In a hole – continue digging

Secrecy culture alive and well at the York Council

“Decision” notice published by York Council yesterday

The latest, on the confidential report saga at the York Council, has been revealed.

Councillors are being asked to sign a “confidentiality agreement” before they will be allowed to see a report into last year’s, very public, fall out at the Audit and Governance Committee.

What happened at the meeting has been in the public arena from day one as a “webcast” allowed residents to view the meeting “on line”. The recording of the meeting is still available.

Relations between Council officials and some committee members broke down and subsequently an investigatory report was commissioned. A heavily redacted copy of that report was presented to an Audit meeting but not surprisingly Councillors said that they could not do their jobs without sight of the full report.  Subsequently Councillors agreed to discuss the report in private, but officials initially refused to release it in advance of their meeting.

Now it transpires that -with a shuffle in committee membership in the offing next week – those participating will only get “hard copy” and will have to sign a legally binding confidentiality agreement.

But how does this protect the interests of taxpayers? If the independent report – which cost several thousands of pounds to produce – is critical of processes or structures how can residents be confident that there will not be a repetition?

We look forward to hearing how Councillors intend to restore confidence in their stewardship?

In the meantime, several Freedom of Information requests have been lodged in an attempt to get the full report into the public domain.

 

But the York Council is not alone in seeking to cast a veil over accountability issues. Earlier last week, the Police and Crime Commissioner for North Yorkshire was expected to answer questions about the unexplained and hasty departure of the last Chief Constable from his post.

The overnight decision came without warning , leaving some doubt about whether the appropriate 3 months’ notice had been given (and if so when).

At a public “scrutiny” meeting , the PCC refused to answer questions on the topic before choosing to  eject the press and public and  go into a private session.

A similar “immediate retirement” occurred in 2011 when the then Deputy Chief Constable left the force. It was several years before the full picture behind the decision emerged.

Some officials don’t seem to realise that the reputation of an organisation is likely to be further damaged in the eyes of the public by secrecy – and the inevitable speculation that follows – rather than adopting a more open and frank approach from the outset.

York “cold case” perpetrator finally named

Mr Redacted blamed for all Councils woes

Audit committee report April 2018

The long running saga, which started 4 years ago when the Council let consultancy contracts without going through a proper procurement process, is finally reaching its climax.

A report to a meeting next week gives an independent view of who did what and when at an audit committee meeting which discussed the issue a year ago.

Ironically that meeting descended into chaos when most members voted to discuss an internal audit report in public.  This caused a “walk out” by the Labour party committee chair.

The internal report was later leaked to the media causing more turmoil. The implicated “leakers” of the document (who denied the accusation) were later suspended from the Council’s Executive by the then Council Leader.  Hehimself was ejected from office a few weeks ago.

Apart from that, it has been a peaceful and harmonious 18 months at the York Council.

The report into the Audit meeting is heavily redacted. We can see no reason why the names of Councillors and officials should not be revealed WHERE THEY HAVE AGREED TO WAIVE ANY RIGHTS THAT THEY MAY HAVE TO ANONONIMITY.

After all, the meeting was web cast and is already in the public domain

It seems that the Council have not learned many lessons about transparency and accountability

York Council – “We can’t tell you the facts because they might influence an election result”

Readers may recall an incident last year when the York Council refused Freedom of Information (FOI) requests in the run up to the General Election in June.They said the information might “influence how electors cast their ballots”.

They claimed, for example, that residents should not be told how many issues individual Councillors had raised with the Council on behalf of their constituents.

We pointed out that, as none of the Councillors were election candidates, this information couldn’t have influenced their chances.

It could be argued, in any event, that – as FOI requests can only be made for factual information – the more facts that are known, the more likely electors are to make an informed choice!

That issue is currently with the Parliamentary Ombudsman to investigate. That referral is on the basis that the Information Commissioner should have issued guidance to Local Authorities on what may, and what may not, be published.

Most Councils continue to respond to FOI requests during election (“purdah”) periods.

York is in a small minority that don’t.

Now a similar situation has arisen just 4 days before a Council by election takes place in the Holgate ward,.

The Council has refused to publish a list of businesses who have not paid their Rates bills during the last 3 years. This is information that used to be routinely reported to a public Council committee meeting. That committee might, on occasions, authorise some debts to be written off.

Quite why a list of businesses, with outstanding debts, could influence the way that the electors of Holgate will cast their ballot is open to conjecture.

It may make some people wonder if there something to hide? 

Time will tell.

Council Leader under pressure to publish secret report

Councillors from all parties have written to the York Council Leader (David Carr) asking him to reveal the contents of a secret report compiled by the Local Government Association (LGA).

The report looked into the behaviour of some York Councillors and officials at a stormy meeting of the Audit and Governance Committee which took place on 22nd February.

The report is thought to criticise the way that Council officials handled the meeting when it was considering a report on the appointment of consultants by the previous Labour administration.

An internal report had revealed that around £174,000 had been spent when appointing consultants outside the Councils procurement regulations i.e competitive tenders for the work had not been obtained.

Councillors voted to discuss the issue in public, prompting the then chair of the committee to walk out followed by another Labour Councillor.

Subsequently an investigation into the meeting was conducted by the LGA. The expectation was that the further report would have been presented to the last meeting of the Audit committee but the Council Leader intervened to prevent its publication.

Cllr Carr has so far refused to publish the report, despite promising members at a full council meeting in July that he would.

In the letter the councillors say:

“As members of City of York Council and its Audit and Governance Committee, we are writing openly to you to express our concerns over the lack of openness and transparency with the above report.

We would like you to confirm that:

  1. The report will be published for the Audit and Governance Committee as soon as possible, if necessary with the full version seen in private session and a redacted copy being public.
  2. You re-affirm your commitment to working in an open and transparent manner, whilst protecting the rights of members and officers by not prejudicing the outcome of any report.

We hope that you as Leader and City of York Council will learn from past events at Audit and Governance and push forward towards greater openness instead of just trying to fulfil minimum expectations with Members and the public. When writing public reports, we should carefully balance the legitimate public interest in disclosure against data protection concerns, working with redacted or summarised reports with private annexes rather than excluding whole reports as confidential.”

It is highly unusual for members of all the political  Groups represented on the Council to jointly produce such a letter.

It places further pressure on a Council Leader who has been increasingly isolated since he took unilateral action to sack two leading LibDem Councillors from the coalition Executive at the beginning of September.

The Council’s Standards Board has since made little progress in dealing with the allegations – also understood to be related to the procurement report – against the two Councillors.

Some sources within the Council are now saying that – unless progress on the reports is made quickly – an ultimatum is likely to be issued.

Either Cllr Carr goes or the coalition collapses.

 

£250,000 cycling “Departy” shambles finally admitted

Big loss on the Grand Departy

The Councils Executive will this week receive the final report into the 2014 Tour de France concert fiasco.

The Concert cost some £250,000 but attracted only around 1500 people to the Huntington Stadium

The report (click) makes salutary reading

It has subsequently turned out that this casual approach to spending taxpayer’s money was the tip of the iceberg with another recent report into the appointment of consultants also revealing that procurement rules were broken.

The Executive is being recommended to approve a series of recommendations aimed at preventing a repetition of the problems.

However, rather surprisingly, it appears that officials apparently do not want the following scrutiny committee proposals to be approved.

To ensure the risks associated with future major events are assessed and mitigated effectively:

vii. The event manual for each planned event must be prepared and supplied to the SAG and event management staff by the required pre-event deadline.

viii. For those events where ticket sales are required, to mitigate any associated financial risk, arrangements for monitoring ticket sales must be made before tickets go on sale and an effective method for the continuous assessment of sales against targets put in place. Any proposed price changes or special offers to boost sales must be assessed and agreed before implementation.

  1. Where an additional event is proposed to be run alongside an existing externally-originated programme, it must be agreed from the outset that this can be done and that no element of competition is anticipated.
Councillors would be wise to adopt all the investigation recommendations

Secret land deal at “Lowfields Green”

The Council has revealed that it has done a deal to sell 0.74 acres of land to Yorspace at the Lowfield school site.

The land is located next to Tudor Road and is expected to accommodate a high-density development of 19 houses and flats. The communal living style model involves people purchasing shares in a “Mutual Home Ownership Society”.

A report, made public only after a decision had been taken says, “It is a high-density development, to reflect its sustainable objectives, and will also include a community building which can be used for events, as well as some shared outdoor communal areas and growing spaces. As part of the groups green objectives, they are aiming for around 1-1.5 parking spaces per house. The site will be constructed using a variety of environmentally friendly materials and processes, possibly including straw bale and solar”.

The report also says, “As part of the agreement they may also take on the management of the growing spaces and some green areas of the Lowfield site and will run them for the wider community’s benefit”.

The council is refusing to say how much the land will be sold for nor will it say what the market value of the land is.

It is clear that a substantial discount has been negotiated.

It appears that the Council is not stipulating that the plots should be reserved for use by  local people with a proven need for cheap accommodation (e.g. on the housing waiting list &/or key workers).

Yorspace plans

The Council has already changed its plans for the relocation of the football team which currently uses the Lowfields playing field.

In December, they were supposed to be relocated to Tadcaster Road. Last month the Council said they were considering fencing off Chesneys Field to accommodate them.

That announcement produced a barrage of opposition from the current users of Chesneys Field.

Residents opposed fencing the public open space by a ratio of 3:1 in a recent door to door survey.

The decision to sell off the land to Yorspace  was taken last week by the Councils Director of Health, Housing and Adult Social Care (Jon Stonehouse), at a private, behind closed doors, meeting.

There was no consultation with affected residents before the meeting was held.

York Council’s secrecy culture rapped by Ombudsman

The Local Government Ombudsman has criticised the York Council for failing to publish background documents.

In the watchdogs annual performance letter it says,

“Last year we stressed that serving such notices should only be done exceptionally to avoid giving the appearance of a lack of transparency by the Council. It is, therefore, very disappointing to see this practice has continued this year.

Your Council has issued two section 32(3) confidentiality notices that we considered were not appropriate but the Council, when asked, did not comment on why they had done so. I would urge your Council to address this issue as a matter of urgency as it affects our ability to properly investigate complaints against it.

These instances lead me to have serious concerns about the Council’s commitment to positively address complaints made against it in an open and transparent manner”.

 In total the Ombudsman received 56 complaints about the York Council

Eight cases of maladministration, by the Council, were found last year.

York Council consultation systems failing

The first residents knew of a plan to extend alcohol sale times at the local Tesco express store on Acomb Wood Drive was when one found a vandalised notice in a hedgerow.

It was unclear where, or for how long, the Council notice had been displayed but the date for representations had already passed.

Late night alcohol sales – in this case the application would allow sales from 7:00am to 11:00pm seven days a week – are an issue in the area where an adjacent pub already supplies on premises needs.

Residents only find out about licensing applications if they happen to access an obscure part of the Councils web site. On the page, they can download the latest list.

There is no option for interested parties to be alerted to changes through text or Email alerts.

We think that the Council needs to up its game on consultation and make use of increasingly sophisticated social media channels.

It still hasn’t rolled out the much-promised personal account system which it claimed would allow every individual citizen to interact with the authority.

6 months after access to litter reports was rolled out – with some success – other service reports are still dogged by inadequate feedback systems.

Traffic Regulation Orders (TROs)

Thanet Road proposed road humps

Worse still is the publicity given to TROs. This is a statutory activity. The Council is required to advertise any proposed changes to parking, access, speed limit and other transport restrictions.

For many years, the draft orders appeared on an obscure page in the local paper.

One would reasonably think that in 2017 the orders would also be displayed on the Councils web site.

It appears not.

Use the search facility on the Councils web site and no TROs are displayed.

It is almost as if the Council didn’t want drivers to find out what they are planning to do!

If objections to an draft Order are received, the Council is required to consider them and make a public decision on each.

One of the TROs currently out for consultation concerns Thanet Road where a 20-mph speed limit – and traffic calming measures – may be introduced.

Anyone searching for Thanet Road on the Council web site will be disappointed.

It is a shame that the Council doesn’t make better use of its web site, Facebook and Twitter together with more traditional methods like noticeboards.

The noticeboards in Windsor Garth and Ascot Way (both close to Thanet Road) have not had any notices of any sort displayed on them for over a year!

Council publish secret contracts report

The York Council has finally published the controversial report into payments to contractors over the last few years.

The publication was ordered by Councillors last week although Labour representatives made a last ditch attempt to keep the document secret.

Campaign against secrecy started 6 years ago

The Council have now issued the following statement

 “We’ve published the report from last week’s audit and governance committee meeting.

“It can be read and downloaded  by clicking here 

“A copy continues to be available for inspection at our West Offices.

“We’re sorry there has been a delay in making the report available.  

“We had to seek legal guidance from the office of the Information Commissioner because the report contains personal information.

“We take our duties under the Data Protection Act seriously, but, at the same time, we wish to be an open, honest and transparent council

Some of the report has been redacted but it does provide a greater insight into how broken management systems at the authority were in 2014.

Another big York Council contract let in behind closed doors decision

£1 million plus contract for social care started on 1st February 2017 – authorised last week

In April 2016, the York Council considered a major shake-up in its housing support programme. The service had been costing York taxpayers over £2.5 million a year.

The users of this support programmes short term services include the homeless, young people at risk (16-25 year olds including care leavers and teenage parents) offenders, mental health, substance misuse and domestic violence.

Long term services support residents with permanent needs including older people; learning disabilities and mental health.

A report to the Council’s Executive last April said,

The approach is one of “co-design” with the Council setting some minimum requirements but requesting providers to submit proposals that identify the added value that can be provided and setting out a five-year vision for service delivery which will further enhance provision across the City”

It was expected the the new approach would save taxpayers around £750,000 a year. The new approach anticipated an increase in activity by volunteers.

At about the same time the government announced a cap on the total amount of housing benefit payable to social housing tenants. At the time this was expected to impact heavily on supported accommodation services  like hostels.

The 2016 report said,

There is however apprehension amongst providers and partners regarding the significant service change that will take place and any resulting reductions in capacity. Some customers have also expressed anxiety over potential change of providers but this will not be known until after the outcome of the proposed “tender” exercise”.

The services put out to tender were Community Wellbeing and Support Services for:

  • Adults (including Mental Health, Homeless, substance misuse, offenders and Young People)
  • Older Persons
  • Young People – Supported Lodgings

The expected total cost of providing these services was £1.27 million (a saving of £750,000)

It had been anticipated that the contract would be awarded in September 2016 with implementation from 1st February 2017.

It appears that the contracts have only recently been authorised although they were implemented at the beginning of the month. (There is a suspicion that the responsible Council official actually agreed the contract in December).

Papers were published on the Council’s web site on Friday but reveal very little either about the cost of the new contracts or their specifications (i.e. targets, outcomes).

September 2017 specification promise

There will be a suspicion that these have only been made public as an afterthought and were possibly prompted by last week’s revelations about previous contract failures.

The three contacts awarded were:

So, substantial contracts have been let apparently without the involvement of the responsible Councillors, with no visibility of the “vision”, the number of tenders received haven’t been reported, nor has the value of the individual contracts or the expected outcome specification/targets.

Some further explanations are needed we think!

*Bizarrely the report claims that the specification for this service will not be agreed until “Sept 2017”