ONE of the region’s most influential public bodies is facing a scrutiny probe after a Yorkshire Evening Post investigation raised a series of significant questions about its spending and management.
Concerns about West Yorkshire Combined Authority (WYCA) include the level of spending on highly-paid white collar jobs which contributed to a recent, abrupt recruitment freeze when senior officials realised they were grappling with a pending £4m budget shortfall.
There are also questions about how WYCA, which is responsible for economic development, transport and planning for devolution, spent more than £750,000 on networking events – much of it in Cannes in the south of France – and why more than £100,000 was committed to ‘executive coaching’ for senior managers earlier this year, shortly before the spectre of budget cuts appeared on the horizon. A further £40,000 was spent nearly a year ago on a ‘Council of the North’ conference which has yet to materialise and another £25,000 on an aborted rebranding exercise.
It has also emerged that Roger Marsh, the chairman of the local enterprise partnership, Leeds City Region, which is accountable to WYCA, has been paid £60,000 a year for working up to 12 days a month without any details of the fee arrangement being made public. In addition, WYCA’s published spending and contract records are incomplete. The list of contracts is significantly out of date and offers no evidence of deals that have been done with a raft of suppliers over at least the last 18 months.
There is no record of senior staff expenses and in a couple of cases individual monthly records of spending with suppliers are missing.
And recently it has emerged that WYCA’s £105,000-a-year policy director, Rob Norreys, has been away from work for more than six weeks without explanation of why or who is carrying out the role in his absence.
WYCA, which is also accountable for the spending of the local enterprise partnership (LEP) Leeds City Region, defended its spending record and said it achieved results, particularly in terms of economic development, though it acknowledged failures in transparency and accountability.
WYCA, which is facing a £4m shortfall in its upcoming budget, committed to spending more than £100,000 on ‘executive coaching’ for its top managers earlier this year.
WYCA had to issue a recent freeze on recruitment because of fears about over-spending and an impending £4m budget shortfall.
More than £750,000 of public money has been recorded as spent by Leeds City Region on plush networking events, much of it for trips to Cannes on the French Rivieria.
Leeds City Region spent more than £7,000 on two lunches at a prestigious restaurant in Mayfair in London where oysters and caviar typically feature on the menu.
The non-executive chairman of Leeds City Region is being paid £60,000 a year for working up to 12 days a month in the role, without any details of the financial arrangement being publicly disclosed.
A think tank was paid £40,000 of public money to stage a major conference about promoting a powerful voice for the North despite the event not having taken place nearly a year later.
Kirklees councillor Robert Light, who chairs WYCA’s own scrutiny committee, said the organisation had fallen short of expected standards and called for an explanation for the spending.
He said it was right WYCA, alongside Leeds City Region LEP, spent money developing businesses and attracting investment and said both had been very successful in achieving those objectives.
But Coun Light went on: “However in my view some of the expenditure referred to in your report on face value may be beyond what is appropriate for a public body.”
He said governance arrangements meant his committee could not examine Leeds City Region LEP spending prior to June this year.
Coun Light then added: “Since June 2017 it has become clear to me as Chair of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee that some of the decision making in the past, mainly by the LEP but also at times by the Combined Authority, has not had the rigour, due process or transparency expected of a public body using public money.
“Whilst the general management of expenditure of the Combined Authority on a day to day basis is a matter for the Managing Director given the implication that public funds have not been used in the most appropriate manner.
“I have requested that the Managing Director report on all the issues raised in this article to the next Overview & Scrutiny Committee. Members of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee who are independent of the Combined Authority decision making process will then be able to access the appropriateness of the expenditure incurred.”
A WYCA spokesman the processes around transparency and accountability inherited from the former Metro organisation (which previously oversaw transport in the region) were “not good enough”.
He added: “We take this matter extremely seriously, which is why improving transparency has been a central part of the organisational change programme we have been undergoing since May 2016 to bring together the three operations of the Combined Authority, LEP and Metro into a single, efficient and accountable organisation.
“We have recently completed an extensive review of our open transparency processes and have identified a number of gaps that we are working to rectify as quickly as possible.
“Action we have already taken to improve transparency includes webcasting all of our Combined Authority meetings, holding all of our LEP Board and committee meetings in public and undertaking an audit of our procurement processes to ensure contracts are awarded and published in as transparent a way as possible. As part of this transparency audit work of the One Organisation change programme, we are at present collating and checking all of this information and will publish it as soon as we can, in line with our open transparency aims.”
WYCA said it did not comment on individual staffing matters when asked about the absence of policy director Rob Norreys and who was currently carrying out his duties.
Ben Still, WYCA managing director said: “The West Yorkshire Combined Authority has been undergoing a period of major change over the past 12 months as we bring together three separate bodies into a single organisation that is more accountable, more transparent and, ultimately, better value for money.
“Like all public bodies we face financial pressures, while at the same time managing a substantial expansion in our remit and supporting the region’s case for an ambitious devolution deal. Over the past 18 months we have reviewed all aspects of the Combined Authority’s systems, processes and ways of working and are well under way with an extensive modernisation programme to ensure our organisation is up to this task.
“We have completely restructured the organisation, corrected processes that are no longer fit for purpose and instilled a renewed culture of transparency and openness, with performance focused on results.”