Information requests 2000+ a year & increasing at York Council

The number of requests for information sent to the York Council last year hit a record high.

2068 Freedom of Information (FOI) and Environment Information Regulation (EIR) requests were lodged with the Council.

The applications were submitted using several different methods.

Some were simply Emailed to the Councils dedicated FOI email address (foi@york.gov.uk.) Such requests generated an automatic receipt.

Others used the independent web site “What do they know”. The monitoring of applications made from this site are semi automatic.

The Council also has its own “on line” recording system. This can be used by clicking this link  At the moment this system, unlike “what do they know”, doesn’t provide users with a  copy of their request nor does it produce a receipt even if a contact email address is provided. Users must make a note of a reference number which briefly appears on screen.

 The Council claims that last year it answered 91% of requests for information within the target 20-day turn-round time.

Many of the requests do generate a further review as the Council fails to fully, or even partially, answer the information requests.

We think that if the Council was more open in its processes the cost of dealing with ad hoc requests for information would be greatly reduced.

NB. There has been no response from the  York Council to a request for an explanation of why it ceased updating its FOI response lists last summer.

Psst, can you keep a secret?

A York Council committee will be considering how to make settlement agreements – made when employees leave the Councils employment – more transparent.

They will also touch on the number of “Non-Disclosure Agreements” issued by the Council (over 60 in recent years) and whether these are in the interests of taxpayers.

The proposals are on the agenda of the, normally secretive, Staffing Matters and Urgency committee meeting which takes place on 5th August. Unusually all the items on the agenda will be discussed in public.

Although the new process will involve the appropriate Executive Councillor, it does fail to lay down clear rules limiting the scale of enhanced payments to a leaving employee. They may still be seen by some managers as an easy way to get rid of under-performing staff.

Non-disclosure agreements will still be possible.

There are no plans to routinely report the nature and value of settlements and agreements to a public committee.

There may still be a suspicion amongst taxpayers that enhanced payments are made solely to avoid the laborious processes and costs of an Employment Tribunal.

NB. The same meeting is being told that the Council has been unable to find a suitable candidate to fill the new post of Director of Governance and Improvement. Instead a Director of  Governance is to be appointed at a salary of around £90k.

York Councils empty property list revealed

Freedom of Information response confirms that buyer has pulled out of deal to buy 29 Castlegate
List of long term empty properties in York owned by the Council

The York Council has confirmed that it owns 12 substantial properties in the City which have been empty for over 6 months.

Two of the properties, Ashbank and the Guildhall, have been unused for over 6 YEARS.  

Ashbank was reported as being sold for £1.3 million a year ago. The Council now just says it is “sold subject to contract”.

The new Executive is expected to review the affordability of a £20 million scheme at the Guildhall which would see the creation of a “business club” there. If the project goes ahead, work will start in the autumn with reoccupation expected in 2021.

The estimated total value of the assets is put at between £30/40 million.

Little attempt has been made to secure short term lets for the properties which include prime sites like 29 Castlegate, the former youth advisory HQ.

Most of the properties have been exempt from paying business rates. Had they been occupied then Council taxpayers would have benefited from an additional £200,000 a year in income.

To this would be added rental income of around £400,000 a year or a substantial capital receipt.

The Castlegate property was to have been purchased by the York Conservation Trust with the York Civic Trust hoping to subsequently  lease the building as part of its expansion plans for the adjacent Fairfax House.

The agreed purchase price of £430,000 was criticised at the time as being “too low” for a building in such a prime site.

29 Castlegate

Now the Council says that it was notified on 21st May that the Conservation Trust would not be purchasing the building. However, the York Civic Trust had been told the same at their AGM last year. The Council say that they are now “reviewing” the position.

No public reports have been made on asset utilisation issues at the York Council this year.

The Council is spending around £80,000 a year on maintaining and securing the properties.

Only one of the properties has a temporary occupant (20 Piccadilly)

The table does not include underused assets like 19/21 Piccadilly (Spark) or land with a development potential. The latter includes land purchased in 2008 to accommodate an extension to Acomb Explore Library and which has been unused ever since.

19/21 Piccadilly

The Council says that it has only one Council house, at Glen Lodge, which has been empty for longer than 6 months.

The Council Housing department has been criticised in the past for allowing some of its estate garages to remain empty for extended periods of time.

The revelations have led to calls for a more proactive approach by the Council in the use of its assets. The new Council leadership has been advised to reintroduce a 6 monthly public report on empty property issues.

It may be that the time has come for the York Council to seek outside help in managing its huge commercial building portfolio

Cost of Ascot Way disabled centre soars by 37%

Council blames the “complexity” of the selected design for the increase.

A Council report published today reveals that the cost of the Centre of Excellence for Disabled Children will increase from the originally budgeted figure of £4.3 million (January 2018) to an estimated £5.9 million.

Demolition works have started at Windsor House

This comes after the Council, In April 2018, had agreed to increase the proportion of the costs which would be funded by borrowing

£1.1 million of the increased costs will come from a Health service grant with the rest being transferred from the education budget.

It appears that some features  of the building are being “value engineered” out of the design.

The centre is being built on the site of the Windsor House elderly persons home. The neighbouring Lincoln Court independent living building is also being modernised and extended at the same time.

While both projects have been welcomed, concerns have been expressed about traffic congestion and parking issues in the area.

The impact of the developments on open space and sports facilities in the neighbourhood have also been criticised.

Details of the new budget allocations are being kept secret by the Council. It is unclear what promised features in the building may now be omitted.

The meeting to consider the budget increase is taking place on 18th June.

Council hurriedly publishes who does what list

The Council has now published several updates to its constitution.

The changes haven’t been through any democratic process so fail the transparency test.

Amongst the documents now on the Council web site “library”” are sections covering


Executive Member responsibilities (click)

Council Committees and Other Bodies

 Scrutiny Review Procedure Rules

Overview and Scrutiny

Some of the Executive member responsibilities will raise eyebrows.

Splitting responsibility for “parks and open spaces” from “sport and leisure” does’t look like joined up thinking. Both are areas where the last Council had major policy failures, so some sort of refresh is needed.

Extract from new York Executive responsibilities as at June 2019

Council contracts and the Library service

Lots of new entries on the public contracts register for the city of York Council (https://procontract.due-north.com/ContractsRegister/Index)  but nothing for local Libraries other than repairs.

Register of York Council contracts 19th Feb 2019

The Council has, however, issued a media release saying that a new 15 year, £32 million value, contract has been awarded to the existing Library Service provider . That would be good news but still leaves a lot of unanswered questions.

Not least will be the reliance to be placed on “volunteers” helping to provide the service.

It appears that only two tenders were received to run the service. The other is believed to have been from GLL who currently run the Councils sports facilities.

The Council’s media release says,

The new contract, which will commence on the 1st April 2019, will ensure that the city’s existing libraries can remain open over the next 15 years, in line with the agreed vision.

The announcement follows a procurement process to decide which organisation would be best placed to deliver the city’s vision for its 14 libraries and world renowned archives service.

At a previous meeting, the Council’s Executive agreed to provide an additional £300,000 to support the new £32 million library services contract.  The additional funding follows feedback from both bidders involved in the procurement process, and will ensure that all the city’s existing libraries can remain open over the next 15 years of the contract. Full Council will be asked to agree the additional funding at a meeting later this month (28 February).

Plans for the future of the library and archive service in York were shaped by the results of a citywide consultation in 2017/18.

Key proposals for the future service include:

  • York Explore Library to continue as the flagship service centre, including the archives and local history centre
  • Explore Gateways offered at a variety of venues, preferably with cafe facilities, and co-located with other community activities where possible, with local communities invited to be involved in their operation.
  • Virtual libraries providing a 24/7 online service, involving e books and e magazines, with virtual spaces for people to share ideas.
  • Providing reading cafes, encouraging the joy of reading especially for those who may feel uncomfortable in a more traditional library.

Damp squib as York Councillor allegations are published.

After 2 years of agonising the York Council’s Chief Executive has finally published details of the claims of “misconduct”  faced by the former Deputy Leader of the Authority; Cllr Keith Aspden.

He was sacked as Deputy Leader in September 2017 by the then Tory Council Leader David Carr amidst dark allegations of “serious offences”.

David Carr was himself subsequently sacked by the Tory Group.

There had been claims in 2017 that Cllr Aspden had been responsible for leaking an audit report which looked into contract irregularities in 2014 when Labour were in control of the Council. It subsequently turned out that a paid official was responsible for that leak. That same official, when faced with the prospect of dismissal for his action, then muddied the water with a series of claims about Councillor and officer conduct at the Council.

Most of the allegations were quickly disproven but two – concerning the appointment of a junior officer in 2015 – have remained unresolved.

Cllr Aspden vigorously rejects the two remaining charges.

It is this allegation that will be subject to a Standards Committee hearing on 3rd January. The hearing is being held in public and all the background reports have been published “on line” at the request of Cllr Aspden. The names of those involved have been redacted.

It turns out that the issue is less “James Bond”, more “Coronation Street”.

Why the Council should have spent nearly 2 years ponderously investigating the bogus claims, and in the process spent nearly £100,00 of taxpayers money on solicitors and investigators, may remain a mystery, whatever the outcome of the hearing.

The substance of the complaint relates to the appointment of an assistant, for each of the 3 main party leaders, following a decision taken after the last Council elections in 2015.

The authority also decided to centralised complaint handling and continued the employment of 3 “political researchers” who had been in post for over two decades.

All in all, the decisions meant that Councillors enjoyed an unprecedented level of support.

It was never clear precisely what the “Executive Assistants” would do. It was said that they would be non-political appointments.

It is claimed that Keith Aspden sought to influence who might be appointed to the post that would work for him. He was understandably concerned that someone should be appointed who was discrete and sensitive to the political environment (the LibDems were working in a coalition with the Tories). The Labour and Tory Leaders made similar appointments.

The claim being investigated is that copies of job application forms were made available when the merits of the candidates for the post were discussed between four people in a York pub in the summer of 2015. Keith Aspden apparently favoured the appointment of someone that he knew.  The recollections of the 4 involved differ on what was said but an independent investigator has chosen to believe the word of the “whistle-blower” Hence a charge of bringing the Council into disrepute,.

 

Hints of political patronage do leave a bad taste. When the York Unitary Council was formed in 1996 it fell under Labour control. Two of the new Directors, appointed to senior positions, were card carrying members of the Labour party. One was a former Labour Councillor.

That made relationships awkward.

But those were senior roles and the Executive assistants have a much more mundane and low profile work remit.

What happens next depends on the outcome of the hearing. If the case is found not to be proven, then those who have relentlessly – and at great expense to the taxpayer – harassed a hardworking Councillor, may themselves find that they are next into the public dock.

NB. Cllr Ayre has had a complaint, about leaking information to the media, outstanding for over 18 months. Cllr Carr may also face the prospect of censure for actions when he was the Leader of the Council.

York Local Plan Infrastructure report published – if you can find it!

We reported last week that a behind closed doors decision had been taken to approve two key reports associated with the York Local Plan.  They were to have been submitted to central government last week to meet the important deadlines.

One report concerned the infrastructure delivery plan.  We said that this should have been available publicly before any decision was taken.

The decision notice (see below)  said that instead it would be published on the Council’s web site on Tuesday (29th).

A report has now appeared but not on the listed Council web page. It can be downloaded by clicking here  

It is an 80 page document which deserves some careful consideration.

One active local commentator has pointed out that, given the many years that have led up to the submission of the Local Plan documents, the consideration of this document now looks like an afterthought.

The Council has not yet commented on why proper notice of the decision meeting was not given in an open and transparent way.

“Behind closed doors” decision on transport, and other investment, needed for York Local Plan

The Council has sent off to central government its proposed new Local Plan. It brings to an end (potentially) 25 years of agonising about the future size of the City.The plan is a compromise on growth rates with over 850 additional homes scheduled to be built in each of the next 20 years.

One key implications of this “Big City” policy is the impact that it will have on the City’s infrastructure. Health, education, leisure and – crucially- transport systems will come under even greater pressure as the population grows.

The additional homes could wipe out any advantages being seen as a result of the small scale improvements currently programmed for the A1237.

Arterial roads could also reach grid lock unless there is substantial investment.

Hopes for an alternative network of  public transport routes also hang on key investment decisions with part of the resourcing needing to come from  developers.

All the stranger, therefore, that a report on what infrastructure improvements will be needed, and how they might be funded, was take at a private meeting yesterday. The papers on the Council web site give little clue to the assumptions contained in the plan. The Council says that more information may be published on 29th May.

Too late then for any critical input on what may yet prove to be the Achilles heel of the plan

Decision taken just hours before the Local Plan was submitted to central government

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.