Liberal Democrat Danny Alexanders view on Chancellors statement

Today’s Autumn Statement has been delivered in incredibly difficult and uncertain economic times. But as Liberal Democrats, Nick, myself and the Ministerial team have worked hard to ensure the Autumn

Statement as a package of measures remains true to our party’s values and to the commitment we made to the British people when the coalition was founded. Every decision has been informed by our desire to help to people working hard to make ends meet in difficult times and to put the economy on the right course for the long term.

Getting the economic fundamentals right is crucial. Throughout Europe, countries are being held to ransom by their bond markets. Their failure to take firm control of their spending has had catastrophic consequences. But our resolve to pay down the deficit is sheltering households and businesses across the country from the worst impacts of this storm.

Before the General Election, British long term interest rates were roughly equivalent to Spanish and Italian ones. Now they are much lower. It doesn’t just mean the cost of government debt is cheaper, it keeps mortgage rates and business borrowing costs down too.

These benefits of economic credibility have been secured by the Coalition’s firm resolve to tackle the terrible economic legacy left by Labour. Meanwhile, not only has Ed Balls failed to learn from Labour’s past mistakes, he is also ignoring the sobering evidence from the Eurozone. Labour wants to spend more, borrow more and increase debt – just at the point where we see that countries that borrow more end up in a state of crisis.

In tough times, it’s even more important to ensure that every penny of public money is well spent. As Liberal Democrats we have pressed for resources to be prioritised towards offering practical help to those that need it most and towards investing in infrastructure and social mobility to rebalance our economy

Liberal Democrat policy being delivered in Government has already secured income tax cuts for people on low and middle incomes and action to tackle youth unemployment through the Youth Contract announced by Nick last week. The Autumn Statement goes further – offering help with fuel duty, rail fares, and extending care for 2 year olds so it now reaches 40% of children. It has also increased in the bank levy to ensure they continue to pay their fair share.

Most important, the Autumn Statement secures further investment for the long term – delivering an extra £5bn in capital spending on projects across the country, an extra £1bn to the Regional Growth Fund, and a credit easing package of £20bn to secure cheaper access to finance for small businesses.

This is a package we as Liberal Democrats should be proud of – in difficult times for everyone, working together as a coalition we are taking action to protect the British economy from the storm around us and build a better, more sustainable economy in the future

Government “go ahead” for 2 new park and ride sites in York

The Chancellor has given the go ahead today in his Autumn Statement for the 2 new park and ride sites which form part of the Access York congestion busting project.
One site will be at Askham Bar where the existing facility will be replaced by a new car park with double the capacity.
An additional site will be provided on the A59 near Poppleton. This part of the project also involves increasing the size of the A59/A1237 roundabout and is expected to have the same effect, in freeing traffic flows, as a similar recent improvements at the A19 junction.
The Access York programme was started by the Liberal Democrat led council in 2008.

25% reduction in York Museums Grant proposed

Improvements to Castle Museum planned

The transfer of the management of the City’s Museums and Art Gallery to an independent Trust has been one of the success stories of the last 10 years.

Attendances have almost doubled and a major refurbishment of the Yorkshire Museum took place last year.

There are now plans in hand for a major remodelling and expansion of the Art Gallery which could see it closed to the public for over a year. Improvements will extend to include a reshaping of the Museum Gardens to the rear of the building.
The work would be completed in 2015.

Major changes are also scheduled for the Castle Museum.

“Real people” will be introduced into Kirkgate in April 2012.

The second Castle Museum project is to open up the green and riverside areas behind the museum, comprising the medieval Castle, the River Foss and Raindale Mill. This will enable a walk way along the river, a flexible event space, an area promoting wildlife conservation, and the area next to the Mill having a suitable 19th century garden added. Visitors will also have the opportunity to see areas of York Castle that are currently ‘out of bounds’ that will be interpreted. This project will be completed by April 2012.

The third and most ambitious part of the Castle Museum project is to create new gallery spaces across the whole of the first floor of the Debtors Prison. The project is called 1914 and will look at how life changed during the period 1914-1918 due to the impact of the First World War This project will open in spring 2014.

Against that background the Council is now planning to cut their grant to the Museums Trust by 25%.

The Trustees have responded by offering to take a 20% cut recognising the need to be as self sufficient as possible in difficult economic times.

Haymarket car park in York to close

Former ambulance station site at Haymarket. Part of the plot which could be sold on

The Council seem intent on bringing forward the sale of the Hungate site which includes the Haymarket car park.
A council report is recommending that archaeological works be extended prior to the site being put on the open market. The work is expected to cost around £100,000 and will be funded by borrowing.

Officials claim that there have been several enquiries about using the site – which was originally intended to house the new Council HQ – for offices or a hotel.

The asking price for the site if the Council, is to break even will be over £4 million. It is a matter of opinion whether the best consideration for the site is likely to be obtained in what are still difficult economic times.

NB. The Haymarket car park has capacity for 102 vehicles (compared to 145 at Union Terrace). The Council announced at the weekend that it favoured a policy of reducing the number of car parking spaces available in the City centre.

6% – 77% increases in Council charges

77% increase in Guildhall hire cost

One area where the Council is acting promptly is to increase the fees that residents face. Although decisions on major income generators like car parking charges are yet to be made, anyone wanting to borrow a library book which is not available locally will now have to pay £8-50.

• That charge compares to a typical Amazon Ebook download charge of around £3.

• Room hire charges at the Central Library (Marriott Room) will increase to £63 per hour.

• At Acomb Explore Library room charges could be as much as £47.25 per hour

• A 77% increase will take the cost of hiring the Guildhall to £150 for a morning weekday, rising to £170 at weekends. Even 2 hours in a hired committee room wills set back residents £40.

• Research time at the archives will be charged out at £6-00 per ¼ hour.

• It will cost £6-50 to hire a tennis court while bowlers face a 20% hike to £3-00 per hour. A season ticket will be £73-50

• Football pitches will set teams back £89-25p

• A 300 sq yard allotment plot will cost £95-00 a year

• Pavement café owners will pay £550 for a license next year.

• Basic cycle training for a child will cost £16

• Silver tours at the Mansion house rise by an eye watering 18% to £10 per person

One piece of good news is that Dial and Ride tickets are frozen at £1-90 (pass holder £1-00) single and £3-70 (£1-90) return.

York Councils £22 million budget challenge

Public toilets under threat?

It’s about this time of year that the overall budget numbers for the forthcoming financial year become a little clearer.

A Council report suggests that the new Labour administration – which got off to a slow start – is struggling to come up with a balanced budget. Their main problem as been indecision over social care costs – the result, in the main, of increased numbers of elderly people in our City.

The Council budget is also under pressure from inflationary costs such as energy tariffs and it must also find money to deal with the increased costs of waste disposal.

There are some wage costs and a pension deficit (the latter over and above what has prompted some workers to threaten strike action on Wednesday)

Central government is offering £1.8 million to the Authority to avoid what otherwise would be a 2.5% increase in Council Tax levels. Labour are dithering about whether to accept the offer. If they don’t then the money would go elsewhere (although the money would only have the effect of delaying an increase until 2013/14)

The last LibDem Council found over £21 million in savings during the current year. Front line services were protected.

Now Labour need to find economies of £12 million this year. If they follow their counterparts in West Yorkshire they will be considering shutting facilities such as public toilets, children’s centres and libraries while road and building maintenance programmes could be axed.

Time will tell

York Fairness Commission – “Increase Council tax by 6%, stop repairing the roads and don’t let residents have a say on neighbourhood improvements”

Of course the writing was on the wall for this Labour initiative as soon as it was revealed that one of their former Councillors was to chair the “Fairness Commission”. Ruth Redfern is a former Labour MPs aide and most recently was employed by the Labour appointed QUANGO Yorkshire Forward.

Not surprising therefore that the “Commissions” interim report is so predictable and biased.

It may not be quite as bad as the “Beautiful City” report of 2010 which relied almost entirely on anecdotal comment from the usual advocates of bus stations, boat building on the Ouse and river taxis.

But it does fall into the trap of regurgitating the same stats that Councillors have struggled with for over a decade.

York is a relatively wealthy City but some of its residents are less well off than others. That is a fact, although not a particularly surprising one.

So the last council took action.

It maintained and increased the amount of investment that was made in care for the elderly and people with disabilities.

This involved an increase in expenditure in every year since 2003 – without exception.

Innovative projects like the one in Kingsway sought to address those issues faced by communities that were identified by (it has to be said) fairly crude national indicators of “deprivation”.

Deprivation in this case was effectively any neighbourhood (IMO) which had a large number of elderly people dependant on the state pension. The more success that the Council had in ensuring that people received the benefits that they were entitled to, the worse was the “deprivation” score.

But not to worry, there was an issue to be addressed and progress was made.

So now the “Fairness Commission” tells us that in order to focus more money on inequality issues, basic services such as highways maintenance should be cut back while the ward committee improvements budget should be centrally allocated (and to fewer parts of the City).

Not content with this they suggest a 6% increase in Council Tax levels and this at a time when central government is offering the City £1.8 million to freeze tax levels for another year.

That could make a lot of difference to large numbers of people in York who face genuine hardship as a result of higher energy prices and – in some cases – lower real terms income levels.

In the longer term, they are looking to eliminate the subsidy paid to the Theatre Royal and Visit York – the tourism body that helps to sustain 10,000 jobs in the City.

Some of the proposals would require national legislation – they want, for example, to introduce a “tourist tax”.

Some are bizarre – they advocate that the Council should pay staff a “living wage”. Since when were council employees amongst the poorest in society? All benefit from the minimum wage legislation anyway.

They want a “youth card” which would attract retailer discounts ( yet it is already available with YoZone card)

There are recommendations in the report that few would disagree with.

Some, although not original thinking by any means, could attract cross party support. They include proposals to:
• Put benefit advisors where they are most easily accessible to users
• Continue and expand work to reduce the living costs/bills of those in greatest need (e.g. through energy efficiency measures and tackling fuel poverty).
• Ensure economic development strategy and activity focuses on the quality and accessibility as well as the quantity of jobs, and on inclusion as well as growth.
• Deliver a programme of action that tackles barriers to work (e.g. child care).
• Encourage the creation of „green jobs‟ in sustainable industries (already started by the last Council).
• Make training and employment opportunities for young people a priority and radically expand the number of apprenticeships on offer (an initiative announced by the Coalition government last week).
• Work together with and support the voluntary sector more closely and extensively.

But a document that pretends to “help” in a budget setting process and which does not include a single figure indicating the cost of the alternative plan is one that is at best a distraction, or at worst counter-productive to addressing fundamental issues about how public services can be sustained in the future.

The Commission admits to spending over £18,000 directly on coming to their conclusions.

Customer demand for Energise gym extension

City of York Council’s Cabinet will be asked to approve plans to extend the Energise gym facilities due to customer demand, at a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday 6 December.

Feedback and comments from many of the regular gym users and members concluded that whilst current gym facilities were good value for money some members felt its popularity meant that it is operating at near capacity.

As a result Cabinet will review a report that presents a business case for the council to invest £540k on behalf of York High School to facilitate an extension of the successful Energise gym facility. The investment would be an ‘invest to save scheme’ and will increase revenue.

The proposals will extend the current gym facility by 219 sq/m and more residents would be able to use the facility, either on a membership basis, or by paying each visit.

Since the addition of the swimming pool in December 2009, Energise has been positioned as the main leisure facility in the West of York, with no direct competition within a clear two-mile radius. Energise is now well established with a strong market presence and achieving a stable turnover of £1.38m.
Paul Bickle, manager of Energise, said: “This is the next logical step in improving and extending what has become a very popular community leisure facility. Our membership has doubled since the opening of the pool in December 2009 and the range of facilities on offer is proving to be in demand”.

The proposal will invest £540k to extend the current gym facility at Energise by 219 sq/m and fits within the overall business plan that has been in place since 2005, focussing on reducing the council’s grant by maximising income streams.

The business plan is robust and has performed favourably against target year-on-year. This is demonstrated by a saving of over £200k in the last three years, as the operator performance grows.

A partnership has existed between York High School and the council since 2005, to provide day time and evening community access to a wide- range of sporting facilities on site, including swimming pools, climbing walls, a fitness studio, sports hall, crèche and outdoor facilities.

If approved, the work on the extension at Energise could start as early as spring with an opening date expected in October 2012.

Traffic speed check results in York revealed

The Council has published a report on the action being taken to address traffic speed concerns in the City.

Generally accident trends over the last few years have been downwards although the numbers involving motorcyclists has been increasing recently.

The Council and Police have a list of locations where they are routinely targeting speeders. In some cases the sites are visited by the new mobile speed camera van.
• Acomb Beckfield Lane,
• Askham Richard Main St
• Copmanthorpe Temple Lane
• Dringhouses Chaloners Road
• Dringhouses Tadcaster Road
• Dunnington, Church Balk,
• Earswick Strensall Road
• Elvington, B1228
• Elvington, B1228
• Fulford Road, Broadway,
• Fulford, Fordlands Road,
• Haxby Greenshaw Drive
• Haxby Towthorpe Rd
• Haxby York Road
• Heslington Main Street
• Heworth Dodsworth Avenue,
• Heworth Malton Road
• Heworth Without Woodlands Grove
• Huntington Huntington Rd (nr 567)
• Huntington New Lane
• Huntington North Lane
• Huntington Strensall Road
• Murton Murton Way
• Naburn Village, B1222
• Poppleton Millfield Lane
• Poppleton Station Rd
• Rawcliffe, Clifton Moor Gate,
• Rawcliffe, Stirling Road
• Stockton on Forest Main St
• Strensall Ox Carr Lane
• Westfield Foxwood Lane
• Westfield Green Lane,
• Wheldrake, Church Lane,
• Woodthorpe Ryecroft Avenue

There is also a long list of sites where some “engineering work” may be undertaken to discourage speeding. 16 additional sites are being added this month to a list that now totals 42 locations.

This represents a growing backlog and one that needs to be addressed using the Councils capital programme.

It is a higher priority than introducing a city wide 20 mph limit. A general 20 mph limit would be unenforceable given the problems that the Police and Council already have enforcing the 30 mph limit on some roads.

The sites awaiting engineering works such as warning signs, gateway treatments, road build outs etc. are listed here (click to enlarge).

List of sites in York requiring engineering work to address speeding concerns

Musical deck chairs on Titanic

Staff at the York Council will be finding out tomorrow (Monday) what the new Labour Council plans for their jobs.

Further reductions in management numbers are inevitable with 3 more Assistant Directors set for the chop.

The proposed changes come only 12 months since the last major change prompting fears that workers face years of a Maoist style “constant revolution”.

Departmental responsibilities are to be changed with the Strategy Department apparently in future going to be called “City and Environmental Services”.

Economic Development will be managed by the Chief Executive while a new Public Health function will be added to the Neighbourhoods department.

Labour Councillors seem to forget that, while changing names and moving functions from one Directorate to another may give the impression of action, in reality having so many changes in such a short period of time damages morale and saps the organisational and financial strength of the Authority.

They should concentrate on making the more fundamental value for money choices necessary to meet increased demand for services against a constrained level of income.