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.

(more…)

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

Tory finance chief quits York Executive

Mystery surrounds consultants contract

The Conservative Councillor responsible for City finances has abruptly quit his post. The announcement came only days after the Council released details of a hitherto confidential consultancy contract.

In 2014 a small consultancy firm, run by a former City Council employee, had been awarded a contract to project manage the older person’s accommodation project. This is the programme which will see existing elderly person’s homes like the one at Oakhaven closed and replaced by larger privately run “mega homes”. Part of the programme would see elderly person’s accommodation built on the Lowfields school site.

The consultants contract was to have run from 1st January 2015 until 31st December 2015. The contract was extended to 31st March 2016 with a total value of £130,000.

In response to a Freedom of Information request the Council says it does not hold any information to indicate “which Directors and Councillors were involved in the letting of the contract, and any extensions thereof” nor can they ” provide copies of all appropriate decision meeting minutes or notes – including copies of any invitation to tender adverts”!

The contract had an “output” specification. This meant that payments were made to the consultancy only when agreed targets and milestones had been met.

The Council was also asked about its current policy in engaging employees, consultants and contractors who seek to be remunerated via a private company.

They replied;“There is currently no policy which specifically deals with this question.  Each assignment will be considered individually and advice is provided on the employment implications by human resources or the procurement team”.

In March 2016, the Council, now under coalition control, decided that further work was needed on the older person’s project. They decided to let a further consultancy project covering the period 31st March 2016 – 30th March 2018 using the services of NEPRO This is a local government “spin off” company run from Sunderland. It effectively procures and manages contracts let on behalf of local authorities.

behind closed doorsThe Council have admitted that “The decision to use NEPRO is an officer decision and was made by the Council Management Team on 7th May 2014.  As this is a legally compliant framework, the terms and conditions are pre-agreed.  Suppliers on the framework have already agreed to these terms and conditions, therefore no further steps were deemed necessary to ensure transparency of individual contracts agreed through the framework. 

The new contract was handed to the same consultant who had held the old contract since January 2015.

It appears that no Councillors were involved in the decision nor is there any evidence that the employment of NEPRO has been reviewed during that last 3 years. It is unclear what proportion of contract costs are retained by NEPRO or indeed what value they add, in a situation where an existing contractor is simply reappointed to a role.

The new contract had a potential value of £216,000.

£54,000 was paid out in 2016 during the first 9 months of the contract.

The contract is again based on “outputs” being achieved (see below).

While output contracts can have advantages, they are an opaque system and unsuitable for activities where taxpayers opposition to proposals must be overcome before payments are released. The temptation may be to prioritise financial gain over the views of residents.

This happened with the decision to build on the Lowfields playing fields, where lobbyists were urged to influence consultation results and a, misleading, report gave the impression that the NHS had agreed to fund a new health centre on the site (see here).

It hadn’t.

The lack of engagement by senior Councillors in the contract letting process at the York Council is a concern. So is the lack of, publicly accessible, records of decisions taken about contract letting.

With spin off companies not subject to FOI regulations, this means that large sums of public money can be committed to controversial projects with minimal accountability.

consultants

Taxpayers multi million-pound bill for York Central

It looks like the York Council will spend several million tomorrow buying the Unipart site on Leeman Road.

The site is described as an essential piece in the jigsaw of land ownership which must be rationalised before the ambitious York Central development can go ahead.

York Central is a 72-hectare (ha) area of land adjacent to the railway station and is one of the largest brownfield sites in northern England. It provides an opportunity for regeneration providing new homes and Grade A commercial office space. The site is identified in the Local Plan for residential development of up to 1,500 dwellings and 80,000 sqm floor space of high quality grade A office.

The Council is expected to pay over the market value for the Unipart site but is not releasing details of its bid.

The Council hopes that part of the funding will come from the Local Enterprise Partnership in the form of an interest free loan. This loan would be repaid over a 10 year period although it remains unclear how quickly the York Central site could start to produce revenue returns.

Land owned by York Council

Land owned by York Council

The Council originally allocated £10 million of taxpayers funds to support the project. £1/4 million of this has already been spent on salary costs while a further £1.56 million has gone on site preparation costs and other land purchases.

£7.4 million remains although the original expectation had been that this would be spent on infrastructure including an access bridge.

Now a report to the Council’s Executive tomorrow says that the bridge should be part funded by the West Yorkshire Transport Fund (£1.2 million) while the balance of the cost may fall on York taxpayers.

Joining the West Yorkshire Transport Fund is expected to cost York Council taxpayers over £1 million a year. As well as the York Central budget, York expects to get £34 million from the Fund to help pay for 7 new roundabout on the  A1237 northrn by pass

A Council report says, “It current year prices the total York Central Access Scheme was projected to cost £45m predicated upon CYC using £33m of WYTF funding and £12m of local funds. The project was split into 2 main elements: An access route from the local road network (including bridge over the rail lines), the main crescent road and an access to the rear of the railway station (£27.5m) and the demolition of the Queen St Bridge and the creation of an improved transport interchange at the front of the station (£17.5m)”.

Area is run down

Area is run down

The Council remains officially undecided about the access route although three years ago it purchased land near Chancery Rise for the route.  It is now promising that Alliance House (opposite the end of Cleveland Street) will not be demolished in the near future.

Sadly the area is already looking neglected.

Opponents of the Chancery Rise access option [the Friends of Holgate Community garden)  have produced a report on the issue Click here to read

Nowhere in the papers being considered by the Council tomorrow has any attempt being made to provide a clear statement of both capital and revenue liabilities for York taxpayers.  Many different aspects of the programme seem to rely on the Council being a financial underwriter. An uncomfortable position with the project already vulnerable to changing political and economic conditions.

So far a preferred partnership management and business model has still not been agreed

More concern over Community Stadium project

The proposed operator of the Council’s indoor sports facilities is under fire in some parts of the Country over safety standards.
PE extract 2nd Sept 2016

Private Eye magazine 2nd Sept 2016

According to Private Eye magazine (right) Greenwich Leisure has been slow to respond to complaints of tainted water in one of its pools in Swindon.

Greenwich Leisure is a not for profit “community interest company” which ran the Waterworld leisure centre on behalf of the council before it was demolished as part of a larger project to build a new community stadium.

Use of Waterworld declined rapidly and the, then Labour led, authority made additional subsidy payments to the operator between April and November 2014 to keep the pool open.

The payments were later subject to an auditor’s report.

Greenwich Leisure were appointed as the preferred contractor not only for the Stadium and associated swimming pool and sports centre but also the Yearsley pool and Energise sports centre on the other side of the City.

We reported in August 2014 that increasing costs were threatening the future of the Community Stadium complex. Things have deteriorated further since then with planning permission for additional commercial development now subject to a Judicial Review.

It has been clear for several years that the increasing size and complexity of the project has jeopardised not only the interests of taxpayers but has even brought into question whether some sports facilities in the City may also now face closure.

Recently the Council agreed to subsidise the use of Bootham Crescent by the Rugby Club until the new stadium has been completed. It is unclear how much this will cost taxpayers.

The York Council has yet to comment on the reports about swimming pool safety.