So where next for the York Council

The LibDems emerged from Thursday’s elections with the most seats. …..but they are short of an overall majority.
The York Council HQ at West Offices

The onus will be on their Leader Keith Aspden to negotiate a programme which will guide the City through, what are likely to be, 4 challenging years.

He would be wise to pause for thought. The immediate aftermath of a successful election – and the hyperbole that surrounds it – doesn’t always provide the best environment for considered decision making.

There is, however, an element of urgency. Towards the end of the last coalition administration growing tensions were evident. They weren’t restricted to the, rapidly disintegrating, Tory group members. Decisions were put on the back burner while some long held LibDem polices were jettisoned.

That needs to change quickly.

If a coalition arrangement is to continue, then the only two groups which could together commend a majority in the Council chamber are the LibDems and the Green Party.

 The latter are not famous for their tight discipline and consistency. But it could work if a policy programme could be agreed. If they are to negotiate, then the Greens must not overplay their hand. They remain a small party with limited electoral appeal. They need to identify a small number of policy areas where tangible change – and improvement – is deliverable. It will mean some realism about what is possible given the financial constraints placed on the Council.

There are two areas where there may be common ground between the two parties.

The first relates to the way in which the Council does its business.  The “Strong Leader” executive model may work efficiently where there is a party with an overall majority. It is markedly less successful where the Council is “balanced”. It reached its nadir when, two years ago, the then Tory Council Leader summarily sacked two (LibDem) members of the Executive. It later turned out that the justification for doing so was entirely bogus.

A return to the committee system may be a potential area of agreement. The system allows for all members of the Council to participate directly in the decision-making process. No party, after all,  has a monopoly on wisdom

The Committee system might also help to address the second major failing of the Council – a lack of transparency. The Greens said in their manifesto that there should be a presumption in favour of disclosure (of information).

They were right.

At the moment the Council hides behind an opaque wall of silence. Freedom of Information requests flourish. The costs of answering them are greater than would have been the expense of voluntarily publishing information routinely.

With openness people would come to trust the Council more.

There are other more specific policies which would signal that change had taken place.  

Public service standards in the poorer wards continue to decline. Life expectancy is lower there and obesity levels – and lack of attractive active leisure facilities – are higher.

The LibDems could address their growing “Middle England” image by prioritising a programme focusing on improving public services in the poorer neighbourhoods

The voting patterns on Thursday revealed that the electoral turnout was as much as 15 points down in neglected wards when compared to the leafy suburbs and villages.

That can’t be good for democracy and may explain why some extreme politicians have seen success over recent years. Extremism feeds on disillusion and neglect.

Action now may be the best way for the politicians of the centre to consolidate their influence on the reins of power in the future.

Of course, it takes two to tango and there may not be a majority for discursive decision making on the new Council.

If so, the LibDems may try to establish a minority administration.

If they do, they would be wise to spread power around the Council chamber as far as they are able. Scrutiny committees should be chaired by opposition Councillors, as should the influential Audit committee.

There are experienced independent Councillors who could contribute by taking senior roles in the planning process.

Whatever happens an early statement of intent will be expected by the residents of York.

Empty Council owned Castlegate property – future still uncertain

29 Castlegate, which is located next to Fairfax House, and is owned by the City of York Council continues to be left empty.
29 Castlegate

Hopes that the property might be purchased by the York Conservation Trust have disappeared following a change of Chief Executive. They had been expected to purchase the iconic building for around £431,000. The discounted sale price was justified in 2017 by claims that significant repair works were needed.

At the same time, the York Civic Trust said that they were set to lease the building with an investment of £2.8 million to be made, as part of an expansion of activities at Fairfax House.

It became clear 6 months ago that the York Civic Trust had suspended their plans.

The building – which also benefits from a valuable showroom frontage onto the Coppergate Shopping Centre – was used for many years as a photographic gallery. When the gallery moved to Bradford, the Council allocated the space to be used as a youth advice centre.

In 2012 the, then Labour controlled Council, commenced negotiations to move the youth facilities elsewhere. The proposal was widely condemned.

The building has remained empty for over 3 years. Potentially this has cost the Council tens of thousands of pounds in rent and rates income.

Addressing the problems with empty Council owned properties should be a top priority for the new administration when it is elected this week. Too many expensive, high profile, properties like 29 Castlegate and the Guildhall have been left to rot. In future York Councillors must insist on receiving an “unused asset” report on a regular basis. It needs to be transparent.

If the Civic Trust deal on Castlegate has fallen through, then the property should either be leased or sold on the open market.

Because of its prestigious location there is likely to be a lot of interest.

This might include bringing part of the building back into residential use.  With apartments at the nearby fire station site selling for over £700,000 each, the opportunities at this address will be obvious to many developers.

Either way, something needs to be done quickly.

Spark container village – payments to Council revealed

In response to a Freedom of Information request, the York Council has revealed that it has received £13,333 in rent from the Spark container village on Piccadilly since they first arrived in September 2017.
Spark April 2018

This amounts to little more than £700 a month since the organisation took over the prime site.

No payments have been received by the Council from the “profit sharing” scheme agreed as part of the deal to allow shipping containers to be installed on the site. The council says it is still awaiting receipt of accounts for last year. The last accounts filed by Spark were for the year ending March 2018.

£19,856 is owed by Spark and its tenants for Business Rates. The Council says that it is taking recovery action.

The original Spark business pitch to the Council talked about a £71,000 profit each year. Part of this was to be used to repay the Council’s initial investment (which cost over £40,000) in new utility infrastructure,

The container village has been controversial from the start with long delays in meeting some planning conditions. An instruction to replace graffiti style street art with cladding on the Piccadilly frontage is still outstanding (click for background)

The contract allows for the Council to take back the site if, after 21 days, the tenants have failed to pay the rent or complied with their obligations under the Lease.

Many of the individual units have been empty over recent months.

Although warmer weather may give the containers a temporary boost in customer numbers, it is surely long overdue for the Council to test the market by advertising the site for permanent redevelopment.

York Council response to Freedom of Information request 29th April 2019

How do the party election manifestos compare in York?

  1. Financial management

Now that all the parties have published their election manifestos for the Council polls – due on 2nd May – we’ll be looking to see what each party is offering.

Usually it is not so much what the party leaders say they will do that attracts interest.Rather it is the issues that they are silent on which cause the most anxiety.

There is a certain lack of candour on financial strategy in all four documents.

Taxpayers bonus from Rod Stewart concert

It looks like Council taxpayers will get a boost from those parking locally at the Rod Stewart concert which is being held on the Knavesmire on Saturday 1st June.

The Council will get the profits from car parking as the event falls outside the terms of the existing Racecourse lease.

Rod Stewart holds the official record attendance for a (free) outdoor concert. 3.5 million attended his gig at Copacabana beach in Rio a few years ago.

Rather fewer are expected to make their way to the Knavesmire in June

”Welcome to Yorkshire” parts company with colourful Chief Executive


Sir Gary Verity has been sacked by the Yorkshire Tourism development company “Welcome to Yorkshire”.  Sir Gary left the company on Friday citing “health” reasons.

An article in today’s Sunday Time puts more flesh on the bones of the announcement.

It includes worrying allegations of bullying and expenses irregularities.

Welcome to Yorkshire (WTY) replaced the Yorkshire Tourist Board which used to have its headquarters in York on Tadcaster Road. WTY moved out and currently lets the Tadcaster Road building to another organisation. Its registered office address is now in Leeds.

 Tourism in York is run via “Visit York” which in turn is partly funded by the “Make it York” Quango. Over £1 million a year is paid by York taxpayers to that organisation. It is not however directly linked with WTY.

York does get some benefits from WTY publicity. A local race meeting has been sponsored and some advertising has taken place at the railway station.

Welcome to Yorkshire receives grants from both central and local government. Its Board includes four Councillors (3 Tory and 1 Labour). They are Carl Les (North Yorkshire), Richard Cooper (Harrogate), Stephen Parnaby (East Yorkshire) and Steve Brady (Hull)

Other Board members mainly have business backgrounds. The Chair is Ron McMillan who was formerly with Price Waterhouse.

Two other Directors left the company in March

WTY is a private company limited by guarantee. Its detailed expenditure – and income – is largely opaque. However, it is most widely known for sponsorship of sporting events. These include cycle races. cricket and horse racing.  The level of hospitality associated with these events is likely to be the subject of conjecture over the next few days.

WTY had a turnover of just over £4 million in the year to March 2018 (the last figures available).

About half this went on the cost of employing 46 staff. One Director – understood to be Sir Gary – received £243,453 .

WTY reported a profit of £251,173 in the year.

As a private company Welcome to Yorkshire is not subject to Freedom of Information legislation.

However with a significant part of its income coming from taxpayers, many will feel that more transparency is required in its dealings.

Road and footpath resurfacing in York

The York Councils maintenance programme for the forthcoming year has been published. Expenditure of over £9 million has been identified although a lot of this will go on addressing surface water drainage problems. The schedule includes £700,000 for gulley repairs
surface water

The programme also includes investment of over £600,000 to maintain the City Walls, with the focus being on the Bootham section.

One of the most expensive single schemes will see Stonegate repaved at a cost of £500,000.

On the west of the City the carriageways on both Gale Lane and Tadcaster Road will be resurfaced. Cycle routes will get a £250,000 maintenance boost.

However, the funds allocated for footpath repairs is disappointingly low.  The identified major footpath resurfacing schemes are all on the east of the City.

It must leave residents living in streets like Walton Place wondering just how bad a footpath must be before being repaired.

Walton Place

Predictably last night the York Council woke up to the major backlog in highway repairs that has developed in the city during the last decade. Cynics may say that Labour and the LibDems vying to be the voice of the road user has something to do with the imminent Council elections which take place in early May.

However, successive residents’ surveys have confirmed that poor highway maintenance is now the biggest concern that residents have.

It will take a major and sustained boost in funding if the roads and paths in the City  are to be returned to a safe condition.

“Make it York” reports financial progress

The Make it York organisation, which is partly funded by York taxpayers, is reporting that it has made a £140,714 profit so far this year.  That is £71,900 above budget expectations

They currently have a balance sheet surplus of £330,000

The organisation reports that it had a successful Christmas and claims “continuing strong performance from Shambles Market, City Centre Activities and Visit York Membership”

No detail is provided on the Shambles market performance.

The brief report to a “shareholder “ meeting also says that the “York Pass” initiative has been less successful than hoped.

Looking to the future the report says, “MIY currently runs or facilitates a range of events which animate the public realm and make the city vibrant and interesting for visitors and residents. There is scope though to use the “stage” provided to do, and to facilitate, a great deal more, the ultimate objective being to ensure a daily “wow” factor

So now the £34.28 million York Libraries contract has been let

A Council official has used his delegated powers to let one of the City’s largest ever leisure contracts. The supplier is confirmed as the current Library management company. The decision was delegated on the basis that the tender received was within the agreed budget. In reality it wasn’t and the Council subsequently had to hike its contribution during its recent budget meeting.

No details of the terms of the contract or the expected outputs have been published. The decision was taken at a “behind closed doors” meeting on 1st March. The Council had however already announced that the contract had been let on 19th February!The old contract was due to terminate on 31st March 2019.

While we hold the York Explore team in high regard – a recent independent report gave them a good review in comparison with libraries in other City’s https://t.co/9R3KnthqUF – we are less than convinced about the transparency of the process used by the Council

The degtails released so far by the Council are reproduced below.

“On 21 June 2018 the Council’s Executive agreed key aspects of the service specification for a new contract for library and archive services. It was agreed that the term of the contract would be 15 years with an option for a 5 year extension.

Authority was delegated to the Director of Children, Education and Communities authority to:

? Develop and implement the procurement framework in line with the terms of the Executive report, and

? Award the contract at the end of the process provided that the price is within budget

Two bids were received. These were rigorously assessed. The financial assessment was undertaken by a team of officers from Corporate Finance. The quality assessment was undertaken by a team of officers with expertise in the relevant areas, supported by two external experts, former heads of libraries and archive services respectively.

The assessment of the bids was on the basis of 60% quality and 40% price.
Neither bid as submitted was deemed to be compliant since neither was assessed as being deliverable within the Council’s affordability limit.
The Competitive Procedure with Negotiation (CPN) under regulation 29 of the Public Contract Regulations 2015 was then used within a second bidding round. This procedure was selected as the best option for CYC to assess the minimum additional resources required to secure the contract in line with our specification and within the original timetable.

Both bidders agreed to take part in the CPN on the basis that an uplift in the affordability limit may subsequently be agreed by the Council. A revised affordability limit was set for round 2, in agreement with the Director of Resources, at £2.432m per annum for years 1 to 4, reducing to £2.232m for years 5-15, a total budget of £34.28m over the 15 years of the contract.

The procedure allowed CYC officers to meet both bidders twice before a second tendering phase commenced in order to provide feedback to each bidder on why their bid had been rejected so that they could subsequently make changes to their bids to make them compliant for round two.
The second tender stage was conducted between 14 and 28 January 2019 and both bidders submitted bids.

The highest scoring bid in terms of quality was that submitted by Explore Libraries and Archives Mutual Ltd. This was also the lowest priced bid.
Budget Council on 28 February allocated additional resources commensurate with the increased affordability limit set out above.

The tendered price is now, therefore, within budget and the contract can be awarded to Explore Libraries and Archives Mutual Ltd.”

Business Rates reduction scheme gets nod

Council reveals who pays the most and least in rates

Tesco has largest rates bill in York

The Government scheme to reduce business rates by 33% for medium sized retailers has been approved. New bills are expected to be sent out shortly.

The decision comes as the Council lifts the veil on business rates (NNDR) in York. A report to a meeting next week says that 2000 local businesses are entirely exempt from paying rates. (Businesses with a rateable value of less than £12,000 are exempt from paying rates).

The bottom 50% of businesses pay an average of less than £1000 per annum.

The biggest bill is paid by Tesco which alone has a bill in York of over £3 million.

7 of the top 10 charges are for superstores, including those at Vangarde.

The top 3 non-retail rates bills are for Nestle (£1.4m), Defra (£930k) and CYC’s West Offices (£730k).

Hotels are large contributors, The Grand having a net charge of £680k, The Principal paying £547k and the StayCity Aparthotel on Paragon Street contributing £343k.

Within the city centre, the highest charges are paid by Marks and Spencer for their Parliament Street store (£527k), Primark (£366k) and Boots (£355k).

The highest rateable value of £7m is for the University of York, although the University is a charity and receives 80% relief on its liability.

Coney Street and Parliament Street still have the highest rateable values. Click here to see a list of the values in each City Centre street.

The York Council is increasingly dependant on business rate income to fund public services.

The report reveals that, although rates are payable on empty properties (after 3 months), the BHS store on Coney Street has been exempted from the charge by the Valuation Office. There are other exemptions mainly for charities and amateur sports clubs.

Business rate levels are set by central government. Income is shared between the local authority and central government.

28% of the York Council’s budget is now funded from business rates .

The Council is expected to submit an expression of interest in the new “Future High Street Fund” at a meeting being held on 22nd March.

NB. The Council refused recently to publish a complete list of long term business rate debtors.