Opponents say a council leader should step down as chairman of a film studio after it was revealed he and his party had to pay back thousands of pounds to a film studios.

The repayments were revealed in a Freedom of Information request by Hertsmere Borough Council’s Labour group after it had an anonymous tip-off about concerns over use of council-owned Elstree Studios, in Shenley Road, Borehamwood, by the Hertsmere Conservative group and its leader, Cllr Morris Bright.

Borehamwood Times:

In July last year, an email between studio managers showed concerns over payment for council leader Cllr Bright’s wife’s expenses at the Cannes Film Festival, use of the studios buildings for a Tory dinner in 2015, a celebration of Cllr Morris’s MBE investiture, the cost of BAFTA awards attendance, and training for Conservative councillors.

Cllr Bright has paid back more than £3,100 and his party £7,800 for expenses originally billed to or paid by the studios.

Borehamwood Times:

Hertsmere Borough Council leader Morris Bright

Hertsmere Labour leader Cllr Jeremy Newmark said: “Elstree Studios are a public asset. Tory leader Morris Bright has been caught using them as a private party political slush fund. He must stand aside as chairman of the studios and his replacement must be a non-political appointee.”

The Labour group made the Freedom of Information request after a councillor received anonymous letters, one of which claimed the local Conservative party had been using the studios “free of charge” and the managing director of the studios, Roger Morris, had “tried to clamp down on some of the expense claims”.

Cllr Newmark requested copies of relevant studios bookings and payment records over the past six years.

These were given in two FoIs - the second of which is publicly available online, the first of which has been seen by this paper.

Borehamwood Times:

Hertsmere Labour group leader Jeremy Newmark

Cllr Bright is chairman of Elstree Studios while Conservative councillors Paul Morris, Charles Goldstein and Caroline Clapper and council corporate director Sajida Bilje are board directors and council chief executive Donald Graham is council shareholder.

A financial statement on the council website for the year ending March, 2018 shows Cllr Bright received remuneration of £13,276 as chairman, while four others each received £1,051. Slightly lower amounts had been paid the year before.

There was Labour representation on the board up until 2015.

As studios chairman, Cllr Bright often attended the Cannes Film Festival in the south of France.

Cllr Bright says he was always there on business representing the studios and not to see premieres. He would attend alongside Mr Morris and a third person but in 2015, he was accompanied by his wife, Kirsty.

Expenses he incurred in his work for the studios were legitimately paid for by the studios.

Information within the FoI shows that Mrs Bright took a taxi alone, costing £79.30 each way to Heathrow Airport, alongside £252.69 on entry to the film festival, and £51.02 entry to the American Pavilion. These expenses, totalling £462.31, were billed to the studios.

The FoI states that Mrs Bright’s flights between Heathrow and Nice were also paid for by the studios, but Cllr Bright says the studios accountant has since confirmed this was not the case and that he paid for the flights.

In an email dated May 15, 2018, Cllr Bright confirmed that none of his family had any connections to the studios – suggesting Mrs Bright’s expenses should never have been billed to the studios.

He later repaid £509.21 relating to Cannes expenses in 2015 and £403.93 the following year.

Cllr Bright said: “Some charges relating to taxis and security passes and so on for my wife were booked direct by the studios staff organising the trips and were not recouped by the accounts department by deducting them at source from my allowance. As soon as I was made aware of this I paid those sums immediately.”

A hotel stay in 2014 cost £7,455.60 and was billed to the studios. With regards to hotel room upgrades, Cllr Bright says any hotel stay is “horrendously expensive” during the Cannes film festival and they did not stay in a “top hotel”.

Borehamwood Times:

Cllr Bright, in emails with staff at the studios, requested for a hotel upgrade in 2013 saying he had an “unpleasant experience the year before”.

He said: “I did indeed ask for a better room. I stayed there for a shorter time than the managing director, never once had breakfast at the hotel, and my flights would where possible also be cheaper, so keeping costs down as much as practicable.”

In an email in February, Mr Morris told Cllr Bright that tickets to the Baftas costing £3,744 had become “too expensive”.

Borehamwood Times:

Other concerns relate to Conservatives’ use of the publicly-owned studios.

In January 2018 Elstree Studios managing director Roger Morris reminded colleagues that all bookings at the studios must “properly booked” and the studios is “politically agnostic”.

Borehamwood Times:

An email released in the FoI suggests that the studios has foregone £36,000 in room hire since 2013 due to the Conservatives’ having “privileged access”.

The Tories since 2013 have been using a private room at the studios for local government association training.

But Cllr Bright says the £36,000 figure is incorrect – the Tory group was later invoiced for £7,800 for room hire for training between 2015 and 2018.

In an email sent on May 23 last year, Mr Morris asked whether the studios should be charging the Conservative party for a booking in a board room in June. Cllr Bright replied ‘are you taking the p*ss?’

Borehamwood Times:

Borehamwood Times:

Cllr Bright said the meeting was about “Hertsmere, as landlords of the studios, discussing pieces of land in the area” and that if there was an issue, he would move it to council offices.

Mr Morris replied and said it was about “not compromising (studios) staff” and “ensuring proper control of bookings”.

Hertsmere Borough Council chief executive Donald Graham, who was copied into Mr Morris’s January email, said in May only the Tories had been using the studios and other political groups were using other venues. He advised that the studios should not be used for any political function so that the council is acting ‘impartially’.

Mr Graham, in an email on June 1, 2018 to Cllr Bright and Mr Morris described it as a “troubling set of events”.

As a result, all political activity has been banned at the studios.

Borehamwood Times:

Chief exec Donald Graham says the studios should not be used for party political reasons

For another event, room hire at the studios’ events hall for a Tory party dinner attended by 100 guests on March 11 2015, cost nothing.

With regards to councillor training, Cllr Bright said: “Between 2013 and 2018 the Local Government Association used the studios for one of their leadership training module weekends for Conservative councillors.

“The Conservative Party dinner and fundraising event for 100 guests was charged at £30pp [plus cash bar] with no charge for room hire.”

“So it should be noted that both the LGA events and the Conservative Dinner in 2015 brought money and business in to the studios.”

Other concerns relate to a celebration in 2018 after Cllr Bright was made an MBE for his services to local government.

A car, costing £141.50, from Borehamwood to Buckingham Palace was billed to the studios.

Councillors, MP Oliver Dowden, friends, family, and members of the press were among those invited to a £2,203 event held at Elstree Studios. Cllr Bright repeatedly said the studios had “kindly put on the reception for him”.

Borehamwood Times:

Borehamwood Times:

Cllr Bright sent an email which appears to suggest how invitations to his reception should be written

Cllr Bright says he paid back £1,836.50 for his MBE investiture when council officers said later on there had been no motion put to the studios board to request funding for such an event.

Borehamwood Times:

Borehamwood Times:

He also paid back £250 for a studios book in 2014, a second studios book of £200 the following year.

Borehamwood Times:

Cllr Bright confirms he has paid the studios a number of expenses

Cllr Bright added: “Since the council-run studios company was created in 2007, Hertsmere has received over £16 million from the studios. That’s more than £400 for every single home across the borough.

“The studios also bring jobs to our towns and business to our local economy. It is a massive ongoing success story for Hertsmere and our residents.”

Borehamwood Times:

2017/2018 expenses claimed by Cllr Bright

An independent audit into the governance of Hertsmere Borough Council-owned companies was commissioned in light of the concerns made by Mr Morris.

A Hertsmere Borough Council spokesperson said: “The independent audit report that was commissioned to ensure that there are effective governance arrangements in place for the council-owned subsidiaries, including Elstree Film Studios, is not yet finalised.

“Following completion of the audit a draft report is circulated to key interviewees and participants so that they can check it for factual accuracy. Following this period, the commissioner(s) of the audit report has an opportunity to comment on it prior to its finalisation. This process can take a number of weeks.”

Elstree Studios declined to comment.

The FoI can be viewed at https://www.hertsmere.gov.uk/Documents/11-Your-Council/FOI/2019/February/HBC-FOI-20190166-Contact-with-EFS-Ltd.pdf