Sir Amyas Morse, Comptroller and Auditor General of the National Audit Office (NAO), has confirmed in a letter to me that the NAO will now investigate the Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) following the concerns I raised over its governance and value for money.
The NAO has further confirmed that the Department for Communities and Local Government are also investigating the LEP. I hope both investigations will bring greater transparency to how the millions of pounds of public money given to the LEP has been spent, and in particular so that Fenland does not miss out again when the £37.6 million of Growth Deal Round Three money is transferred by Government next month.
Yesterday’s visit from the Secretary of State for the Department of Communities and Local Government to Fenland, and a visit from the Secretary of State for Transport which I hope to confirm shortly, underlines the Government support for Fenland in making bids for this next wave of funding which the LEP will allocate.
The NAO’s swift and clear response is in contrast to the LEP Board’s own response to the concerns over governance which descended into farce as it emerged that a Cambridge law firm, Taylor Vinters, has been appointed to conduct a review. Despite the questions I raised relating primarily to the Chief Executive and Chair of the LEP, I understand the following:
• The Cambridge law firm appointed was recommended to the LEP Board by the Chief Executive.
• Both the Chair and Chief Executive took part in the Board meeting and voted for this firm which will now investigate their decisions.
• No questions were asked by any Board Member as to any previous dealings or relationships between this law firm and either the LEP Chief Executive or Chair of the LEP
• No timetable was finalised for the review which remains to be decided, that the terms of reference were not fully agreed and are still to be completed.
• The law firm will be paid for by the LEP it is investigating, a subset of LEP Board members will oversee its work rather than the LEP’s Accountable Body.
• Weeks later even the minutes of the meeting where these decisions were taken – or in a number of cases not taken – are yet to be published.
The law firm now instructed to review the LEP’s governance appears to have previously drafted the LEP Board members’ framework agreement (FOUND HERE). So the law firm may be reluctant to find that the members’ framework agreement it drafted was insufficiently robust in its governance requirements. Page 14 of the members’ framework agreement drafted by the firm specifically covers the LEP governance structure and procedures for addressing conflicts of interest. It looks like the LEP is now asking the law firm which drafted its governance and conflict of interest rules to mark their own homework.
Not only does the LEP appear to be a previous or even existing client of the firm asked to conduct an independent review, the LEP has helped promote the law firm internationally to help it win business. Taylor Vinters appeared in a promotional video arranged by the LEP (FOUND HERE), with the video currently on the LEP website (FOUND HERE). The Chief Executive of the LEP is quoted in the press release on how Taylor Vinters was one of three firms the LEP chose to feature as “Cambridge companies become local movie stars”. The LEP and Taylor Vinters also appear to have worked together on VentureEast at Newmarket racecourse in Jan 2016 (FOUND HERE).
A number of Taylor Vinters key clients listed on their website are firms who have received grants or loans from the LEP, or who work closely with the LEP. For example the law firm lists as important clients the property developer Bidwells, G’s (Mr Shropshire is the landowner who with NIAB succeeded in a successful £600,000 Agri-Tech Hib grant), the Jockey Club Estates Ltd (Newmarket) who may be linked to the LEP Growing Places funding of the Newmarket Racing museum, and the University of Cambridge, all of whom will be familiar names to those looking at previous LEP business.
It is unclear whether the LEP Board members or staff have enjoyed hospitality from Taylor Vinters in the past as the LEP has still not published their corporate hospitality register. It is unclear why there is such a delay in making this information public.
The Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough LEP has still failed to issue any response to my paper of 6th March. The LEP has replied to the NAO, but it appears they chose to not even share that response with me. I only found out about this today and requested a copy but this has still not been provided. Nor did they publish it on their website for constituents to read. Likewise the response to my paper on the 26th January was a one page response ignoring the questions raised, which has also not been published on their website.
It appears that the LEP is still unwilling to answer basic questions raised in my three papers of 13th January, 26th January, and 6th March, and is now playing for time behind a review that the LEP will pay for, where the LEP will decide what the review looks at, and the LEP will decide when in the future the review will report. It will be for constituents to decide how challenging this review is likely to be for the LEP and why they should have to wait so long for answers to the questions raised on their behalf.
I hope when the LEP Board Minutes are published – no explanation has been given for the delay – they will also shine a light on the Board discussion as to why they chose not to ask their Accountable Body, Cambridgeshire County Council, to appoint and oversee an independent review rather than conduct it themselves, and who on the LEP Board voted for this internally controlled option when a third party like the County Council could have been asked to oversee it. Revealingly, the decision of the LEP Board is understood to have been unanimous, including the votes of the Chair and Chief Executive, to use a firm that previously wrote their governance rules.
I have also been told this week that the LEP has been unable to find any dates which are convenient for it to appear before the Fenland District Council Scrutiny Committee until May 2017, suggesting further delays for constituents in obtaining answers on these issues. This is despite the Wisbech 2020 conference on 13th January clearly establishing the need for such a scrutiny hearing, and despite the LEP stating that they are always willing to appear before local authority scrutiny committees. Their January statement made clear that “GCGP representatives are requested to appear at partner Council meetings. This request is always met.” So if it is always met, why is there such a delay?
This suggests the LEP Board expects remarkable patience from Fenland Councillors who are being told to wait for answers to why their residents missed out repeatedly on funding. In case anyone has forgotten, I highlighted earlier this year how Fenland had received just one Agri-tech grant of £46,500 in four years, with not a single grant in 2014, 2015, or 2016 despite the agricultural nature of many local businesses. We still do not even know how many bids were made to the LEP. The LEP even returned a £100,000 of Agri-Tech funding to the Department of Local Government which it had not spent, and even paid interest to the Government on this unspent money.
As for the New Anglia LEP response, dated 14th January, which has been received, there appears to be both an inconsistency and an omission which I hope they will clarify.
Firstly the New Anglia LEP statement says that Cllr Waters “played no part in securing the funding from New Anglia LEP for the Fiveways junction project. He was not involved in the decision to award the loan and did not lobby anyone involved in the decision”. Yet the New Anglia LEP website has the press release dated 16th December 2014 announcing this loan, which quotes prominently Cllr Waters – indeed he provides the lead quote – saying the redevelopment was made possible after Forest Heath helped secure a £500,000 loan from the New Anglia LEP. Cllr Waters is quoted saying “Forest Heath and St Edmundsbury played an active role in working with Pigeon and New Anglia LEP to secure the funding for this brilliant scheme. We are working with our partners to create around 40 new jobs”. (PRESS RELEASE FOUND HERE)
It seems odd that Cllr Waters was asked to quote on a scheme he played no part in, and that his quote suggests he was involved working with partners on it. Clearly the New Anglia LEP thought at the time he was involved or they would no doubt have asked the person who had played a part to give a quote. So it remains unclear why New Anglia LEP asked someone who had nothing to do with this scheme to provide the lead quote, whether this is their usual approach, and whether Cllr Waters when quoted saying “we” was meaning “not me”?
Secondly I asked New Anglia LEP why Pigeon needed a half a million pound loan, when it appears that just two months later they could afford a £1.2 million land purchase nearby? The New Anglia LEP has not answered this question, simply saying “New Anglia LEP was satisfied that Pigeon did not have the available finance for the work and had been unable to secure a loan”. Yet why could Pigeon find the finance two months later if New Anglia LEP was satisfied it was not possible at this time – indeed if New Anglia LEP had waited two months would they have still needed the half a million pound loan which could have benefited another local business? I hope they will clarify this as it raises questions over the accuracy of the assessment made by New Anglia LEP if they cannot explain what changed between their decision and Pigeon’s finance two months later, if it is the case that the developer then had this new finance available so soon after New Anglia LEP’s decision.
Despite the silence from many others, I will continue to speak up for constituents in trying to secure greater transparency as to how investment decisions are reached, and how Fenland can secure a fair share of funding. The National Audit Office investigation, which has now been confirmed, will help move this forward.