York Council HQ scandal

Abandoned York Guildhall dirty and overrun with weeds.

The York Guildhall, a Listed building, is rapidly falling into disrepair. The Council – although still the owners of the building – quit the site in 2013, when they moved to new accommodation at West Offices.

Since then the Guildhall has mostly been unoccupied and was finally abandoned in 2017.

The Council had hoped to turn the building into a “business centre” but outside investment proved to be Impossible to attract. A prospective builder was dropped from the development amidst problems with escalating costs. The last estimates were that the project would cost around £15 – £17 million with all the risk falling on taxpayers.

Council leaders, when meeting in May, promised that a revised business case would be published. They confirmed that the Council would run any business centre complex themselves.

Whether there is a need for a business club is open to question. Traditionally traders in York have themselves formed organisations (guilds) to provide what today would be known as networking opportunities. Hence, we have privately funded meeting  halls belonging to the Merchant Taylors and Merchant Adventures while Bedern provides a home for other guilds.

There are more obviously suitable properties available to satisfy business needs.

Stonebow House has announced a business hub while one of the augments put forward for the “Spark” development was that they would satisfy the needs of small businesses.

Even if there is still unmet demand, then there is more obviously flexible accommodation available on Coney Street.

Despite calls for the Council, to explore other less risky options, they said they would press ahead and try to find another builder. Many thought that the Council should have tested the market to see whether private investment could be attracted.

The Council is running out of time. A report in May said that essential repair works to the old building would cost at least £5 million.

With further deterioration now obvious from even a casual inspection, that figure will soon start to climb again.

There is no sign of a new business plan being produced before the end of February. There is no item covering the Guildhall in the Councils 4 month forward plan.

This reinforces views that the project will be “kicked into the long grass” until after the local elections which are scheduled for May.

The coalition Leaders must be beginning to worry that the Guildhall project will turn into their version of the Lendal Bridge folly.

Trees and bushes growing on parapets

Guildhall windows caked with dirt

Stonework stained

Riverbank opposite Guildhall overgrown with weeds

Rust stains on Lendal Bridge

Attempts to attract new businesses to Coney Street but what an image!

Liberal Democrats publish plans to cut taxes for businesses by 5% in York

The Liberal Democrats have published a comprehensive blueprint for replacing the broken business rates system, cutting taxes for businesses by 5% in York.

Local Liberal Democrat Economic Development Spokesperson
 Cllr Keith Aspden has described the plans as “exactly the sort of national policy we need to boost local investment and ensure businesses in York thrive”.The report –Taxing Land, Not Investment – calls for the abolition of business rates and its replacement with a tax on land values, the Commercial Landowner Levy (CLL).  The levy would remove buildings and machinery from calculations and tax only the land value of commercial sites, boosting investment and cutting taxes for businesses.Liberal Democrat members will debate and vote on the proposals at the party’s Autumn Conference in Brighton this month. (more…)

Ashbank sale set to net Council £1.35 million

Ashbank – scheduled to be converted into flats since 2013

The former Council offices at Ashbank on Shipton Road are set to be sold to Anchor Housing. They own the adjacent “Barleyfields” site.

The building has been empty for over 7 years.

The current offer is for £1.3 million.

Anchor hope to build 51 leasehold apartments on the site. The apartments are aimed at retired people.

Council budget on track but second home owners will pay more

Most people say that they can’t influence decisions

Refuse collection costs are a concern in York

A report being considered later this week forecasts that the York Council will overspend its budget by around £800,000. This is a controllable risk. Overspends are often projected after the first quarter of the 2018/19 financial year..

The Council has a net budget of £122 million.

Most of the overspend is for children’s and adult social care services. Waste collection costs also continue to be under pressure

The good weather and increased visitor numbers experienced during most of this summer has led to car parking income being 3.2 % above budget. This could lead to an £150,000 surplus at the end of the year.

The Council will also increase the surcharge on Council Tax rates applying to second homes from 50% to 100% with effect from April 2019.

A panel of residents gives a quarterly verdict on how well the Councils is performing.

Only 26% agreed that they could “influence decisions in their area”.

There was some good news though, with 88% satisfied with their local area as a place to live and 60% satisfied with the way that the Council runs things.

The Council only highlights a limited – and highly selective – number of performance indicators in its committee reports. Residents have to wade through on line scorecards to  find out more detail (click)

Independent surveys of public service satisfaction levels in the City reveal that people are most unhappy with the following public services:

  • Litter control 60% rate the service as “poor”
  • Dog fouling 58%
  • Road repairs 54%

The Council singularly fails to publicly monitor and comment on these public services.

The best independently rated public service is the bus service with 57% now rating it as “good”.  Many bus services are of course provided on a commercial basis.

York Council’s investment programme slipping into crisis

Major delays on housing modernisation, Guildhall repairs and transport improvements

Executive report 30th Aug 2018

A report to a meeting taking place on Thursday suggests reducing this year’s capital investment programme by £33 million.

The slippage includes major tenant choice housing modernisation works as the Council has failed to appoint a contractor to carry on the programme. No explanation of the programme failure is offered. The delays could affect other works including those dealing with standing water under homes and upgrades to water mains. These issues have not been publicly reported to the Councillor who has Executive responsibility for housing

The Council does still hope to make a start on controversial building schemes at Newbury Avenue (Autumn 2018) and the £22.5 million Lowfields scheme (Spring 2019).

The report claims that £748,000 “approved by the Executive in December 2016 for Lowfield sports facilities” will be spent, thus perpetuating the myth that the new football pitches being provided near Bishopthorpe are in some way linked to the Lowfields redevelopment.

There are also delays on several major transport infrastructure schemes.

Improvements to the northern by-pass (basically bigger roundabouts) will slip into 2019/20 as will a start on the new York Central access road from Water End.

Guildhall “business case” March 2017

Work on refurbishing the Guildhall will also be delayed with nearly £10 million slipping as a start on site is not now expected before summer 2019. Reopening is unlikely before 2021.

The Guildhall remains closed to the public and is not used now even for Council meetings. Even an empty Guildhall costs taxpayers about £330 a day with much if it going on Business Rates, heating, energy and security. To that should be added the cost of hiring alternative premises for Council meetings and the additional repair costs that inevitably arise when an old building is left empty for an extended period of time.

The Community Stadium work is “progressing on timetable’. However, £5.8 million in contract  payments are being slipped from 2018/19 to 2019/20.

The Council still expects to invest around £124 million during the present financial year.

York Council debts mounting as housing borrowing plan pushes finances to the brink

By the end of the year the York Council will have debts of over £318.2 million, up £52 million compared to 12 months earlier.

Nearly 14% of taxes paid to the authority now go on interest and principal repayments on loans.

The authority owes £139 million in historic debt on Council housing programmes.

The overall exposure is partly offset by investment balances which stand at £75.7 million (down from £91.6 million in 2017)

Debts have increased because of several projects. One of the most expensive is York’s share of the Allerton Park waste processing plant. Money has also been borrowed to fund aspects of the York Central development.

The financial assessment is due to be discussed at a meeting later this week.

The same meeting will consider the Council’s policy on funding new housing.

Included in the plan is a proposal which would see the Council borrowing £10 million to fund the development of the Lowfields site. This means the Council will have housing debts of £145 million, close to the legal debt cap of £146 million.

The Lowfields proposal involves building on a sports field which will be controversial and may lead to legal challenges. A promised “start on site” early in 2019 looks optimistic.

There is also the problem of development expertise in the Council. It has a woeful recent project management record with cost escalations on several major projects including the Community Stadium and the refurbishment of the Guildhall.

Lowfields – Plan to build on sports pitches

There are some good features in the new housing plan, but the Council will be sailing very close to the financial wind if it accepts the officer recommendations without amendment.

The report fails to address the problem of unlocking disused Council land like the site behind the Acomb Library or private sector “land banks” like the prime location next to the Barbican.

It would be more than ironic if the planning committee was bullied into accepting the Lowfields plans which, green space provision aside, feature straight geometric lines of 3 bed semis – a discredited  layout abandoned by other Councils over 50 years ago

York Council social enterprise company crashes

We warned in 2013 (click) that the Council plan, to hive off some social care services to a new company, were “highly risky”.

The plan was to start a “Be Independent” social enterprise to run warden call and disabled equipment loan services.

Most of the income for the new organisation would still come from the Council. It was claimed though that it could complete for other business thereby reducing the demands on taxpayers.

5 years later and it is clear that the company has failed. This is not entirely surprising as the draft  “business plan” (still available to view here “on line”) published in 2013 actually forecast that the operation would be loss making

A report the Council’s Executive next week suggests that the service be brought back under the Councils direct control.

The number of customers using the service has fallen from 2878 to 2448, about half of which are subsidised by the Council.

“Be Independent” have failed to win any new contracts during the last 5 years and lost an existing contract with the NHS to provide equipment services in the Vale of York.

The company is now loss making.

In the last financial year, it recorded a working deficit of £167,000.

If the work transfers back to the Council it will cost taxpayers an additional £95,000 a year.

One of the negative aspects of hiving off activities is that some jobs get a pay hike. The Council says that staff at “Be Independent” in the main enjoy the same conditions of service as Council employees. TUPE would therefore apply to any transferees.

The Council report fails to identify the salaries being paid to all staff although £273,000 pa is listed as “Directors remuneration”. (The latest accounts registered with Company House for 2017 list Directors remuneration as £106.443).

There was until last year one CYC appointed Director (Cllr Funnell) but this appointment was terminated on 31st March 2017. It is unclear who has been charged with safeguarding the Councils interests on the “Be Independent” board since then.

There is no comparison in the papers between the 2013 business plan and outturns.

External legal advice is apparently  being taken by the Council.

York Council acts to tackle street level problems – potholes, school parking, weeds/litter, footpath repairs etc

Saturdays story, Now action promised on cleaning up streets

Potential boost for York’s frontline services
York’s frontline services could be set to receive a further financial boost, thanks to the efforts of Liberal Democrat Councillors.
In a report published today, it is proposed that:
  • £1.031 million is used to increase capacity in some of York’s crucial frontline services by utilising £620k that has been unspent and a further £411k of unused contingency fund.
  • It is also proposed that an extra £1 million is brought forward from the 2019/20 budget to resurface some of the worst roads in the City, as a result of the recent extreme winter weather. 
If approved by the Executive, it is proposed that this newly released funding be used to support existing frontline services and launch new initiatives, including:
  • Creating a new work programme for footpath repairs across the city.
  • Establishing an additional team to carry out pothole maintenance.
  • Providing new resources for enforcement teams to control dangerous parking, with a special focus on improving safety around schools.
  • Allowing residents who have had recycling boxes damaged or stolen to claim two free boxes per year.
  • Using the Economic Infrastructure Fund to support high street shopping in Haxby and Acomb.
  • Creating a fund to support voluntary and community groups who wish to develop innovative ideas on how to make the best use of our green spaces.
Cllr Andrew Waller, Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader of the Council, said:
“Frontline services have always remained our number one priority for the Liberal Democrats and if approved by the Executive in June, this additional investment goes a long way top reaffirm that commitment.”
“Subject to Executive approval, this additional funding can be put to good use in order to carry out extensive highways repairs and considerably improve our public spaces.”
“Just as this investment shows, the Liberal Democrats will continue to uphold our commitment to York’s frontline services and work hard to ensure residents receive the highest standards of service from all Council services.”

July decision day for Front Street investment

Front Street

According to the Councils latest forward programme, proposals to improve the Front Street area will be considered at a meeting taking place on 3rd July.

The report follows on from earlier decisions on how the Councils available investment budget would be allocated.

One of the decisions was to allocate £100,000 to be spent on regenerating the Front Street and Haxby shopping areas.

At the time, the allocation was criticised as being too small to make much difference.

Last year, residents were consulted about how they would like to see the shopping area upgraded.

The most popular improvement was a proposal to provide a “level” surface across the whole of the pedestrian area.

This would potentially include the (privately owned) shops forecourts. We said at the time that this would need the involvement of a dedicated project manager who would have to negotiate agreements with several landlords. Whether improvements of this scale will be included in the July package remains to be seen.

Front Street back lane

The second most supported change, by residents, was improved management of litter and rubbish. There have been ongoing problems with litter and dumpingt in the back lane behind Front Street.

Many residents also wanted to see street furniture refurbished. Some progress has been made on this with cycle racks now added to the painting programme.

As we reported earlier in the week, there are some signs that Front Street is becoming more popular with traders. The number of empty properties has reduced, The Acomb Alive traders group now produces a 6 monthly magazine which has a wide distribution, while the Saturday markets continue to attract shoppers.

What is now needed is a bold and decisive approach to investment in the public realm

Additional investment in adult social care in York

Councillors will be asked to release funds of £1.25m for adult social care when they meet on 8 May 2018.

At the meeting the Executive will hear about the approach adult social care is taking with partners to support people with care and support needs, maximising their independence and capacity to remain at home, avoid hospital admission and return home as soon as possible from hospital.

As well as hearing about progress on the work we are doing to increase independence, councillors will be asked to agree to maintain current additional activity and release £800,000 recurring budget set aside in the 2018/19 budget, as well as the non recurring £457,000 adult social care support grant budget to fund further support.

In the past year the council has implemented a number of successful initiatives which have made a significant and positive impact on people’s lives.

They include the YorWellbeing falls prevention service, which has had a positive impact in reducing injuries and hospital admission. The service offers free home safety visits to all residents in Clifton and Guildhall Wards who want practical help and advice to reduce the risk of falls in their home. The release of funds would see further investment in the service expand into other areas in the city  increased capacity to support more residents.

Another example is the council’s local area coordinators in Westfield, Tang Hall and Huntington and New Earswick. The team people access community support, delaying and or preventing the need for statutory services.  Further funding will see the scheme expanded.

As well as continue this work,  a review of these initiatives has informed the following recommendations including increasing the level of reablement provision, maintain seven days a week social work to ensure capacity is available at weekends and promote and maintain the capacity and sustainability of home care.  Investment is also suggested for step down beds to increase the number available.

(more…)