By Graham Smith
Cornwall Council spent more than £46,000 on a four-day trip to the South of France, attending an alcohol-fuelled property conference which attracted prostitutes from across Europe.
Although there is no suggestion that any of the six representatives from Cornwall engaged in any inappropriate behaviour, council leaders are now facing allegations of poor judgement and an astonishing lack of political control.
None of the Cornwall delegates was an elected councillor. The expedition was led by the council’s strategic director for economic development, John Betty, a veteran of such events from his previous career with other local authorities.
Reports suggest that more than 1,000 sex workers were drawn to the conference last week, attracted by the prospect of a male-dominated event which has for years earned a reputation as little more than a very boozy stag party.
Several organisations, fearful of the damage to their reputations, withdrew their representatives. HSBC, Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Royal Bank of Scotland all pulled out of the MIPIM event at Cannes.
The conference has been attracting criticism for several years. This year, organisers were forced to issue a statement making it clear that the prostitutes’ services were not actually included in the £2,000 price of admission and that MIPIM not only did not hire the girls, it sought actively to ban them from conference venues.
Nevertheless, last week sex workers were frequently seen walking the Promenade de la Croisette and some spoke to journalists, boasting that MIPIM provided one of their “busiest weeks of the year.” One “exotic dancer” told The Guardian: “the girls have come in from Nice, Toulon and Marseille.”
She told how more than more than 35 men she thought were in town for MIPIM had paid for private dancers on Tuesday night alone. “Most are from your country [the UK],” she said, adding that in previous years girls were hired to work as waitresses at private parties on yachts and in hilltop villas.
Apart from the sleaze, Cornwall Council is under fire for the way it has tried to justify the trip. One of the “contacts” claimed to have been made at Cannes is the construction firm Kier – currently already enjoying a close contact with the council because of the £400,000 “fines” it has had to pay for having not finished the A30 dual carriageway on Bodmin Moor.
The council also included the estate agents Savills as another MIPIM contact made on the French Riviera. The firm has offices in Truro.
Cornwall Council also appears to have sent more delegates, and spent far more money, than many other councils. Cornwall Council’s statement, seeking “cover” by naming some other local authorities which also attended, fails to point out that Southampton City Council spent only £4,420 and managed to get by sending only two representatives. Wychavon district council, Worcestershire, got by without spending more than £850.
Councillor Adam Paynter, the Liberal Democrat leader of the council, is the only member of the 123-strong council to so far defend the trip – widely seen as an expensive “jolly” at taxpayers’ expense. Even his own party’s frontbench spokeswoman on local government, Wera Hobhouse, the MP for Bath, has called for an investigation. “It beggars belief that some council members are attending this plush property conference,” said Ms Hobhouse. “We need a full inquiry into whether council taxpayers’ money has been spent on tickets to this event.
Bath MP Wera Hobhouse, the Liberal Democrat frontbench spokeswoman on local government, need not fear that council leader Adam Paynter or any other council member attended the Cannes conference at taxpayer expense – most did not even know about it until they read it in the media. Instead, the expedition was led by officials John Betty and chief executive Kate Kennally.
‘‘We don’t want to tar all councils with the same brush, but with council taxes set to rise considerably this April, it would be difficult to understand why councillors need to schmooze with the property developing elite.”
Cornwall Reports understands that the £24,000 cost of conference space and staff accommodation included approximately £19,000 to hire luxury apartments for the six Cornwall delegates.
Mr Paynter, who has just left Cornwall to enjoy a four-week holiday in the sun, accused some media organisations of seeking to make mischief out of MIPIM by reporting its reputation for sleaze. “All council employees are bound by a Code of Conduct, and any breach of this or other council policies could result in disciplinary action or instant dismissal,” he said.
But Mr Paynter admitted that the benefit to Cornwall’s taxpayers was not immediately obvious. “It can be some time before networking opportunities deliver tangible outcomes, but I commit to reporting back to you any further outcomes.
“Already there are contacts being followed up for inward investment into Cornwall including from a German investment fund which was set up by the German Government to help with the ending of the mining industry in the Ruhr and an American investor who is interested in new models of housing for older people. We have received a positive response from the industry to our ambitions in Cornwall, with pro bono offers from leading industry experts to help us develop our plans further.
“Finally, the Chairman of Homes England has committed to coming to Cornwall together with his Leadership Team, to work with us to help fund the infrastructure that is needed to help ensure that we can then deliver more affordable housing for the people of Cornwall.”
But despite Mr Paynter’s protests, the fact that the £46,606.39 MIPIM expedition happened during the same week that voters received their council tax bills means the controversy is unlikely to be forgotten by the time he returns from holiday on 20th April – or even before the next round of council elections in 2021.
Cornwall Reports understands that several of Mr Paynter’s cabinet colleagues did not know about the Cannes trip until they found about it from the media. The question about who “signed-off” on the expedition remains unanswered.
MIPIM 2018 has done nothing to alter the perception that County Hall is run by unelected officials who appear now to enjoy greater freedom, and far less scrutiny or democratic control, than ever before.
Below: an extract from Mr Paynter’s letter to councillors, seeking to justify the council’s four days in the South of France