West York snubbed in cycling budget hand out

The Council has allocated virtually the whole of its pedestrian/cycling budget to schemes in central York. £500,000 had been earmarked for delegation for ward committees to spend addressing local issues.

In a decision list (below)  published today, the work programme concentrates on cycling schemes claiming that no improvements for walkers were identified (other than possible long term improvements to pedestrian crossings).

There is no funding allocated for schemes in the Westfield, Dringhouses, Holgate,  Acomb or Rural West wards.

Even pleas for cycle margin work on roads like Bradley Lane, Foxwood Lane and School Street have been ignored, as has a request for resurfacing work on the Knapton – Rufforth off road cycle track. The latter has been heavily used during the lockdown period with sections now breaking up .

Works to improve access for walkers don’t even rate a mention in the decision notice.

No action to tackle public footpath ponding

Among the schemes local Councillors were asked to back were actions to tackle difficulties on footpaths linking Westfield Place and Grange Lane as well as within the Council maintained section of Acomb Wood. All that was required at these locations were short sections of chippings to avoid flooded areas. A relatively inexpensive initiative.

Despite the budget apparently having been delegated for local determination, it seems to have been carved up by an official in discussions with the (Executive) Councillor for Fishergate; a ward which gets the bulk of the funding along with the Guildhall and Micklegate areas. There is no sign in the report of any influence on priorities by ward Councillors or residents.

It is unclear how much each scheme will cost, but it is unlikely that the funding will stretch far down the list.

Cycle margin leveling would encourage more cycling

The money could probably most usefully have been allocated to cycle margin repair work. This type of resurfacing programme sees the inner 2 metres of the most uneven carriageways levelled to allow safe passage for two wheeled machines. There was a margins repair programme in place until about 2011 when it was scrapped.

A further £500,000 was allocated for highway repair works which should also have been determined by local Councillors at neighbourhood level.

The Council has not said where this money will be spent although the recent lockdown has served to highlight just how poor some road surfaces are. A list of priorities in Westfield was given to Ward Councillors some 6 months ago but so far there has been no response.

The latest controversy, following on from the Bishopthorpe Road carriageway closure, may serve to confirm the views of those taxpayers who feel that sections of the Council are now out of control and are pursuing their own blinkered, parochial agenda.

The Council Leader may need to make some changes to Executive portfolios if he is to avoid large sections of the York community becoming increasingly alienated from his administration.

Misplaced optimism at Guildhall?

The Council has today issued a media release claiming that the £20 million Guildhall project, “has managed to progress whilst implementing government social distancing restrictions and the team has achieved 90% of all scheduled work on site in the last month”.

That is good news. Earlier in the year long delays had been forecast

The Councils performance in allowing the listed building to slip in a shocking state of disrepair was disappointing. The conservation work needed to be completed and the letting of a repairs contract, after so many delays, was broadly welcomed.

Business case approved by the Council a year ago (option 1)

Unfortunately the Council also agreed to embark on, what some viewed as, a financially reckless bid to provide more offices and a “business club” on the site, with part of the work being paid from rent generated by a large restaurant. Last year the Council let a £16,000 contract aimed at attracting a restaurant operator

The mix of uses always looked risky. The private sector declined to take on any of that risk. The business case looks even less convincing in the light of the recession that will grip this country over the next few years.

Taxpayers already face paying a £574,000 a year subsidy – mostly for interest charges – on the project. Office rent income of £549,000 a year is assumed. If any of the latter doesn’t materialise, then the operating deficit will have to be paid for by cuts in other pubic services in the City.

In seeking to let the office and start up space, the Council will in effect be in competition with itself as there is spare accommodation at the Community Stadium, at the eco small business centre and, potentially, on Piccadilly.

Even the Councils own offices may soon have spare space as more staff find it possible (and desirable) to work from home – one of the possible positive benefits of the current health crisis. (To see other empty property click)

Against that background, residents would have expected the Council to undertake a “root and branch” reappraisal of all aspects of the project.

Instead they seem to be adopting an “it’ll be alright on the night” approach.

In this case, as with several other projects, it most certainly won’t be alright, unless the Council comes up with and implements a convincing economic recovery plan.

NB. Separately it appears that the new £700,000 City centre  “direction signs” project is set to go ahead. 50% is being funded by the York BID.

Leaving aside the controversial appearance of the signs, this is surely expenditure that could have been delayed at least until an economic recovery is well underway and tourists are returning to the city in larger numbers.

York Council unsure about way ahead. Call for moratorium on new expenditure

Post coronavirus strategy confirms major financial issues.

The Council has published a review of its response to the Coronavirus crisis. It will be discussed at a “virtual” Executive meeting next week.

 The review mostly looks backwards and therefore contains little that is new.

The report does, however, say, “Further work is needed to accurately assess the impact, then to identify and plan the city’s response. It should be noted that, based on the financial information in this report, and the expected increase in demand for services as we start to move out of lockdown, this work will involve reprioritising council budgets, focussing resource on where there are greatest challenges and providing a new strategic plan for the council to work to over the coming months. It is quite possible that there will be some previous priorities that can’t be delivered in the same way in the light of our new operating context.

 A Recovery Plan is being developed (aligning with regional recovery activity through the LRF) which will outline the risks and challenges of the emerging situation, with actions in response and opportunities based on lessons learned during the emergency response. Clearly, this plan will take into consideration and align with Government advice and national plans for recovery. It will be used to inform a review of the existing Council Plan in order to produce an Operational Recovery Plan to guide the council over the next 6 – 9 months”.

That is the right approach.

There needs to be an immediate moratorium on taking on new expenditure. An “approvals committee” should be set up which can publicly test any new expenditure proposals.

York Council budget position 30th April 2020

The Councils initial assessment of its financial position may produce accusations that it is very much a “worst case” scenario. The government has today confirmed that in total it will grant £10.5 million to help the Council offset its estimated £35 million exposure.  Much of the defict assumes a high level of non payment of Council Tax and business rent.

There is a stark warning of cash flow problems later in the year “the Council would have to concentrate on providing statutory services only”. That would be bad news for services like leisure, with some facilities likely to close.

On its capital programme the Council promises a project by project review. “this will include considering the overall purpose of the scheme and whether they are still financially viable given the risk to the overall economy. This is particularly crucial for those schemes that assumed the generation of capital receipts to fund expenditure”.

The report is silent on the consequences of some schemes that area now past the point of no return.

Recent increases in the Council’s commercial portfolio are not analysed but there are fears of a forced “fire sale”.

Empty offices at the community stadium site (underwritten by the Council) could remain empty for years, while the pipeline sales of empty former social care buildings could also fall through. Options for cutting back on the £20 million Guildhall refurbishment project will need to be considered.

The Community Stadium itself, although outsourced, is dependent on other activities on the site to cover its running costs.

It seems certain that there will be delays on the York Central regeneration project while the £14 million new multi storey car park on St Georges Field will no doubt be shelved together with the rest of the Castle Gateway project.

Other cherished capital investment projects, which involved increased debt, and therefore increase the day to day running costs of the Council, will have to go “on hold”.

No new contracts should be let unless they direct address the adverse consequences of the health crisis.

Much more on this and the implications for other public services in the City will become apparent over the next few weeks.

Council leader outlines coronavirus response

The leader of City of York Council has outlined a coronavirus response, including business support and an emergency fund.

  • Council leader makes statement to Executive detailing city’s response
  • Council commits to emergency fund to support local residents, business and communities
  • Huge effort to deliver support package to businesses – including updating 4000 business rates accounts by the end of the week

City of York Council has announced that it will create its own emergency fund to support local residents, business and communities in response to the outbreak of Coronavirus, whilst acting swiftly to make sure residents and businesses can access the Government’s support packages as swiftly as possible.

The Leader of the Council, Councillor Keith Aspden, announced the fund at today’s Executive meeting (Thursday 19 March 2020), adding that fund will focus support to York’s residents, businesses and communities over the coming weeks, on top of any measures announced by the Government. Full details of the fund will be announced next week.

Councillor Aspden reiterated that the Council is continuing to work with the NHS and partners to respond to the outbreak of Coronavirus and that the Council is focusing resources where they are needed to ensure most services can continue to be delivered, with priority given to frontline services that keep our city moving.

(more…)

Credit Union confirms that its Acomb branch has closed permanently

UPDATE: The Social First Credit Union is still accepting applications for new memberships. Call 03030 300010

The Acomb branch of the Community First Credit Union was closed late last year. The property on York Road is now on the market.

Property available to lease on York Road

The Union says that it still provide a basic service in the City each week. The published opening hours (which may change during the current health crisis) are:

  • Bell Farm Social Hall every Tuesday from 9am until 1pm and then 1:45pm until 4pm.
  • York West Council Offices every Thursday from 9am until 1pm and then 1:45pm until 4pm.
  • Westfield Children’s Centre every Friday 9am until 12 noon.

Members can call the Union on 03030300010 when they believe they would like to visit and will confirm if the member of staff will be at these properties.

Formerly known as the South Yorkshire Credit Union, the organisation expanded into York when the York and North Yorkshire Credit Union folded in 2012. At that time there were considerable losses for the local authorities involved.

A few years later, the arrival of the SY Credit Union, at premises in what is the poorest part of the City, was generally welcomed.

The York Council has made no statement about the reduced access arrangements although support services like these are likely to be particularly valued during the present health crisis.

York Council management restructuring plans revealed

Hard on the heels of the retirement of the Chief Executive, the York Council has revealed how it hopes to recoup the costs of the early retirement exercise.

The post of Director of Finance and Investment will be deleted. This was the post traditionally styled as the City Treasurer. More junior staff will absorb this work.

The present Director has been acting as Chief Executive for over 9 months now and he will continue in that role.

More consultation with stakeholders is promised before any new structure is implemented.

The restructuring will save about £86,000 a year in salary costs

Details of the plans can be found by clicking here

York Council Chief Executive’s retirement confirmed

Cost of pension contributions will be just over £400,000

Following the early retirement of Ms Mary Weastell, Cllr Keith Aspden, Leader of the Council commented:

Council statement

“Ms Weastell’s early retirement has given the City of York Council the opportunity to consider a restructure of the Council’s corporate management team. As part of this, we have been able to identify ways to save money through efficiencies and these proposals will ensure that costs can be met through existing budgets with no additional impact for the taxpayer.

“This will also ensure our senior team focus on the areas that are important to the city and that a consultation is able to be brought forward swiftly. Our ambitious council plan requires significant investment, and to achieve this it is right that we review the best way of delivering for the city to make the most of our available resources.”

Debbie Mitchell, Head of Finance, confirmed:

“As an open and transparent council, we want to share how much Ms Weastell has received as part of her early retirement.  There are strict rules in place that govern payments due to individuals and, in line with these statutory requirements; the council has incurred costs of c £404k.  The majority of this sum around £330k is statutory payments and pension strain costs to the authority that have to be paid. 

“The Council will commence consultation to make at least £81k of savings per annum with a paper published today to the Staffing Matters and Urgency Committee to begin that process.  Full details will be presented in the annual accounts as usual.”

Shocking list of empty Council owned properties in York

Thursday can’t come soon enough for York taxpayers. On that day the City’s planning committee will decide whether to allow the Ashbank former social services building on Shipton Road to be converted into residential accommodation.

Ashbank has now been empty for a shocking 7 years.

Together with the Guildhall, it is the Councils most underused asset.

The above list was produced in response to a Freedom of Information request. The rates column indicates what the Council might have received if the properties had been let. To this must be added either the proceeds of a sale or lease income.

Several other valuable properties including Oakhaven in Acomb and the prime Willow House site next to the bar walls have also now been unused for over 3 years.

There are ongoing maintenance and security costs at each site.

The list does not include several brownfield sites which are suitable for development. These include the land to the rear of Acomb Library which was purchased 12 years ago but remains unused (currently it is a building compound).

Many years ago the Council used to have a Policy and Resources committee. One of its tasks was to challenge and optimise the use of the Councils portfolio. Sadly it was replaced by a “scrutiny” committee which rarely expresses any interest in the efficiency of the Councils processes.

Six monthly capital programme reports to the Councils Executive often fail to provide an update on long term unused assets. When they do get a mention it is restricted to a couple of anodyne sentences.

It is not just commercial properties that are a cause for concern.

The Councils housing department still often has a 10% vacancy rate on its garage blocks. There are waiting lists for garages in most parts of the City. Some of the garages are located in the City Centre where demand is high.

January 2020

The housing department has been told to advertise all vacancies in order to maximise income. They have failed to do so.

They don’t even make full use of free social media channels.

The result is that the Council loses thousands of pounds of income each month while on street parking spaces becomes unnecessarily congested.

Theatre Royal £500,000 Council grant decision next week – still few details available

The York Council is expected next week to confirm an additional grant of £1/2 million to the Theatre Royal.

The plan – which will be classified as “capital expenditure” and will increase the Councils already large capital debt – was revealed during the recent budget debate.

The report to the decision meeting which take place on 16th March is unsatisfactory in several respects. It fails to include essential information about the Theatres financial performance.

As a minimum the 2018/19 outturn, the 2019/20 and the (draft) 2020/21 budget should be made public. At the moment taxpayers have no idea whether the Theatre is profitable or not (probably not!).

There is no detail of the Theatres medium term business plans. There is no comment from the York Councillors (Crawshaw, Daubeney, Mason) who are supposed to look after the Council and residents’ financial interests on the Theatre Board

In 2015 the Council decided to sell the Theatre Royal building to the York Conservation Trust for £1. The Trust is a benign body which agree to make a major investment in essential repairs. The Council said that it planned to stop its annual support grant to the Theatre but instead agreed to make a contribution of £770,000 towards a £4.1 million restoration project. This project was intended to make the Theatre self-supporting.  The Council’s responsible executive member told the York Press in February 2016 “This funding agreement will strengthen York Theatre Royal’s sustainability for the future”

Theatre Royal refurbishment 2016

The refurbishment overran its timescale and the Theatre was effectively closed for nearly a year.

The most worrying aspect of the new deal is the decision to borrow money to fund it. The Council report says that the £500,000 borrowing will cost taxpayers “£35,000 a year” in interest charges and principal repayments. Only if the Council borrows the money over a 20 year term. Some of the proposed expenditure (IT, box office software) will be on items with an expected lifetime of less than 7 years. Borrowing money over a period longer than the life of an asset would be financial madness.

A more realistic borrowing time-frame would be 10 years, meaning taxpayers would be committed to ongoing payments of around £65,000 a year. 

NB The Council aggregates all its borrowing requirements and currently enjoys interest payments on its borrowings of less than 5%

Then there is the question of whether more investment will be sought in 4 years time?

The Council should not agree the expenditure without publishing a lot more information about the financial trajectory for the Theatre.

In the event of it ceasing trading, most of the taxpayer investment would be unrecoverable.

The demise of the Rose Theatre last year has already left the York taxpayer with a £40,000 plus bill.

It could be viewed by the Council as a timely warning about the need for prudent and well informed decisions.

The good and the bad of decision making at the York Council

The present administration at the York Council was elected on a raft of manifesto promises which included a commitment to improved street level public service standards as well as to more open decision making.

They rightly aimed to achieve this by delegating more decisions so that they could be taken at community level.

In practice ward Councillors were given more neighbourhood responsibilities supported by an enhanced budget.

Additional funding was made available for general improvements. The Housing Estate improvement budget processes were also changed in an attempt to give those areas that did not have a residents association a share of the available resources.

Although progress in delivering schemes which were identified in the summer has been painfully slow, at least some attempt has been made to provide more transparency. The latest list of approved schemes can be downloaded (link). It lacks update information on implementation progress but it is better than was provided by the last Council.

Decisions are now being publicised on a regular basis. The latest was agreed at the end of February (click)

Latest approvals

Its a great shame though that that the new delegated budget – totalling £1 million – and intended for highway, cycle and footpaths improvements has not produced any tangible results. The condition of several local highways is now very poor, yet the budget remains unused.

The Council today published what purported to be a delegated decision (which has apparently been approved by a senior manager) detailing  how the budget will be used. However anyone viewing the Council web site would still be unable to see a list of the roads which might benefit. It simply says that the schemes  are located in the Fulford and Derwent Wards.

There are poorly maintained road surfaces across the City

This really isn’t good enough.

Road requiring attention were identified by local residents over 6 months ago.   That is long enough to allow for resurfacing to be arranged. 

We are now within 3 weeks of the end of the financial year.