You’re bound to have heard it. It goes something like this: checking up on any shady dealings or malpractice by an elected mayor and his/her cronies will be much more difficult than now.
More difficult than now? Really? Here’s an example of the way accountability and seeking out the truth works now.
Leeds City Council recently spent several months on an internal investigation into what happened when “persons unknown” attempted to hijack a key public-private committee that was going to oversee development projects in east Leeds – development projects potentially worth hundreds of millions of pounds.
And now, just when it looked like the Council committee doing the investigating was getting somewhere, the investigation has been abandoned because, the council says, its questions have “largely” been answered.
Its questions about Council “processes and procedures” maybe.
But our questions about what happens when the worlds of business and local democracy cosy up to each other have hardly been answered at all.
Here’s what we know and don’t know.
We don’t know…(1)
We know that a consultant (an ex-Council employee) was involved in setting up the attempted hijack of the council-led committee. We know he was working for the local Chamber of Commerce at the time, but crucially we don’t know who gave him his orders, or why.
We know that one of the intended outcomes of the attempted hijack was to promote an initiative launched in September (to great fanfare in the Yorkshire Evening Post) by the Chamber along with local developers the Scarborough Group and GMI Construction – an initiative that was going to “transform” east Leeds and create 6,000 jobs.
Speaking at the launch, Chamber President Nigel Foster said the project would “see the private and public sectors working in partnership, using the chamber as a broker, to transform a struggling part of the city”. But since the hijack attempt was rumbled, the initiative has sunk without trace. Nobody – from either the private or public sector – has mentioned it again. And we don’t know why.
We don’t know…(2)
We know that the Chamber’s involvement in that initiative led to Leeds council chief executive Tom Riordan and Council leader Keith Wakefield resigning from the Chamber’s board of directors, the former in October, the latter in September.
We know too that the chief executive of the Chamber, Gary Williamson, resigned from his post in December, shortly after making a couple of less than satisfactory appearances before councillors to explain what he knew about the attempted hijack. But we don’t know why he resigned.
We know that at one stage councillors on the Council’s investigating committee (the Scrutiny Board for regeneration issues) called on East Leeds MP George Mudie to come and tell them what he knew, but that’s apparently no longer necessary. And we don’t know why.
No-one held to account
Most importantly, we know that someone (presumably fairly senior) in the Council must have either colluded with what was going on, or turned a blind eye, or been asleep on the job to let things go as far as they did. But no-one is saying who in the Council was responsible.
No-one in the Council has been held to account for what was almost a disaster: the Council came within a whisker of having its reputation for integrity in planning matters left in tatters.
And now, with the council’s own internal investigation summarily abandoned and the key Chamber of Commerce witness no longer in post, none of us will ever know what really happened.
“The past is history. We have to move on,” said council leader Wakefield when the whole sorry mess was debated at a full meeting of the council in November.
That appears to be the way accountability works under the current system. Could an elected mayor do it worse?