And raised as many questions as it has answered.
Councillors had been trying for months to establish who wrote a set of controversial papers drawn up and distributed ahead of a planned first meeting of the committee.
It now turns out that the author of the papers was Paul Forbes OBE, a former Leeds City Council officer now working as a consultant.
“So what?” I hear you ask? “What’s the big deal?”
Well, the committee in question forms part of what’s known as the Leeds Initiative, an organisation which brings representatives from the local authority together with people from other public bodies and local business to see what they can do together to make things happen in the city.
You could be forgiven for thinking that it’s just another “usual suspects'” talking shop. But it isn’t.
A committee like this one overseeing housing and regeneration in east Leeds would be making recommendations about potential development projects worth hundreds of millions of pounds.
So, everything the committee does – every step it takes – has to be transparent, clearly led by the Council, and squeaky clean.
In particular the committee has to bend over backwards to ensure that no one with a pet development project manages to exert any influence over its membership, the way it works or the topics it discusses.
So. Those papers. Here’s why they’re important, one by one:
How did they influence membership?
The papers that we’re now told were drafted by Mr Forbes proposed a make-up of the new committee (known in Leeds Initiative lingo as a sub-board) that included three representatives of the local Chamber of Commerce, including its president (Nigel Foster of consultants Arup) and Mr Forbes himself.
No problem there, you’d think. The Chamber and the Council work together on all sorts of stuff. Their relationship is a model of what they call “partnership working”.
Big problem, though.
The local Chamber of Commerce is working closely with private developers the Scarborough Group and construction group GMI on a major initiative called New East Leeds that, they say, could “power the growth that the city needs”.
Conflict of interest? You bet.
The setting up of the New East Leeds company was enough to prompt Leeds Council’s chief executive Tom Riordan and council leader Keith Wakefield to resign as directors of the Chamber. So, given the Chamber’s close relationship with the company, ANY Chamber membership of this new sub-board (let alone three members) might compromise the board’s integrity.
The papers drafted by Mr Forbes demanded that the Chamber of Commerce coordinate all private sector involvement in east Leeds. They stipulated too that all investment proposals for the area be closely linked to the “soon to be developed Thorpe Park area of New East Leeds”.
As well as being openly critical of the Council’s executive team, the papers also insisted that the Council refer all potential investment requests to the sub-board and consult with the board first before selling any public assets or land in the area.
And what merited a special place on the agenda of this meeting? What was the only substantive regeneration issue up for discussion? The New East Leeds initiative, launched to great fanfare in September by the Chamber, the Scarborough Group and GMI.
Council reputation for integrity at serious risk
Now, as we know, the inaugural meeting of this sub-board got pulled at the last minute, but not before Leeds Council had come within a whisker of having its reputation for integrity left in tatters.
The government in London would have had (and still could have) a field day: “Labour Council Committee overseeing developments worth hundreds of millions hijacked by private sector to push its own initiative”
Rogue consultant? Unlikely
After three months of investigations we now have the name of the consultant who wrote the papers. But consultants don’t take the initiative in these matters – they get commissioned and they work to a brief.
So, who commissioned Mr Forbes to write the papers and what was the brief?
The local Chamber of Commerce now admits that Mr Forbes had been hired by them as a self-employed consultant, but it continues to insist that it was not involved in the drafting of any reports.
Now here’s a funny thing. Type “Paul Forbes consultant” into Google and what do you get? This – that one of the companies that Mr Forbes has worked for as a consultant in the past is GMI property, a sister company of GMI Construction, one of the development firms behind the New East Leeds initiative! Spooky coincidence or what?
And what about the senior officials of the Council and the Leeds Initiative who were supposed to be overseeing the setting up of this committee, ensuring that it was squeaky clean from the off?
Which of them allowed Mr Forbes to be in a position to draft these papers? And which of them gave the nod to the papers before council leader Keith Wakefield got sight of them and decided to put a stop to the whole shady enterprise?
And what was the role of East Leeds MP George Mudie? Who suggested to Mr Forbes that Mr Mudie be proposed as chair of this compromised committee, and why? We wrote to Mr Mudie in November, but haven’t had a reply.
What’s most disturbing is that none of the people involved in this sorry saga are prepared to tell the whole truth, to come clean and say “this is what happened”.
In the meantime, three months into the Council’s internal (and public) investigation it appears that our local media (papers and BBC local radio) aren’t going to touch the story with a barge-pole.
Hurrah for local democracy!