Councils decision making in limbo?

Each week the York Council updates a list of upcoming “decisions” that it intends to make. It is known as the forward programme and covers a four month period. It lists issue areas and gives the date that a decision meeting will take place on.

The intention is to give back bench councillors and members of the public advance notice that changes may be proposed.

City of York - York City Council Meeting 12/17/2019
York Council meeting – archive photo!

The system has always been slightly opaque with some quite obscure descriptions covering potentially radical change. Nevertheless, the system works after a fashion and was sustained during the peak of the COVID crisis.

During that time decisions were delegated to officials on the basis that they needed to act promptly to address health concerns.

The York Council has been slow to get back to a fully transparent and democratic decision-making process, with meetings still taking place “online”.

Many may think that this is not a bad thing as far as what are termed “executive member decision meetings” are concerned. Essentially this involves one person siting in a room solemnly declaring agreement with often mundane officer recommendations.  Provided that written representations are allowed and recorded, remote meetings of this sort have the advantage of avoiding unnecessary travel (and can be viewed live on video by interested parties).

Meeting to consider community stadium shelves

The Councils planning and scrutiny processes are rather different.

There some real debate and probing is necessary to ensure that all options are fully understood and considered. Other Councils have returned to “live” meetings. York should follow suit.

It could start by scheduling its first full Council meeting for 6 months.

The latest “forward plan” suggests that a backlog of work is building up. No fewer than 7 items which have been included on the plan – in some cases for over 6 months – are now shelved.

There is no indication when, or even if, decisions will be made.

They include a review of Homelessness, the agenda for which was published last week and then hastily withdrawn without explanation.

Another report was intended to provide an update on the commercial arrangements at the new Community Stadium complex. There is no clue given as to when a report will be ready despite the start of the new football season being imminent.

Make it York targets deferred

Several of the deferred items relate to housing issues. A new Head of Housing has recently been appointed. He will need to get to grips quickly with the backlog.

 In the meantime the Council should either schedule the shelved meetings or withdraw them for the list

The deferred items include

  • 25. Homeless Review 2019-20 Decision maker:  Executive Member for Housing & Safer Neighbourhoods Decision due:   ; The original meeting this item was scheduled to be considered at has been cancelled, therefore this item has been postponed until a new meeting date has been identified. Originally due:   25/08/20 Notice of proposed decision first published: 28/07/2020
  • 26. Make it York Service Level Agreement Decision maker:  Executive Member for Culture, Leisure and Communities Decision due:   ; In consultation with the Executive Member for Economy and Strategic Planning Originally due:   14/04/20 Notice of proposed decision first published: 24/02/2020
  • 27. Project Executive Fee Level  Decision maker:  Executive Member for Children, Young People and Education Originally due:   21/04/20 Notice of proposed decision first published: 02/03/2020
  • 28. NSLC Commercial proposals (Community Stadium) Decision maker:  Executive Decision due:   ; This item has been deferred to enable a more detailed report to be prepared. Originally due: 13/02/20  Notice of proposed decision first published: 13/01/2020
  • 29.  Organisational Development (OD) Plan Decision maker:  Executive Originally due:   23/04/20 Notice of proposed decision first published: 16/03/2020
  • 30.  Garden Assistance for CYC Tenants Decision maker:  Executive Member for Housing & Safer Neighbourhoods Originally due:   30/04/20 Notice of proposed decision first published: 03/02/2020
  • 31. Communal Areas Policy (Housing Owned Land) Decision maker:  Executive Member for Housing & Safer Neighbourhoods Originally due:   14/05/20  Notice of proposed decision first published: 03/02/2020

If you want to influence these decisions then you are too late!

The York Council has revealed a whole raft of decisions taken on Wednesday at “behind closed doors” meetings. Although the Council could have chosen to publish the agendas and supporting papers (such as they are) before the meeting took place, it chose not to.

Even those sympathetic to the current administration are now losing confidence in the leadership and its aversion to transparency.

This is likely to weigh against the status quo when the future of the unitary authority is considered during the next few months.

Wednesday’s seance apparently considered;

 COVID 19 – Business and Planning Act 2020 – Officer Delegation

The Business and Planning Act 2020 came into force w/c 20th July and has
immediate operational impacts associated to the Covid 19 emergency requiring officers to take actions on behalf of the Council in order to comply with new legal obligations. This therefore requires officers to have appropriate delegations to implement this new legislation.

NB. This legislation provides for

  1. A new “Pavement Licence” regime, to be administered by local authorities, designed to make it easier for premises in England serving food and drink such as bars, restaurants and pubs to seat and serve customers outdoors through temporary changes to planning procedures and alcohol licensing.
  2. Alcohol licensing changes that will allow operators with existing alcohol on-sales licences to also serve alcohol for consumption off the premises and to make deliveries. 

So with the Alcohol Restriction Zone/PSPOs  policy still up in the air, we seem likely to have nameless officials nodding though even more alcohol consumption on the streets of central York.

 COVID 19 – Economic Recovery – Blue Badge parking;

Additional blue badge parking spaces on Duncombe Place, Dundas Street, St Saviourgate and Carmelite Street

 COVID 19 – Economic Recovery – Revised Café pavement Licence fee;

The fee for an annual café licence has been set at £100/application, with the option to apply for a shorter, 3 month licence, for a £25 fee “to enable shorter term trials by business who have previously not operated licences and who need to accommodate Covid distancing measures to re open”

Cliffords Tower land ownership

COVID 19 – Granting English Heritage a licence for Land at Clifford’s tower to accommodate Covid 19 mitigation measures

License for English Heritage to expand the area that it occupies at Cliffords Tower for  9 months (see left).

 COVID 19 – Economic Recovery – Castlegate traffic management

To approve a Temporary TRO to change existing access restrictions on Castlegate, implementing the following:
a. No vehicular access between 10:30 and 20:00 seven days a week (no exemptions for cyclists or Blue Badge holders, extended hours in line with extended footstreet hours) – between number 12 and number 28 Castlegate;
b. Loading ban between 10:30 and 20:00 for the whole length of Castlegate; and
c. Enable two way traffic between number 28 Castlegate and the junction with Tower Street 24h/day.

 COVID 19 – Not to Extend the Closure of the Southbound Lane of Bishopthorpe Road Between Darnborough Street and Scarcroft Rd from 4 August 2020

This was the decision publicised on Wednesday. Turns out that the meeting did not receive any statistical analysis or impact assessment. The background is restricted to 13 lines of hand wringing.

Having reviewed the current impacts of the TTRO on Bishopthorpe Road, it is evident as the economy reopens there is increased traffic in the area, in particular there is a negative impact on queue lengths on the inner ring road and the level of traffic on adjacent residential streets e.g. St Benedict’s Road. There will also be additional traffic diversions operating in the area when the Micklegate Bar is closed on 10th August due to gasworks which have already commenced on 24 July. Having considered the latest public health advice and traffic impacts, I confirm the decision to not extend TTRO. This location will be kept under review in light of prevailing Covid 19 advice and further considerations of sustainable traffic interventions at this location will be considered as part of the Local Transport plan development. The feedback collected on the scheme will be reviewed and presented in a future decision session.

Fresh light shed on York’s mysterious QUANGOs

Some of the affairs of York’s taxpayer funded but independently managed organisation are to be subject to public review next week. The Councils first comprehensive “Shareholder” committee meeting is to look at the results being obtained by several organisations.

These include

  • Make it York (The tourism and marketing body)
  • Veritau Ltd – An audit body
  • City of York Trading – A recruitment and temporary staff agency
  • Yorwaste/SJB Recycling (Process local waste and refuse)

In the past these bodies have been subject to intermittent “light” scrutiny with many background details contained in “confidential” annexes. Several private annexes are still being reported to next Tuesday’s meeting but fewer than in the past

The meeting is being chaired by Cllr Nigel Ayre who was also responsible for bringing into the public domain reports on the Councils major contracts letting processes.

Make it York (MIY) plans to appoint a new post of “Head of Commercial and Revenue Generation” at a basic salary of £60,000 a year. Performance bonuses could bring the remuneration up to £80.000 pa. MIY failed to recruit to the post at a lower salary earlier in the year. The post has the objective of increasing MIY’s revenues over time such that the company can, in the first instance, become self-funding (relieving the council of its ongoing financial contribution to the business) and, beyond that, increasing the sums available to reinvest in the city.

It is unclear how potential conflicts between commercial targets and York’s traditional values will be reconciled. There have been too many disputes between local traders, visitors and residents in the past few years.

Separately MIY reports an expected £248,063 loss in the year. This is 6304 above budget expectations. Increased overheads are blamed together with poor merchandise sales in the tourist centre.  The organisations new Chair Greg Dyke is due to take over the role in January.

The report touches on the Christmas Market and ongoing difficulties with access for traders (see below).

Veritau Ltd, a company jointly owned by North Yorkshire County Council and the City of York Council, wants to expand. It hopes in future to provide audit services for several additional Council and other public bodies.

City of York Trading Ltd (trading principally as WorkwithYork and WorkwithSchools) was formed in 2011 with the intention of supplying temporary staff to CYC, to schools (in and around the York area) and to other outside organisations. Through City of York Trading Ltd, the reductions in cost to CYC and the return of the profit achieved are designed to assist CYC’s financial position. If CYC had to source staff in the open market, the cost would be substantially higher than current rates paid to the Company.

Unfortunately the reports from this organisation continue to be largely opaque. The shareholder committee is being asked to approve a business plan which is enclosed in a confidential annex. Similarly, the committee is being asked to endorse the appointment of a n additional company director but without the name of the candidate being revealed.

The net cost/return to the Council of this body is not revealed.

Yorwaste/SJB Recycling. The York Council owns 23% of this company. Yorwaste operates Waste Transfer Stations (WTS), Materials Recycling Facilities (MRF), Green Waste Composting, and HWRCs for both NYCC and CYC. It also manages the closed landfill aftercare obligations at several sites including Harewood Landfill (which closed to general waste in March of this year). SJB currently operates three sites (based at Yorkshire Water waste plants) providing green waste composting services to local authorities.

The company is forecasting a loss of over £300,000 on the year. The company blames the impact of a facility closure (Seamer); external commodity prices; and two waste fires for the downturn in its fortunes.

SJB is forecasting a reduced level of profit (£159,000). With 2 of its three operational sites closing it is heavily dependent on achieving a new contract before the end of the year.

Transparency returns to York Council decision making process?

Two decisions on the award of large IT contracts are to be taken in public next week as the York Council takes its first tentative steps towards a more open approach.  It is not the decisions themselves which have attracted attention but rather it is the justification offered for placing them before a public meeting.

The report states “that councillors consider routine procurement decisions over £250k in value in line with procurement regulations and the public have the opportunity to see transparent decision-making in operation relating to major procurements.”

That is always supposed to have happened but some officials have sought to exploit loopholes in the budget process to justify making implementation decisions behind closed doors.  Such “routine” decisions must be reported to the responsible executive member in a “register” This has not been done routinely in a transparent way.

It appears that the Executive are now insisting that proposals are tabled individually. That is a step in the right direction.

The two decisions being made on 18th November relate to

  1. Expenditure of £323,800 on an “on line” customer payments system
  2. A £710,000 investment in a new document management system.  

The meeting will also hear that the Council is scrapping a proposed joint procurement with Harrogate to appoint a technology provider.

Instead the current provider in York will continue until summer 2020 with a new supplier, for managed network services, taking over then. The Council current spends around £2 million per annum on this service.

Full marks to Cllr Nigel Ayre who is taking the first tentative steps towards making the Council more open and accountable

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.