How more than £8 million of public money used to fund Bristol’s year as European Green Capital was spent will not be made public after the council’s CEO dismissed the latest demands from campaigners.
Former Bristol West MP Stephen Williams, who helped bring £7 million of the funding from central government, demanded that full “line by line” accounts of Bristol 2015 Ltd, the vehicle used to deliver the Green Capital projects, be published.
“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,” the former accountant said in an open letter (read it in full here).
But Nicola Yates, the council’s top director, hit back in her own open letter, published on Thursday night, saying the council does not hold the information because Bristol 2015 Ltd is a private company only part owned by the council.
Mayor George Ferguson also moved to silence critics, defending the way Bristol 2015 Ltd was set up, saying he wished it to be an independent body capable of attracting public and private funding.
Despite the fact that it is mostly publicly funded, because Bristol 2015 Ltd is only partly owned by the council it is considered a private company and is therefore not obliged to release full accounting details.
Various attempts to reveal the spending details by campaigners using the Freedom of Information Act have been denied.
Bristol 2015 Ltd has come under criticism for not being transparent with its spending and funding too many arts initiatives over practical green solutions.
Williams said in his open letter: “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 £8.3 million of taxpayers’ money.”
Yates, who earns £160,000 a year, said Williams had been misinformed about Bristol 2015 Ltd, reminding him that the company is only part-owned by the council.
She added: “To deal with your point about a line by line budget, we are not able produce that level of detail because we do not hold it
“To clarify, we do not hold this level of detail for any of the Council’s suppliers of goods and services. However if the premise of your concern is a misuse of public funds and the information I have outlined already is not sufficient, I would also add that Bristol 2015 Ltd has been the subject of two internal audits from Bristol City Council to ensure appropriate financial processes are in place and followed.
“In addition, the company has been subject to its own external audit to ensure financial probity.”
George Ferguson was personally challenged over the Green Capital accounts at a meeting of full council last week by former Lib Dem councillor Christian Martin.
Responding to a question about how Bristol 2015 Ltd was set up, he said: “At the time of Bristol 2015 conception, we wished for it to be an independent entity, so that it could raise funding support, through the work of the initial commercial fund raising team, supported by me, which attracted public and private funding.”
Green Capital projects in Bristol were funded from a £7 million central government grant, a £1.3 million council grant and through various private sponsorship deals.
Yates insists that the £7 million transferred to the council and into Bristol 2015 Ltd has been through the council’s audit committee to “ensure proper scrutiny”.
But line by line accounts, showing exactly how the money was spent remain largely a mystery. £2 million of the total £8.3 million is fully accounted for in the form of strategic grants to small green projects which were published in full in 2014.
Bristol hands over the European Green Capital baton to Ljubljana in Slovenia at the start of next month.
Read more: Green Capital: success or flop?