Wakefield Council leader to take over as Welcome to Yorkshire chairman

Peter Box is the new chairman of Welcome to Yorkshire.
Peter Box is the new chairman of Welcome to Yorkshire.

Wakefield Council leader Peter Box has been confirmed as the new chairman of troubled tourist agency Welcome to Yorkshire, The Yorkshire Post can reveal.

Councillor Box, who has led the Labour-run Wakefield Council since 1998 and was a former board member on the privately-run Welcome to Yorkshire until 2014, has been given the role following a dramatic meeting of council leaders on Monday in which the interim chair of the tourism agency Keith Stewart was ousted as part of local authorities agreeing further funding for WTY.

Coun Box told The Yorkshire Post this afternoon he wants to restore public trust in the organisation following the ongoing fallout of the departure of ex-chief executive Sir Gary Verity in March on health grounds following allegations about bullying and inappropriate expense claims.

Previous chairman Ron McMillan resigned in April following criticism of his handling of Sir Gary's departure, while there has been growing concern in recent weeks about the extent of financial problems at the organisation after it took out a £500,000 loan from North Yorkshire Yorkshire County Council.

"My first job is to try and make sure that everybody is clear that things will be done differently," he said.

"We are talking about large amounts of public money helping to support Welcome to Yorkshire. I think that the organisation needs to be more open and transparent.

"One of the things I will be putting to the board at the next meeting is that all meetings of the board take place in public and are webcast."

He said he also hopes members of the public will be able to ask questions at future meetings, while as part of the shake-up the current nine-person board is being almost entirely replaced. Coun Box said North Yorkshire County Council leader Carl Les will retain his place on the board, while he and Doncaster Mayor Ros Jones will be joining it. Applicants will now be sought for new board members, with public adverts due to go out this week.

“It has clearly been knocked off track by recent events, everybody accepts that," Coun Box said. "The question is, does Welcome to Yorkshire still have a role to play? I believe it does but things have to be achieved in a different way."

In July, an independent investigation ordered in the wake of Sir Gary's departure found around £26,000 of expense claims - all but £200 of which related to Sir Gary Verity - were "personal" costs that were “not incurred wholly for the benefit” of Welcome to Yorkshire. Investigators also said they were unable to determine whether almost £900,000 of expenses claims were "reasonable and proportionate" because of a lack of clear spending policies.

A parallel inquiry into the organisation's management culture following bullying allegations found Sir Gary had “fallen short” of the highest performance and leadership standards that would be reasonably expected of a chief executive.

At Monday's meeting of the North and West Yorkshire Business Rates Pool, made up of 14 local council leaders, it was also agreed that Jacqui Gedman, chief executive of Kirklees Council, has been appointed to provide 'strategic support' to WTY until a new chief executive is appointed to the privately-run company, which receives around half of its money from the public sector and the rest through memberships from tourism businesses.

Coun Box denied there had been a 'public sector takeover' of WTY but accepted council leaders had decided to take action over its leadership.

"The leaders on the North and West Yorkshire business pool had a meeting in public and it was felt in view of the public money being put in there that there should be a public sector chairman. The meeting agreed I should take the role."

At Monday's meeting, it was revealed consideration had been given to a 'managed closedown' of Welcome to Yorkshire but the board had said such a move would cost around £3m. A report going to the meeting of council leaders had revealed the organisation was "reliant" on an extra £1m of funding being granted by the business rates pool and that there had been delays in bringing in promised governance reforms at the organisation following Sir Gary's departure because of cash-flow issues.

Coun Box said there had been a "fairly strong consensus" among council leaders that the organisation should continue.

"It was agreed by everybody that Welcome to Yorkshire should continue. But when we said it should continue, it would be on the basis of making sure improvements are achieved in a timely fashion. That is part of my role to make sure that happens."