A Bristol City Council arm’s-length company “unwittingly created suspicions” about its work and finances by refusing to answer Freedom of Information requests, an inquiry has found.
The probe by former Audit Commission chief executive Steve Bundred found Bristol 2015, set up to deliver the £10m 2015 European Green Capital programme, was an “undoubted success”.
Mr Bundred’s report said there was “confusion” about whether FoI legislation applied to private companies in receipt of public funds, but “where there is legitimate room for doubt about the applicability of FoI, the council and its arm’s-length bodies should adopt a presumption in favour of transparency. I believe the avoidance of FoI responsibilities can never be a legitimate objective of a public body.”
The stances taken by both the council and the company over FoI “unwittingly created suspicions that there was something to hide. In truth, these suspicions were wholly unfounded, as the council has subsequently established.”
Mr Bundred also found concerns about the presence on the company board of then elected mayor George Ferguson (Bristol 1st) and former chief executive Nicola Yates. Mr Ferguson was a director but not a council appointee, a situation Mr Bundred said led to “confusion” as to the mayor’s role.
“In future, if the mayor is to serve on the board of a similar body there must be greater clarity about his role,” the report said.
The report found Mr Ferguson’s presence had more advantages than disadvantages but added this was “a finely balanced judgement”, and “careful consideration should be given to the role of the council’s chief executive to avoid any perceived or actual conflict of interest”, although Bristol took legal advice on this.
Elected mayor Marvin Rees (Lab) defeated Mr Ferguson in last May’s election and instigated Mr Bundred’s review after local controversies over the company. Ms Yates left soon after Mr Rees took office.
Mr Rees said the report was “neither witch hunt nor whitewash”. He added: “It draws a firm, fair and impartial line under European Green Capital, showing it to have been ‘an undoubted success’, albeit one with a few bumps in the road.”