Chamber of Commerce chiefs summoned by Leeds Council to explain recent behaviour

Top brass of the local Chamber of Commerce have been summoned to a meeting by Leeds City Council to explain some recent behaviour that includes:

• the setting up a major development initiative for East Leeds without bothering to inform its key partner, the Council

• open criticism of the Council’s Executive

• what looks like the attempted hijack by the Chamber of an important local housing and regeneration partnership with the Council

So far the Council’s putting the bizarre events of the past month down to a lack of communication between the two, but the fallout has already begun.

The first casualty of the affair appears to be “New East Leeds”, a company set up only a month ago by the Leeds, York and North Yorkshire Chamber to coordinate the private sector effort to revitalise the Thorpe Park business area.

Launched to great fanfare on 23rd September, New East Leeds held out the promise of “thousands of new jobs” and the “transformation of a large area of East Leeds”.

One little oversight

In a speech on the day of the launch the Chamber’s brand new president Nigel Foster (director of consultants Ove Arup) made specific mention of partnership with the public sector when he praised the New East Leeds project.

“This project will see the private and public sectors working in partnership, using the chamber as a broker, to transform a struggling part of the city,” he was quoted as telling an audience of 300, which included senior council officials, at the Chamber’s annual lunch.

Just one tiny little oversight. He and the Chamber had apparently forgotten to tell the public sector what they were up to.

There they were, sitting in the audience, Chief Executive of the Council Tom Riordan, Council leader Keith Wakefield et al. And they knew nothing about the project in which they were supposed to be partners.

Some partnership!

“The New East Leeds initiative and company was launched without knowledge of anyone at the Council,” says a briefing report to be presented at the Council scrutiny meeting on 31st October that’s going to be looking into the affair.

“Council officers were not involved in establishing this company or aware that it had been established until this was checked on 27th September,” the report says.

“Officers understand that the company was established by the Chamber as a way in which the Chamber would be able to charge fees for its work in the ‘New east leeds’ area…Officers also understand that the Chamber of Commerce intends to close the company.”

The report didn’t make clear what work the Chamber had in mind or who it was going to be working for. The private sector partners in the New East Leeds initiative are Thorpe Park owners the Scarborough Group and the GMI construction group run by Thorpe Park founder Peter Gilman.

Credibility

It’s a serious embarrassment to the Chamber that five weeks into its U.S.-inspired master plan to transform the Thorpe Park area, the New East Leeds company has had to close.

It’s a serious embarrassment for the Council too – and a setback for the credibility of its joint partnership work with the Chamber of Commerce, work which is at the heart of many of its current economic plans.

Council officers, councillors and Chamber of Commerce officials routinely work together closely on all sorts of policy-making committees and boards of organisations like the Leeds Initiative.

So how come no-one in the Council knew about New East Leeds?

For instance, only eight days before the New East Leeds company was officially set up, the Chamber’s Head of Business Representation and Policy Mark Goldstone was at a meeting of the Leeds Initiative’s Housing and Regeneration Board along with senior Council officials.

Either Mr Goldstone didn’t know the company was about to be set up, or he forgot to mention it to his Council partners.

Maybe the Chamber decided to launch the company after that meeting in a fit of regenerational spontaneity. But even then how is it possible that no-one at the Chamber thought (or had the courtesy) to pick up the phone and inform the Council of what was afoot?

But it gets worse.

Local board hijack?

At that Leeds Initiative meeting of 13th September attended by Mr Goldstone, the first steps were taken to set up a local housing and regeneration board for east Leeds. And the Chamber of Commerce ended up getting involved.

The Council says it was expecting the Chamber to perform a “servicing” and “enabling” role. What it got was altogether different.

By 27th September the Chamber of Commerce had got its teeth properly into the job. It had drafted terms of reference for the board, detailing its rationale and role, it had drawn up a list of proposed board members (including three of its own senior staff – Mr Foster included), and sent out invitations to a first meeting on 3rd October – for which it prepared all the agenda items and papers.

The papers are hardly a model of “partnership” working. Inter alia, they:

• Criticise the Council’s executive over recent lost appeals on housing developments – “it is clear that the interests of the city have not been well served by the executive’s advice and use of their delegated powers”

• Criticise the fact that despite large amounts of public money having been thrown at East Leeds, problems of deprivation, poor life chances, worklessness, lack of employment land close to where people live, “mono-tenure of housing offer” still exist

• Call for a new working relationship to be established with the house building and private development sector – and with the Chamber itself

• Demand that the Chamber coordinate the private sector response to the East Leeds area

• Demand that the Council refer all potential investment requests for the area to the board

• Demand that the board closely link all inward investment proposals to the “soon to be developed Thorpe Park area of New East Leeds”

• Insist that no public assets or land be sold by the Council’s executive without consulting the board

And what merited a special place on the agenda of this meeting? What was the only substantive regeneration issue up for discussion? The Chamber’s New East Leeds initiative, launched just four days previously.

Risk of conflict of interest

In the event, the meeting never happened. The Chamber of Commerce called it off.

What the Council is saying now is “hold your horses”: the role and remit of the local East Leeds regeneration board haven’t been finalised yet, but WE, not the Chamber, are working on them; the board hasn’t met yet, and when it does, it won’t be taking any decisions (contrary to what the Chamber had in mind), but coordinating and guiding regeneration efforts across East Leeds.

Not surprisingly, the Council is now spelling it out too that “from the Council’s perspective, this (partnership working) requires the governance of its relationship with the private sector to be clear and documented so as to avoid risk, real or perceived, of conflicts of interest”.

Amen to that.

Two Chamber of Commerce leaders were called to attend next Monday’s meeting as witnesses: new President Nigel Foster and Chief Executive Gary Williamson. Mr Foster has a prior engagement.

Council Chief executive Tom Riordan and the directors of City Development and Environment and Neighbourhoods have also been asked to attend.

Click here for a full list of the Chamber’s representation on key policy-making bodies.

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