blocks this independent inquiry” into Bristol Energy.
Estella Tincknell, a Labour councillor for Lockleaze, argued an inquiry is the wrong way to deal with concerns, saying: “The decision was taken by the previous administration some years ago and it’s there for reasonable to suppose it had cross-party support.
“An inquiry of the sort being advocated will itself further undermine the viability of the company and the confidence of its users and wider stakeholders and will be completely counterproductive”.
She instead called for “a constructive approach to what is admittedly a complex issue”.
There was anger from opposition parties about information kept exempt from councillors, as well as the press and public. Members of the council’s scrutiny committee were privy to the details, but Tory members Geoff Gollop and Claire Hiscott went on record to state they were forbidden from sharing such information.
Responding to criticism of a lack of transparency, mayor Marvin Rees said putting all details of a commercial company into the public domain at a potentially sensitive time is not in the firm’s – or taxpayers’ – best interests.
In early May, it was revealed the council is putting the wheels in motion to cut its losses and sell the firm, with accountancy firm Ernst & Young (EY) appointed to carry out a “full assessment of the company’s structure and future business viability”.
Questions were raised as to how much public money has been ploughed into the enterprise, which was first launched as an ethical, publicly-owned alternative to big energy companies that would reinvest profits back into the city.
Rees stated the council’s investment from 2015 to date has been £36.5m with a funding envelope, as agreed, of £37.7m. He said further information on “other support” is in the upcoming cabinet report.
Tim Kent, a Lib Dem councillor for Hengrove and Whitchurch Park, accused the mayor of failing to answer the question, adding that the cabinet report contains exempt information. He said, “the residents of Bristol deserve to know how much of their money has been lost”.
The issue of blame is a contentious one, with Labour members highlighting the early meetings and decision-making under former mayor George Ferguson leading up to the launch of the company.
Rees said: “They had the party and we have been left with the hangover.”
Tory and Lib Dem councillors meanwhile said the ruling administration needs to take responsibility after four years in power.
Speaking to support the motion on behalf of the Green group, Jerome Thomas, a councillor for Clifton, said: “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.”
Proposing the motion at Tuesday’s meeting, Tory group leader Mark Weston, said: “It would be daft to support a company that promised so much, cost so much and delivered so little.”
He continued: “What we want is an inquiry and if Labour colleagues believe their administration has nothing to hide, they will back that call because I fear we have a bombshell about to explode under the city’s finances that’s going to cost us millions.”
The motion states: “In the current circumstances, council asserts that the public’s right or need to know overrides the judgement to withhold knowledge around an enterprise which has already required considerable public investment to underpin its business plan.
“The use of secrecy is also acting as an oppressive gag on members from airing their views or knowledge in this matter.”
Further matters on Tuesday were discussed behind closed doors, with no access allowed for the press or members of the public.
The issue is due to be discussed at Bristol City Council’s cabinet meeting on Tuesday, June 2 but, once more, the item is due to be held in an exempt session.
Read more: Bristol Energy: a timeline