Two crises 21 years apart - Wakefield Council leader Peter Box on repeating history with Welcome to Yorkshire
Peter Box became Welcome to Yorkshire chairman last month at a time of deep crisis for the tourism agency.
But it is not the first time he has taken over at the helm of a beleaguered organisation. When he successfully stood to become leader of Wakefield Council 21 years ago, it was a local authority in turmoil.
Fraud squad detectives had been called in to investigate allegations of impropriety and public confidence in the council had plummeted as a result. “It had got real problems,” Coun Box reflects.
“There was an investigation into the local authority in terms of some of the contracts that had been given. The last leader stood down from his role leaving a vacancy and I was one of those that put my hat into the ring.”
It was a daunting task, something he admitted then and stands by now. But, after 15 years as a Labour party councillor, he says he saw it as an opportunity for change.
“I’d been on the council and I felt it needed to change. It needed to become more open. It’s no good sitting on the sidelines complaining and then not taking an opportunity when it’s there to try and do things differently.”
In a statement he issued when he took over at Wakefield, Coun Box said he welcomed scrutiny and set out his intention to try to regain public confidence, “looking at the way we operate and making sure we are open and accountable”.
It draws remarkable parallels to the first comments he made after being appointed chairman of scandal-hit tourism agency Welcome to Yorkshire, which is privately run but receives millions in public funding.
It has been struggling to recover from the fallout to the resignation of its former chief executive Sir Gary Verity, who left on health grounds in March, in the midst of expenses and bullying allegations.
Coun Box said then that he wanted to restore public trust and make the organisation “as open and transparent as possible”. Nearly a month on, he says a new chief executive will be appointed by the end of November.
“Once that has taken place, and we’ve got a chief executive in post, I think we can start to regain public trust at a faster rate,” he says.
“I think there are candidates that look really, really good so I’m very positive that an appointment can be made who can take the organisation forward to its next stage. And the next stage is combining the best of what Welcome to Yorkshire has to offer with the best in terms of governance.”
Leaked papers detailing the full extent of the agency’s perilous financial state have shown the body would have “run out of cash” in September were it not for a £500k loan from North Yorkshire County Council.
A further £1m in funding from North and West Yorkshire councils was agreed on the condition of its interim chair being replaced – and Coun Box says he was appointed to that post after being nominated at a board meeting.
Welcome to Yorkshire currently has just a year to pay back its loan and over the next three years wants to rely less on the public purse. Around 2,000 of its members are businesses involved with the regional tourism industry, but whether private sector firms will continue to invest, Coun Box admits, is “a 64,000 dollar question”.
“I’ve spoken to people already who are interested in becoming members...It won’t be easy because the truth of the matter is we live in tough financial circumstances. Welcome to Yorkshire has to be seen to be broadly based in terms of its offer and be seen to be open and transparent. If you do that, then membership will increase.”
Whilst cycling will be a part of Welcome to Yorkshire’s future, “we have to let people know throughout the county that it is about more than cycling, it’s got a broad offer,” Coun Box says.
“Let’s not forget the Tour de France put Yorkshire on the map in a way that maybe it never had been before. It put the county on TV screens all over the world in millions of homes. It’s about building on that but letting people see there’s a broader range of things we’re about.”
He also wants to make sure the organisation is seen as being for all the county. “People are right to look at the beauty of North Yorkshire but my role is to make sure that everybody can appreciate everything in Yorkshire whether it be the countryside, the coast or our urban centres.”
In his next steps, Coun Box intends to ask the board to make all of its meetings public and webcast, work with the team to develop a “credible and costed” business plan and explore new ideas for community-based events. But will that be enough to take the organisation forward?
It is undoubtedly a big ask, but Coun Box, who is standing down as Wakefield Council leader at the end of the month and will not contest his seat on the council in the local elections next May, maintains he is “absolutely confident” the tourism agency can regain public trust.
“I suppose the crucial question is do I believe that Welcome to Yorkshire can continue? And I do,” he says.
With a Yorkshire public now baying for full and proper accountability at the agency, his credentials and experience will be scrutinised. From a mining family, then working as a probate manager in a legal firm, he first stood for election as a councillor in Wakefield district in 1983, later giving up his legal career when he became leader.
Though there was no action taken by the Crown Prosecution Service and no charges made as a result of the fraud squad investigation that began in 1998, in his first years in office Coun Box was faced with a lack of public trust in the council, compounded with the introduction, in 2002, of a Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) for local authorities.
It provided, for the first time, a judgement on a council’s ability to improve services and Wakefield was one of 13 to get the lowest grade – poor. By the time of the final CPA six years later, Wakefield was one of four councils to have improved from poor to a four-star authority.
“Once we got the public to understand that we were trying to change things, I think we moved at quite a rapid pace in terms of improvement. Going from poor to excellent in six years was quite impressive,” Coun Box reflects.
He counts the development of The Hepworth Wakefield gallery as among his biggest achievements, despite the council receiving criticism over its financial support for the scheme.
“The Hepworth put us on the world stage, it’s a world-class venue, absolutely no doubt about it,” he says. “There are still people who say look how much money it cost, it hasn’t helped at all. That’s not true. Look at how many visitors have come to the district as a result of The Hepworth.”
Last year, Coun Box came under pressure to stand down after a damning Ofsted report deemed the authority’s children’s services ‘inadequate’ in all areas and said the district’s vulnerable young people were being left at risk. He narrowly survived a vote of no confidence by the authority’s Labour group.
Despite claiming he already had plans to stand down as leader in May 2020 by that point, he says leaving “never crossed my mind” and he was confident he would win. “I can’t think of any leader that’s stood down because of an adverse report,” he says.
“Of course there is responsibility in what you do. As I did when the council was rated poor, it’s my job as leader to turn that around– and we have done. The latest Ofsted report (after a monitoring visit) said the council is improving.”
Whether or not Welcome To Yorkshire can turn around its fortunes remains to be seen. “Any organisation that has taken a hit, as Welcome to Yorkshire has, you’re on the back foot and the public do wonder about that kind of a setback,” Coun Box admits.
“So of course, it is daunting. But hopefully the experience I’ve gained as a leader who faced that situation all those years ago can help in turning Welcome to Yorkshire around.”