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”

Auditors slam York Council over contractor probe

Auditors have issued a critical report following complaints about how consultants were recruited during the term of the last Labour administration, which left office in May 2015..

The report will be discussed at a meeting taking place next week next week.

Officials involved in the scandal – and most of the Councillors that they reported to – are no longer with the Authority.

The audit report concerns how a consultant, who was employed in the public relations/culture activity area, was engaged.

The report concludes that there was no evidence of fraud but it says,

“Internal Audit undertook an investigation into the awarding of contracts to an external consultant. The investigation found that there was no evidence to show that written quotations had been received. A number of other breaches of the council’s Financial Regulations and Contract Procedures Rules were also identified including the absence of a signed contract, the failure to include the contract on the council’s contracts register, a payment in advance of the work being completed and inadequate contract monitoring”..

Part of the report is being withheld as it identifies the individuals involved in, what appears to amount to a case of maladministration 

Unfortunately the last Labour administration in York was mired in secrecy. Officials were given too much power and they seem to have exploited this to allocate work to their chums.

A copy of the external Auditors report can be found by clicking here

More recently there has been criticism of the present Council for allocating contracts for work on social care projects with little openness and even less regard for the rights of taxpayers 

The Council will be asked to consider what more can be done to prevent corruption in the future

Tory finance chief quits York Executive

Mystery surrounds consultants contract

The Conservative Councillor responsible for City finances has abruptly quit his post. The announcement came only days after the Council released details of a hitherto confidential consultancy contract.

In 2014 a small consultancy firm, run by a former City Council employee, had been awarded a contract to project manage the older person’s accommodation project. This is the programme which will see existing elderly person’s homes like the one at Oakhaven closed and replaced by larger privately run “mega homes”. Part of the programme would see elderly person’s accommodation built on the Lowfields school site.

The consultants contract was to have run from 1st January 2015 until 31st December 2015. The contract was extended to 31st March 2016 with a total value of £130,000.

In response to a Freedom of Information request the Council says it does not hold any information to indicate “which Directors and Councillors were involved in the letting of the contract, and any extensions thereof” nor can they ” provide copies of all appropriate decision meeting minutes or notes – including copies of any invitation to tender adverts”!

The contract had an “output” specification. This meant that payments were made to the consultancy only when agreed targets and milestones had been met.

The Council was also asked about its current policy in engaging employees, consultants and contractors who seek to be remunerated via a private company.

They replied;“There is currently no policy which specifically deals with this question.  Each assignment will be considered individually and advice is provided on the employment implications by human resources or the procurement team”.

In March 2016, the Council, now under coalition control, decided that further work was needed on the older person’s project. They decided to let a further consultancy project covering the period 31st March 2016 – 30th March 2018 using the services of NEPRO This is a local government “spin off” company run from Sunderland. It effectively procures and manages contracts let on behalf of local authorities.

behind closed doorsThe Council have admitted that “The decision to use NEPRO is an officer decision and was made by the Council Management Team on 7th May 2014.  As this is a legally compliant framework, the terms and conditions are pre-agreed.  Suppliers on the framework have already agreed to these terms and conditions, therefore no further steps were deemed necessary to ensure transparency of individual contracts agreed through the framework. 

The new contract was handed to the same consultant who had held the old contract since January 2015.

It appears that no Councillors were involved in the decision nor is there any evidence that the employment of NEPRO has been reviewed during that last 3 years. It is unclear what proportion of contract costs are retained by NEPRO or indeed what value they add, in a situation where an existing contractor is simply reappointed to a role.

The new contract had a potential value of £216,000.

£54,000 was paid out in 2016 during the first 9 months of the contract.

The contract is again based on “outputs” being achieved (see below).

While output contracts can have advantages, they are an opaque system and unsuitable for activities where taxpayers opposition to proposals must be overcome before payments are released. The temptation may be to prioritise financial gain over the views of residents.

This happened with the decision to build on the Lowfields playing fields, where lobbyists were urged to influence consultation results and a, misleading, report gave the impression that the NHS had agreed to fund a new health centre on the site (see here).

It hadn’t.

The lack of engagement by senior Councillors in the contract letting process at the York Council is a concern. So is the lack of, publicly accessible, records of decisions taken about contract letting.

With spin off companies not subject to FOI regulations, this means that large sums of public money can be committed to controversial projects with minimal accountability.

consultants

York Council explains reasons for secret staff payoff deals.

After some delay, the York Council has explained why it has entered into 41 “Compromise Agreements” with axed staff during the last 5 years.Top-secret-stamp-006

We reported in June that the York Council had spent £82 million on redundancy costs since 2011. 546 staff (not including teachers) had left the Councils employment with an average payment of £15,000.

The Council has also confirmed that 41 “Compromise Agreements” had been signed with staff. Usually these involve some sort of compensatory pay.

A compromise agreement is a legally binding agreement made either during or following the termination of employment. It is recognised by statute and is the only way an employee can validly “contract out” of their employment law rights. It usually provides for a severance payment, in return for which former employees agree not to pursue any claim or grievance to an Employment Tribunal.

A leading law firm says that the major reasons for using the compromise agreement (other than to settle an existing claim) are to “remove an employee on the grounds of poor performance or misconduct, to avoid legal challenge in redundancy situations and to make it easier to remove senior staff without embarrassment”.

The number of secrecy deals increased markedly when Labour took office in 2011

Three months ago, the Council were unwilling to specify why compromise agreements had been reached in so many cases.

Now, following an FOI appeal, they have lifted the veil a little.

Compromise agreements at City of York Council

Compromise agreements at City of York Council

Clearly the Council has come to several agreements to avoid the costs, and adverse publicity, often associated with claims that run through industrial tribunals.

The legal nature of the agreements means that they can’t be probed further.

Taxpayers may remain a little uneasy about the process and the robustness of the decisions that led to compromises being needed in the first place.