Chickens continuing to roost

York Council scandal refuses to die

We reported a few years ago on a scandal that the York Council presided over between 2013 and 2015.

Public relations contracts had been awarded without being properly tendered.

Now national magazine Private Eye is onto a similar case at a different Council.

In York the affair still drags on and indirectly led to the recent furore over the suspension of a couple of Councillors who were (incorrectly) accused of whistleblowing.

The Labour Councillors involved in the 2014 affair have now mostly left the authority. At least one, however,  hopes to make a come back at the polls  in May.

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.

Deadline day approaching for Spark container village

Rates, rent and profit share payments due in the next few days.

Spark April 2018

The valuation office has completed its assessment of the rateable value of the Spark container village on Piccadilly.

Figures published on their web site suggest a total valuation of £138,730.

In the normal course of events this would bring around £65,000 into the City’s coffers helping to offset the additional costs of street cleaning, refuse collection, policing etc. associated with developments of this sort.

Increases in rateable value these days bring an immediate boost for Council finances under rate retention schemes (The Council’s rate support grant has consequently been reduced to zero this year).

But will there be a boost in this case?

Valuations were apparently requested on a per container basis. This means that none of the 25 units has a rateable value of more than £12,000.

Rating list

Government regulations on rate relief for small businesses say “You will not pay business rates on a property with a rateable value of £12,000 or less”.

So, unless an occupier has a second business property elsewhere, then they may not pay any rates at all.

Empty properties are exempt from Business Rates for 3 months.

Some of the alcohol selling units on the site are said to be highly profitable. No doubt other traders operating nearby will question whether this is fair competition.

York Council officials are staying tight lipped about whether they anticipated this development.

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 in new utility infrastructure. The first payment toward paying off this debt is due in a little over 6 weeks’ time, together with the Council’s share of what Spark claim is a “£1.5 million profit”

NB In August 2018 the Council refused a planning application from Spark to omit the wooden cladding for the containers which they had suggested as part of the original application.

Spark is currently closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Spark list only 4 retailers who currently operate from the containers. There are also 7 food and drink outlets

Budget consultation – what they don’t tell you

Any resident with an idle moment can take part in the York Council’s annual budget quiz. A simulator allows residents to set council tax levels and public service priorities.

It is a slight improvement on playing scrabble on the wet Sunday afternoon but has little in common with real budget setting and the horse trading that goes on in a “balanced” Council. One reason is that officials are too scared to include options like having fewer Councillors or reducing senior officer pay levels.

Most significantly they say little about the Councils accumulated debt omitting to remind residents that 13% of what they fork out in Council Tax goes to pay interest charges on past borrowing.

There are options available which could have an immediate effect in freeing up money for under pressure street services like road repairs.

One example is the Guildhall business centre project which is currently set to cost £15 million. It could be restructured to encourage private sector investment.

Once spent, of course, there is usually no way back. But some taxpayers may feel that higher admission charges at York’s new Community Stadium might be one way of clawing back some of the £13 million taxpayers investment in the project.

You won’t, of course, find those options like these  listed on the Councils web site.

Click to play York Scrabble

York Council fraud levels revealed

The Councils auditors are cracking down on Council Tax discounts with 11 cases currently under investigation following a “data matching exercise”.  These concern bogus “single person discount” claims.

A report reveals that the auditors had received 58 referrals for potential Council Tax/Non Domestic Rates fraud.

“There are currently 30 ongoing investigations into Council Tax and non domestic rates fraud.

The council has prosecuted two people for council tax fraud this year including the longest running single person discount fraud ever detected at the authority – 17 years.

In addition, 3 people have been cautioned for council tax fraud offences and 5 people have received warnings”.

The fraud team have completed 26 investigations into potential Council Tax Support fraud to date. The team has produced over £13k in savings thus far. There are currently 32 cases under investigation. To date one person has been cautioned and 10 people were issued formal warnings following investigations in this area.

Other areas of concern are

  • social care where there are 16 investigations in progress.
  • 14 cases of housing fraud – making false claims to secure accommodation – are underway.
  • The financial assistance scheme where 19 cases are being investigated
  • Parking and blue badge misuse. In 2017/18 the council prosecuted two people, cautioned 12 people and issued 30 warnings for disabled badge or parking permit misuse
  • Education – making false statements to gain entry to a school – 2 cases.

The report will be discussed at a meeting taking place on Wednesday

Sparks York – Pressure mounts on York Council Leader

It looks like Sparks York – who are responsible for the shipping container village eyesore on Piccadilly – have just managed to get their April 2017 accounts in to Company House by the 18th December deadline. They should be available to view on line next week.

Coincidentally, The Press have run a story today based on the FOI findings published a few weeks ago. Although a representative of Sparks has made a statement saying that everything will be all right in the end, and that the Council will recover its £40,000 investment in the project, there has been no statement from the Council itself.

This is strange given that the storage containers were parked of the Council owned Piccadilly site for 2 months before  a” tenancy at will” was signed.

Nor has there been any explanation of the precedence of a debenture loan taken out by Sparks in July and its effect on the Councils equity financial safety-net.

The decision to expand the area to be leased to Sparks – effectively rent free until the “village” starts trading – was made by the Leader of the Council David Carr last week.

No attempt was made to ask for an updated business plan which reflected the much-reduced period of tenure that the village will have (assuming it ever opens for business) nor were any questions asked about the company’s financial position and debts.

It could be an uncomfortable couple of months for Cllr Carr with a difficult annual budget meeting in prospect and the repercussions from his impulsive decision to sack two LibDem members of his Cabinet, coming to a head.

It is now “time up” for the investigations into the allegations arising out an information “leak” from the York Council.

Cllr Carrs decision to ask for a police investigation – into something that could never have been a criminal matter – raises serious question about his judgement.

Now he is also being implicated in the emerging West Yorkshire Combined Authority/LEP financial scandal highlighted by the Yorkshire Post at the weekend.

Incredibly the Authority seems to be flirting with the long discredited estate agent’s jamboree (Le Marché International des Professionnels de l’immobilier) which takes place in Cannes each year.

Attendance at the hugely expensive jamboree was a factor in bringing down the last Labour administration in the City.

According to one source, the West Yorkshire authority (which includes York) intend to charter their own aircraft to go to Cannes this year!

Police tax level consultation starts in York

Click to take survey

The Police and Crime Commissioner is asking residents to complete an online survey.

Little background information is provided on the options available which are essentially a freeze (which would cut the police budget in real terms) or a 1.99% increase (the maximum that the government will allow unless a ridiculously expensive referendum is held)

If you opt for a referendum, then you are offered a choice of paying £5 year more, between £5 and £10 and over £10 a year.

There are only limited opportunity on the survey to mention crime concerns although one of the response boxes does allow you to write in that you think your additional contribution should be ringfenced to address, for example, anti-social behaviour issues.

Council meeting moves to Citadel as spending plans consultation starts

Council debates may be inspired by Citadel moto

York’s next full Council meeting will be held at the Citadel later this month (26 October) rather than in its usual home of York’s Guildhall.

The temporary venue – formerly the home of York’s Salvation Army and now owned by York City Church – will be used for full meetings of the Council for up to two years while the Guildhall is closed for construction work.

The Guildhall has been used for meetings since the 15th Century and the current council chamber dates back to 1891.

Members of the public are welcome to attend the full council meeting at the Citadel at 6.30pm on Thursday 26 October.

Have your say on York’s spending plans

The results of the 2018 citywide budget consultation will help set the council’s financial priorities for the forthcoming year.

Despite already achieving savings of over £100m in the last decade through a combination of efficiency savings and reviewing the services it provides, the authority needs to make further savings of £6.1m in 2018/19 and £4.2m in 2019/20 to meet its budget.

Against this tough financial backdrop, demand for services continues to rise; mainly due to demographic changes and more people living longer. At the same time the financial support received from central government has been reduced.

The central government grant accounted for 40 per cent of the council’s income in 2012/13 but fell to just seven per cent last year.  By 2020, York will receive no government grant. That means the services the council provides will have to be funded from a share of business rates, from the council tax and through any fees and costs it charges.

Council leaders hope that the responses to the questionnaire will help guide future spending decisions, particularly whether the authority should ‘balance its books’ by:

  • Reducing the number of services it provides, or stop providing them altogether.
  • Finding ways of providing services more efficiently by working differently.
  • Charging more for services.
  • Increasing the amount of council tax.

People can put forward their views:

  • Online at www.york.gov.uk/consultations
  • By completing the survey in the council’s publication Our City [which is being distributed over the course of the next two weeks].
  • By popping along to one of four drop-in sessions, at Huntington Library on Wednesday 1 November; Archbishop Holgate’s School on Thursday 2 November; Acomb Explore Library on Tuesday 7 November or West Offices on Wednesday 8 November, all between 4.30pm and 6.30pm.

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York Council investment programme slips

A Council report shows an out-turn of £35.751m on the Council capital investment budget compared to an approved budget of £52.428, an overall variation of £16.677m.

Community stadium start slips

The biggest slippage (£3.5 million) was on the York Central project although there were also delays in other areas including school maintenance, housing construction, the Glen Lodge extension, waste disposal, IT development and upgrades to buses.

The report shows that expenditure on the Community Stadium has also slipped again with the bulk of the work now expected in 2018/19. In total, the Council will spend £36 million on this project although this figure does not include the substantial sums spent to date or the (privately funded) commercial elements of the project.

The report goes on to say;

Mansion House cost up by £150,000

  • that the Mansion House restoration scheme has an outturn position of £1.031m in 2016/17, requiring re-profiling of £515k of funds from 2017/18 into 2016/17. The work is now expected to be completed in August 2017.  The report goes on to say that “as the works contract has progressed a number of areas of additional work have been identified as necessary to safeguard the future of the Mansion House, these essential restoration works will cost an additional £150”.
  • the Tenants Choice programme saw 120 properties have their kitchens, bathrooms and wiring updated through the year. This is significantly lower than the 220 properties that were planned. This is due to problems with tenants refusing works, delays due to damp problems and delays with kitchen deliveries. The scheme under spent by £416k in 2016/17
  • the proposed developments at Newbury Avenue and Chaloners Road have also been delayed. The development now proposed is for 5-6 bungalows and “will be submitted for planning approval in July”. The development of homes at Chaloners Road was postponed when the developer withdrew from the contract. A revised scheme will be submitted for planning approval in late summer 2017
A summary of the Councils £1/4 billion investment plans can be found below

York Council easing out of budget crisis?

Good progress in improving some services

The York Council showed a small budget surplus during the last financial year. As a result, its reserves will increase from £6.8m to £7.3m. In addition, prudent use of its contingency fund will see its 2017/18 provision increase to £1,049k.

This represents a marked improvement on the performance of the Council when it was under Labour control between 2011 and 2015.

The Council has also published selective performance stats.

These claim to show good progress with only delayed discharges from hospital sounding a negative note.

But is everything as rosy as may seem?

The Council’s Executive does not receive exception reports. Such reports would highlight failing performance at street level (which the Council claims is its primary focus)

Selective performance stats published by Council

A survey being undertaken in the Westfield ward by local Councillors presents a slightly different picture.

Westfield Councillors survey results at June 2017

Although respondents say that they are satisfied with most local public services there are exceptions.

The biggest failings (in sub-urban areas) are;

  • Poor road and footpath maintenance
  • Parking provision and
  • Litter/poop scoop bin provision

The Council provides more detailed information on line (see www.yorkopendata.org under the “performance scorecards” section)

But several of the scorecards have still  not been updated for the 2016/17 year.

Other elements of performance are not publicly monitored.

These include the progress made with locally budgeted Ward Committee schemes some of which – although funded – have been in a lengthening waiting list for over 2 years.

Better progress on genuine local concerns would enhance the Councils claim that its priority is indeed the provision of good quality basic services.

On Line performance stats need updating