£1/4 million York Council expenditure so far on advertising and publicity during COVID crisis

City of York Council website home page – City of York Council

The York Council spent £285,667 on advertising and publicity during the period from the beginning on February to the end of May.

The figures for June are not yet published on the “Open Data” web site.

Of the total expenditure £189,057 was spent during May.

The largest supplier was Platinum Print of Harrogate who lodged bills totalling £137,090 last month.

Royal Mail charged £6982 to deliver Council newsletters.

The Council didn’t advertise on Minster FM, the local commercial radio station. It spent £1,500 in May with “York Mix”. There were also regular payments to The York Press.

The Councils communications strategy has been criticised for being slow to get started, confusingly complex and unnecessarily repetitive.  Some key information about home deliveries was never circulated.

It is likely that, when the COVID crisis is over, an inquiry into what has been spent, why and with what authority will be launched.

Ward highway improvements list published – nothing for Westfield?

It looks like the Westfield area has been snubbed in the latest highways maintenance budget allocations.

In another “behind closed doors” decision, tens of thousands of pounds, from “delegated” ward budgets, has been allocated for highway and footpath repairs plus some other work  like new parking laybys.

Areas benefiting are Bishopthorpe, Clifton, Copmanthorpe, Dringhouses, Fishergate, Guildhall,  Heslington, Heworth, Hull Road, Holgate, Huntington, Micklegate and Rural West.

One of the roads omitted from repair programme

The absence of Westfield from the list is doubly surprising.

Some local roads are in an appalling condition.

Local Councillors were given lists of problem locations over 6 months ago.

Poor weather in the intervening period has seen some surfaces – such as those on the Morrell Court access road – deteriorate quite markedly.

The report to the decision meeting gives details of how much money is available for local ward Councillors to manage.

It also explains the assessment process.

The Ward Highways Capital Scheme is a four-year programme formed from £250k p.a. of capital resources set aside from the main Highways Capital Programme. It is designed to allow wards to bring forward schemes that are important to local residents but would struggle to be prioritised as part of the main capital programme. A nominal allocation is made to each ward on a population basis. Wards are able to aggregate their allocation by carrying over / bringing forward annual allocations in order to undertake more substantial schemes.

The programme was enhanced in 19/20 through the allocation of the following one-off amounts to it:

  • £500k to use for highways improvements in respect of Roads and Footways
  • £500k to use for Walking and Cycling improvements

(NB. Details of how the walking and cycling budget is being spent were published a couple of weeks ago. Yet again no projects in the Westfield area were agreed).

The Council says the aim is to use this funding flexibly to meet the needs of wards whilst taking account of all relevant legislation and statutory guidance as highways are heavily regulated environments.

The following process is used to identify schemes:

  • Community Involvement Officers liaise with ward councillors, residents and key partners to identify potential schemes
  • The Highways team bring forward condition surveys, customer requests, and safety audits for consideration by wards to help inform their decision-making together with information showing the roads in the ward that are to be repaired through the main capital programme
  • Ideas are taken to a ward walk-about for initial consideration followed, where appropriate, by detailed feasibility work and any appropriate community / statutory consultation
  • The Highways team then form the prioritised ideas as far as possible into a coherent capital programme”

Wards not receiving an allocation were Acomb, Haxby, Heworth Without, Hull Road, Holgate and Westfield.

The list of improvements that have been agreed can be viewed by clicking here

Sleeping sickness new threat to City’s health?

Anyone hoping that the Councils post COVID strategy document would be a stimulating read may be disappointed.

A series of papers have now been published which are long on hyperbole but very short on tangible actions

Those hoping for a series of initiatives, incorporating measurable deliverables and with specific key milestones, will search in vain amongst the papers for the Executive meeting which is taking place on 25th June.

The expectation was that clear actions would be identified to take the City through the next 3 months at least. Only the half-hearted free parking initiative fits into that narrative.

Nor has any more up to date information been provided on the nature of the Councils financial crisis. The papers simply continue to wave the shroud of an £24 million – largely unspecified –  shortfall.

Additional spending is proposed on;

  • Supporting local businesses including the tourism sector (£100,000),
  • “Communities Recovery” (£250,000),
  • Creating places in which visitors can safely return to the City (£530,000),
  • Changing building access and deep cleaning (£50,000) and
  • ICT equipment to allow continued remote working (£500,000).

There is no mention of a freeze on new expenditure.

The report merely reports windfall savings on climate change, waste services, northern forest and local transport plan. All are the result of (unavoidable) delays caused by the lock-down.

The Council says that its capital investment programme is being “reviewed”. That means that the Council is continuing to slip further and further into debt.

The Council promises that it will have a “Big Conversation” with residents over the next 12 months.

Residents may choose to opt for something a little more robust.

Shopping centres quiet

On the third day of trading shopping centres around the City were reporting only steady shopper numbers.

There were spaces available in all car parks.

The unspectacular start may result in calls for the Council, and its agent Make it York, to step up publicity, street entertainment and special deals on car parking.

Plenty of free parking spaces at the Designer Centre at lunchtime today.

Meanwhile support for the campaign to have the Museums Gardens reopened is gaining momentum.

Paul Fawkesley, Founder of Treasure Hunt York, has emailed his support for the reopening

Sign of the times

It looks like the traditional figure signposts on the City centre will start to disappear shortly.

New direction sign in foreground. Old finger sign in background

The project to replace them with a “modern” equivalent could cost taxpayers £350,000 with a similar matching contribution coming from the York Bid.

Controversial in many ways, the timing of the expenditure looks even more suspect against the background  of a City centre now desperately trying to attract local shoppers.

The future off the redundant finger signposts has been highlighted by a campaigning Councillor. He wants to repurpose the posts for use in sub-urban York and in the surrounding villages.

This seems like a sound idea.

A new cast iron post can cost as much as £4,300 and repurposing existing signs would not only be cheaper but would also meet the Council’s environmental objectives.

Arguably the finger signs are also less visually intrusive designed as they were to complement Conservation Areas.

So what will happen to the recovered posts?

No one seems to know.

There are many locations – not least the routes of the public rights of way made even more popular for exercise during lock-down – which would benefit from better way marking.

Consigning the iron posts to the scrap heap would add insensitivity to the poor judgement of the original decision.  

York Council investigated 188 fraud cases last year

According to figures published by the City of York Council, it investigated over 188 cases of potential fraud against the authority during the last financial year.

The vast majority of these involved bogus attempts to claim Council Tax reductions. 13 involved attempted social housing frauds.

Of the 188 cases investigated, fraud was confirmed in 109 cases.

The potential loss of income to the authority was £255,185 pa.

The Council employs 13 anti fraud staff at a cost of around £270,000 pa.

9 months before new refuse collection vehicles arrive in York

Electric Vans Archives - Electric vehicle news by Fuel Included

As attention focuses on the major backlog in waste collection that is developing in York, another “behind closed doors” decision has been taken to order 12 new refuse collections vehicles.

Two of the 12 will be electric vehicles. These vehicles cost approximately 2.5 times more than their conventional counterparts but are cheaper to run. They have range limitations.

There is only 1 supplier of these types of vehicle in the country and they say that January 2021 is the earliest that delivery can be expected.

The 12 vehicles will cost £3 million in total.

A further order is expected to be approved later in the summer bringing the total investment to over £6.6 million

Much of the Councils waste management fleet is well beyond its normal lifespan. This has resulted in unreliability with missed collections a feature of the last 18 months of operation. The COVID crisis has simply magnified the problems.

The Council has never satisfactorily explained why it did not continue its annual vehicle replacement programme to ensure that overall reliability levels remained acceptable.

It appears that indecision – prompted perhaps by a hope that more electric options would become available  –  led to unacceptable delays in placing orders.

The Councils internal scrutiny and audit processes should have  revealed the risks associated with such inaction.

Sadly that process didn’t seem to work.

Quite what quality of service residents can look forward to over the remainder of this year remains unclear.

York Council report May 2020

We have a plan. Lets call it a “Transport and Place Strategy”?

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We know they’ve got a plan. Must have by by now. Surely
Further details on how City of York Council is supporting businesses through a new Economic Recovery – Transport and Place Strategy –  which will help accelerate rebuilding a healthy and inclusive economy, launches next month.

However the Council won’t meet to debate the plan until the end of June by which time many workers will have returned to their jobs.

As the government relaxes the restrictions for retailers from 15 June, the council is developing a strategy to build visitor, resident and stakeholder confidence that York is a safe, healthy and attractive place for everyone.

This new strategy forms part of the council’s Recovery and Renewal Strategy.  The Economic Recovery – Transport and Place Strategy is in five interdependent strands that will be delivered over the next few months.

The strategy will focus on:

  • prioritising active travel (including cycling and walking) by investing in and improving park and cycle sites, increased cycle parking and new cycle routes
bintykins — I recently bought a cute bike and I am so happy...

The Big Idea? Park and cycle has been tried before with limited success. This is partly because of security/parking issues, partly because many people do not own or can’t ride an appropriate type of bike, or they may have physical capacity limitations and/or have concerns about cycling in poor weather.

  • providing a short term approach to car travel including “incentivised short stay parking” in some of the city centre car parks
  • maintaining confidence in and responding to the short term reduction in capacity on public transport – by working with bus and rail operators to ensure people can continue to use public transport with confidence
  • creating a people focussed city centre including increasing the city centre foot streets and public spaces to create an attractive environment that people can visit with confidence with space to social distance

The council says it “will deliver these measures at pace to best accelerate the recovery of the economy, allowing doors to open safely in June whilst protecting residents’ safety”.

The media release pointedly fails to recognise the barriers to walking and cycling in sub-urban and village areas where unsafe highway  surfaces and obstructions are major concerns. 

The Council says that residents will be able to give feedback about the plan once measures are in place by participating in the city-wide consultation “Our Big Conversation” helping to set a long-term vision for the city. This will be launched in the next couple of weeks

“Many of the transport and place measures will run for the duration of the one year period and potentially beyond. Although all measures will need to be flexible and remain under review based on government guidance, public health advice, local resident and business feedback, and ongoing assessments of the outcomes of the interventions”

(more…)

York Council wants to borrow more money

The York Council leadership has written to the government asking for restrictions on borrowing to be eased.

The request comes in the wake of claims that the City faces a £24 million black hole in its finances.  The Council was urged last week to provide more details of the deficit but has so far failed to do so.

The only information available to the public was published prior to the last executive committee meeting at the beginning of May.  This showed that much of the deficit as made up of Council Tax and Rates income defaults although £10.9million was the assumed cost of extra social care.

Council budget deficit as at 7th May 2020

No savings for reduced travel, energy and materials costs were included.

Now Council Leader Keith Aspden has written to Local Government Minister Robert Jenrick making a case for government support.

Perhaps surprisingly the letter concentrates on the Councils borrowing powers. The present Council leadership committed to a £560 million investment programme only a few weeks ago and is now agonising about how much it can actually deliver in the new financial climate.

It has separately said that it will press on with the York Central development although many will feel that some of the basic assumptions about office and retail growth are now redundant. It seems the best – most fanciful – hope is that the government will agree to move the House of Lords to the site.

The Council leadership also says that it wants a 2 year moratorium on making a “minimum revenue provision” in its budget. This is the funding set aside to repay interest and principal repayments on borrowing. The implication of not paying off this debt (most is borrowed over a 20 year period) could be to push a bow wave of debt onto future generations.

Council letter to government 18th May 2020

This tactical approach is also exposed by another request in the letter.

The Council wants to borrow to cover revenue expenditure – a bit like taking out a bank loan to buy a jar of jam.

The Council goes on to ask for the suspension of S114 “so that struggling Councils don’t have to deliver a balanced budget in the medium term”. 

Section 114 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 requires the Chief Finance Officer, in consultation with the council’s monitoring officer, to report to all the authority’s members if there is, or is likely to be, an unbalanced budget. In practice, this is most likely to be required in a situation in which reserves have become depleted and it is forecast that the council will not have the resources to meet its expenditure in a particular financial year. A full council meeting must then take place within 21 days to consider the notice. In the meantime, no new agreements involving spending can be entered into.

Many will feel that issues like these do require full and public debate. That will involve ensuring that all Councillors and taxpayers are alerted to [problems at the earliest opportunity.

The Council could make a start by providing a candid and full disclosure of its financial position.

It should then go on to review its financial strategy and options in a way that promotes understanding by local residents.

Looks like chickens are roosting

Still waiting for York Council to explain how recent land and building acquisitions, funded by borrowing, in the commercial sector will hit its bottom line against a background of falling rents.

To read the full article click here

NB. The Councils Facebook Q & A session earlier in the week failed to reveal anymore information about how the Councils supposed £24 million budget “back hole” has been calculated.