Champagne-gate: the 50-page FOI answer that simply poses more questions about that council trip to the south of France

Champagne-gate: the 50-page FOI answer that simply poses more questions about that council trip to the south of France

12th April 2018

By Graham Smith

Cornwall Council has published a remarkable 50-page Freedom of Information answer in a bid to draw a line under last month’s six-person, four-day trip to the south of France.  The document, however, simply begs more questions – questions which go to the heart of the relationship between senior executive officers and elected councillors.

The main points of the FOI answer include:

  • Chief Executive Kate Kennally told council leader Adam Paynter, in November 2017, of her plans to visit the MIPIM property conference in Cannes. Mr Paynter backed the idea but does not appear to have shared this information with any of his cabinet colleagues.
  • The council’s Strategic Economic Director, John Betty, approved an initial budget of £70,000.
  • There is still a discrepancy between what the council says was the direct cost to the taxpayer, not including staff time: one “final” figure is £46,606.39 but another says it is £46,193.52. If staff time is included (as it will be eventually, even if offset against reduced input to other projects) then the cost is actually £70,000.
  • The six delegates, between them, attended 65 engagements over four days: on average, fewer than three meetings each, per day.
  • The council spent nearly £24,000 on accommodation for six people for four nights – at an average cost of £1,000 per-person-per-night.
  • The council’s current policy on accommodation does not cover overseas visits. Senior officials now want to re-write that policy to include foreign destinations.
  • Some aspects of the “expenses” seem improbable – only £9.85 on an evening meal for two in Cannes?
  • The council now says that attendance at the Cannes conference was vital – yet the council had never attended before. If the visit really was of the ground-breaking importance now claimed, why were no elected councillors even told about it?

Much of the 50-page FOI answer makes no attempt to deal with the tightly focussed-questions asked by Cornwall Reports, which included reference to any risk analysis of the reputational damage.

Tickets to the MIPIM property conference cost £1,725 per person.  The event includes unlimited supplies of “free” champagne and has long been associated with scandals involving alcohol and sex.  There is no suggestion of inappropriate behaviour by anyone from Cornwall.

Several major property companies, including investment banks, decided to stay away from Cannes this year.  The council has ignored this question about reputational damage and instead sought to justify the trip by describing its ambitions to be a major player on the world stage.  You can download and read the entire 50-page document here:  

The six people who attended were Kate Kennally, Chief Executive, Cornwall Council, John Betty, Strategic Director, Economic Growth & Development, Cornwall Council, three members of staff from CDC and Invest in Cornwall (Mike King, Nicola Lloyd and Kelly Trelease) and James Staughton, Chair of the Cornwall Place Board.  Mr King, a former civil servant with the government of Jersey, has previously been associated with unwelcome headlines over long-distance travel whose benefits to local taxpayers were unclear.

The political fall-out seems likely to develop further once the council’s Liberal Democrat leader, Mr Paynter, returns from a month-long holiday in Australia.  There seems to be no way for Mr Paynter to enjoy a soft landing: either he knew about Mr Betty’s willingness to spend £70,000 on the trip, but failed to tell cabinet colleagues; or he did not know, raising questions about competence.

The Cannes adventure has the potential to destabilise the Liberal Democrat-Independent coalition which runs the council.  The council’s Independent deputy leader, Julian German, is understood to be furious about the damage to County Hall’s reputation and believes he should have been told about the trip.

 

 

Rooms with a view: the Square Merimee is one of the most sought-after, and expensive, accommodation areas in Cannes

The cabinet member with direct responsibility for the council’s ambitious 1,000-house-building project, Andrew Mitchell, another Independent, told BBC Radio Cornwall that until a few weeks ago he had never heard of MIPIM.  “I thought it was a character from a children’s TV show,” he said.

Senior council officials say that while Ms Kennally almost certainly did tell Mr Paynter about the conference, in November, the conversation could easily have been informal.  The FOI answer says she told Mr Paynter on 22ndNovember.  “The leader supported attendance at the event,” says the council.

The high cost of the accommodation is blamed on the “late” decision to attend.  “Cornwall must be a place that attracts investment to help companies grow, succeed and thrive,” it continues.  “We want to see great ideas and innovations turned into great products and we want to support and grow a world-class workforce.

“To do this in a highly competitive environment we must understand what it takes for a place to be an attractive investment proposition in the global property investment market place. If we are serious about the economic future of Cornwall and securing inward investment to create industries and jobs, we need to compete aggressively for millions of pounds of inward investment.”

£9.85 for an evening meal, for two, in Cannes?  You would struggle to get such good value in Camborne

The FOI answer seeks to justify the expedition by pointing to a forthcoming visit to Cornwall, on 25th April, of a Danish digital technology firm which aims to increase efficiency in the construction sector. “Cornwall could be used as a test bed for the rollout of the company’s products and services across the UK. This opportunity would not have been realised if the delegation had not attended MIPIM.”

The FOI answer adds that a handful of other local authorities might have spent even more than Cornwall, but that direct comparisons are difficult because some councils were sponsored by private businesses.  The cost of flights was relatively modest, per person, using budget airlines EasyJet and FlyBe.

So was it £46,606.39, £46,193.52 or £70,000?  A month later, and councillors still don’t know

The FOI answer does however reveal that Mr Betty’s and Ms Kennally’s decision was contrary to existing policy.  “The council’s current policy on accommodation does not cover overseas visits,” says the FOI. “This policy will be reviewed and extended to cover foreign destinations. The decision to attend MIPIM was made in November 2017, which is much later than would have been the case for organisations attending on a repeat basis and therefore the opportunity for more competitive arrangements was not available.”

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