Call me Mr Shape

The Council is to adopt a pseudonym when it tries to sell any new homes that it builds in York. The decision comes in the wake of research which suggests that many potential buyers regard the Council as a provider of cheap, lower specification homes.

So, the Council will in future market itself as “Shape Homes York”. The revelation comes in a report being considered later this week

The Council’s poor image on housing is easy to understand given the litter and weed infested state of many Council estates. Unnecessary cuts to maintenance regimes have led to a fall in tenants’ satisfaction. This has affected the Councils image more generally.

The report also reveals what is claimed to be a new approach to design and public consultation on the sites that it will develop over the next few years. Around 600 new homes are planned.

Major mistakes were made at Lowfields where bogus promises of a new health centre and police station were included in marketing material. It later turned out that neither was likely to materialise while a proposed elderly persns home has been delayed. Residents became even more hostile towards the council when it was revealed that “replacement” sports pitches (those at Lowfield are being built on) would be provided at a site located some 3 miles away and lacking a public transport link.

The Council plans developments at Askham Bar, Burnholme, Duncombe Barracks, the former Manor School, the former Clifton Without School, and the former Woolnough House sites.

The brownfield (and unused) Askham bar car park site is being slipped down the priority list to allow for early work at Ordnance Lane and Hospital Fields Road.

The Council expects around 40% of the properties it builds to be “affordable”. They will be cross subsidised by market sales by the new “Shape Homes” front organisation. The Council has set up a new department to manage the programme and has recruited a large number of additional administrative staff. The overall cost of the programme is £154 million.

The Council has also published a design manual which they claim indicates how its new homes will look. It includes some high efficiency homes which will have low running costs (Passivhaus)

As the, currently stalled, Lowfield development has revealed, Council propaganda rarely these days accords with reality.

In setting up its own housing building operation, we think that the Council may be overextending itself. 

It is still trying to bring to a conclusion the £42 million Community Stadium project, it announced last week that £20 million would be spent on redeveloping a business club at the Guildhall while the first tranche of work on the £1 billion York Central site is due to start later in the year.

& all that from a local authority which doesn’t even have a permanent Chief Executive working for it at present.

Contract awarded to begin shaping the York Central site.

A road, access bridge and rail link essential to the development of York Central have moved a step closer with the announcement that City of York Council has selected John Sisk & Son as construction partner to deliver infrastructure to open up the site.

York central

The contract, the first to be awarded, is for a detailed design review which will lead to a Reserved Matters planning application, due later this financial year.

The approved plans for the York Central site include proposals to build up to 2,500 homes, and a commercial quarter creating up to 6,500 jobs adding a £1.16 billion boost to the economy.

John Sisk & Son will work with the council and partners to refine and finalise the design of the first phase of essential infrastructure for the access bridge, the spine road and the NRM rail link. This will inform a decision by Executive to proceed with a costed construction programme for York Central enabling infrastructure.

Cllr Keith Aspden, Leader of the council, said; “The delivery of York Central is a once in a lifetime opportunity to build much needed affordable homes and new public spaces, attract better paid jobs, and create sustainable transport links for the city.

“We look forward to working with the York Central Partnership to secure further improvements to the scheme and with Sisk to begin this essential first phase of work in preparing the York Central site for development.”

Ian Gray, Homes England on behalf of York Central Partnership, said: “This is a really exciting and important milestone towards the delivery of our ambitious plans at York Central. 

“A lot of hard work has been put in by York Central Partnership to get this far and this contract demonstrates our commitment to delivering the ambition and vision for the site.”

Paul Brown, Managing Director, UK Civils at John Sisk & Son, said:

“We are delighted to have been selected by the City of York Council to work with the stakeholders on this exciting project and to progress the design of some of the key enabling infrastructure. This is a project of huge ambition which will transform underused land in the centre of York into vibrant and distinctive residential neighbourhoods, cultural spaces and a high-quality commercial quarter. We are really excited to be able to bring our broad range of experience and commitment to a collaborative approach to the project.”

The budget necessary to commission this work was agreed by Executive in July 2019.

The York Central Partnership (YCP) members, Homes England, Network Rail, the National Railway Museum and City of York Council, have been working collaboratively for the past four years to develop proposals to unlock the potential of the brownfield site.

The partnership has secured planning approval, subject to the finalisation of the S106 agreement, for its outline planning application and assembled a potential £155m funding package for infrastructure works.

This includes £23.5m of a total of £37.2m from the West Yorkshire-plus Transport Fund and Leeds City Region Growth Deal, which will also fund the ambitious plans to transform the front of the railway station.

The West Yorkshire-plus Transport Fund has been part-funded through the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership (LEP) Growth Deal, a £1 billion package of Government funding to drive growth and job creation across the Leeds City Region. The aim is to create around 20,000 new jobs and add £2.4 billion a year to the economy by the mid-2030s.

City of York Council has also received a Local Growth Fund contribution of £3.1m, from York, North Yorkshire and East Riding LEP and has agreed to borrow £35m to be repaid using retained business rates from the York Central Enterprise Zone.

The council’s £77.1m bid for the government’s Housing Infrastructure Fund is at an advanced stage, with a decision expected in the autumn.

£66,676 spent on temps at York Council contact centre

A Freedom of information response has revealed that the City of York Council’s contact centre spent £66,676.88 on temporary agency 
staff between 3rd September 2018 to 1st September 2019

The staff were recruited using City of  York Trading Limited as the  preferred supplier.  They are a wholly owned Council subsidiary.   

The information has come to light as questions are being asked about the effectiveness of the issue reporting systems at the Council.

On two occasion recently the contact centre has claimed that litter reports concerned “private” land, for which the Council had no responsibility.

It turned out that the cases concerned garage forecourt areas which are in the ownership of the Councils own housing department!

Council claims garage areas are “private”

New contractors appointed to modernise Council houses in York

New contracts have been signed by City of York Council to help improve and maintain the 7,520 homes of their tenants.

The Council have still not published a work programme for the current financial year

Until recently the York Council used to published a programme of housing modernisation works before a new financial year started. It indicated which streets would receive attention, and what work would be completed, during the subsequent 12 months. It appears to be something else that the Council is now keeping secret.

“Following a rigorous procurement process, seven contractors have been secured to deliver ongoing work to repair and prevent damp in the homes, the Tenants’ Choice programme and external painting”.

To support the £2.5 million investment underway to repair and prevent damage being done to homes by standing water, two new contractors have been appointed. Engie and G Sanders Builder Ltd will work on homes affected by poorly-drained clay soil, present in some areas of York, and which can create damp conditions.

Their target is to complete work on 60 homes per year as part of a rolling programme. Tenants whose homes are due for this work will receive letters at least two months before it is due to start, to organise surveys with the contractor. Depending on what the survey finds, the work is agreed with the tenant to resolve the symptoms and underlying causes of the damage. Where appropriate, Tenants’ Choice refurbishments may also be carried out at the same time.

The Tenants’ Choice contracts are to modernise tenants’ kitchens and/or bathrooms as well as re-wiring properties. Over the next four years this will be delivered by BM Services York and by Engie across some 1,000 homes. All tenants on next year’s programme will receive a letter in the spring time to organise surveys and to invite them to an exhibition event to see the choices available to them.

External painting of tenants’ homes will be done by three firms; Bagnalls Group, Novus Solutions and Bell Group. For the four-year duration of the contracts, they will paint external wooden areas including fascia boards, garden gates and external doors.

Repair work needed outside these programmes of work should continue to be reported as usual at or by calling 01904 551550 (option 4, option 1).

Forged tenancy agreements used in council tax fraud

An investigation into a council tax fraud involving forged tenancy agreements has been uncovered and successfully prosecuted by City of York Council.

Joanne Smith (aged 39 previously of Howden Lane, Crockey Hill), provided the council with three forged private tenancy agreements for properties within the York area between 2017 and 2018.

The agreements stated that she was the sole tenant at each property, when in fact she had an additional adult living with her. This meant she was not entitled to the £1,202.43 council tax reduction nor the £618.34 single person discount that she claimed.

An investigation into the authenticity of these tenancy agreements was conducted by Veritau, the council’s fraud investigation service. Veritau were notified of the fraud following concerns that the documents Miss Smith had provided were false and were an attempt to obtain a reduction to her council tax that she was not entitled to.

During the course of the investigation, Miss Smith was interviewed under caution by Veritau officers and admitted to forging one of the tenancy agreements, and that she had provided it to the council to obtain a reduction to her council tax.

The investigation concluded with Miss Smith pleading guilty to one charge of fraud and six charges of forgery and counterfeiting at York Magistrates Court on Monday 29 July 2019.

On Tuesday 20 August 2019, Miss Smith was sentenced by York Magistrates to a 14-month custodial sentence suspended for 18 months and 20 days of rehabilitation activity. She was also ordered to repay £1,820.77 which is the full amount of council tax reduction and single person discount, and to pay a victim surcharge of £115.

In her defence, the mitigating circumstances offered were that she and her children have health issues and that she had suffered a family bereavement in 2017.

Councillor Nigel Ayre, City of York Council’s Executive Member for Finance and Performance, said: “This is a case of fraud against the authority, made all the more serious by involving forged documents.

“The actions in this case were an attempt to defraud the public purse. We encourage anyone with any information on suspected fraudulent activity to phone the fraud hotline on 0800 9179 247 or email fraud@york.gov.uk .”

Troubled York Council land sale – more details

More details of the York Council’s controversial decision to sell land to the Yorspace community housing group are emerging. In response to a Freedom of Information request the Council has provided a copy of the independent valuation that it obtained for the land at Lowfields.

Yorspace Lowfield development

The valuation states that the site may be sold to a community housing group for £300,000 which “represents a 20% discount on market value”. However, the valuation report is based on the construction of 10 semi-detached homes on the land.

The Yorspace proposal envisages a 19 unit, high density, development.

So the scale of the taxpayer subsidy remains obscure. The only way to test the financial assumptions would be to market the site, comparing offers for social housing with a commercial alternative.

While Section 123 of the Local Government Act 1972 does allow Local Authorities to sell, in certain circumstances, land at below market value and without seeking competitive bids, that discretion is not unfettered.

The Council constitution requires a reason for such a sale to be minuted. There is no such reason given in the record of the officer decision taken on 18th January 2019

Construction of roads at Lowfields is almost complete.

The record of the meeting says, The Mutual Home Ownership Society housing model they use is designed as such that they will be economically accessible to lower income families and the affordability of the homes is maintained in perpetuity”.

The council has not, so far, chosen to include, in the terms of the proposed sale, a requirement that occupiers MUST be lower income families and/or that they should currently be registered on the home choice/housing waiting list..

As the development has NOT been classified as “affordable housing” in the Local Plan, the Council must legally provide a specific reason for giving preferential treatment to a particular group.

Valuation report published

The reason might be, for example, to create local jobs, to provide accessible leisure facilities, to provide homes for those on the waiting list or whatever.

However, an auditable rationale is a legal requirement.

The sale to Yorspace has not been completed yet but is expected next month. A further report to a council committee on the scheme is expected on 26th September.

Meanwhile it has emerged that no progress has been made in selling any “self-build“ plots at Lowfield

The Council says that marketing material for the plots is being prepared by the Community and Self-Build Officer, in conjunction with Custom Build Homes, who are the sale agent for the plots.

Self build homes are likely to be worth more than the construction cost.

 “A promotional event was held last year, and it is planned that another event will be held at the start of the marketing launch”.

 Plots will be promoted through the council, the Custom Build Homes website and Rightmove. Plots will go on sale this Autumn.

The buyers must have started construction work within 12 months of purchase and have completed all works within 2 years”.

Shared ownership in York

A report to a meeting taking place this week reveals that in quarter 1 (April – June 2019) “within the Shared Ownership Scheme, the Council has acquired one property and sold equity shares in three properties”.

The York Council is investing heavily in promoting shared ownership homes in the City

The target is to purchase 23 properties by the end of 2019/20 and sell the same amount.

“Capital receipts from the equity sales are to be reinvested into the shared ownership programme, as such the budget is to be increased by £289k at quarter 1 and the same amount is to be re-profiled to 2020/21 for future purchases”.

The report comes a few days after it was revealed that the Council has completed only 10 shared ownership deals in the 3 years leading up to April 2019

This week’s report fails to identify any open market purchase of properties which could be added to the Council Housing pool.

York Council shifts only 10 shared ownership homes in 3 years

The York Council’s much hyped “shared ownership” programme has provided homes for only 10 families during the last 3 years.

Council marketing campaign

The figures are revealed in a response to a Freedom of Information request.

All the 10 homes were purchased on the open market. The scheme encourages residents to identify a property for sale before asking the Council to purchase it for them. The family then buys part of the property on a mortgage while renting the rest.  

The Council has decided to set the rent well below commercial levels, effectively providing the occupier with a taxpayer subsidy.

The only recorded discussion of the strategy, which will see a large proportion of the 600 new homes being built by the Council over the next few years allocated to shared ownership, came at a private meeting. click for details

The York Council admits that priority for shared ownership homes cannot be given to those on the housing waiting list. Nor can it restrict availability to existing York residents. It blames “Homes England” for these restrictions. These seem perverse restrictions given that the housing list is, and has been for many years, the accepted way of determining housing need and priority in the City.

The Council said that, “A key ambition (of shared ownership) is to support key workers by marketing housing for them. Key workers include teachers, health and social care workers, the police, the fire service and others working in the public sector”. It can only do so through a direct marketing campaign. It is unclear how many of the homes have gone to “key workers”

Slow going on “affordable” housing in York?

 Other social landlords have provided 30 shared ownership properties over the last 3 years. Of these, 29 have been “new build”.

By contrast, only 45 additional homes have been added to the Council housing stock since 2016.

Only 4 of these were purchased on the open market.

The open market purchase of homes, to supplement the rental stock, has been the flagship policy of the Liberal Democrats for over a decade. It only became a practical option 4 years ago when restrictions on the use of income from Council house sales were relaxed.

There are over 1700 applicants on the housing waiting list in York

Meanwhile the Council has taken on extra staff to manage its new build housing programme. They have so far failed to report how many shared ownership deals have been completed by the new team during the current financial year.

We think it is time for the Council to have a candid public debate about the demand for shared ownership and other forms of housing tenure in the City.

Community build and self-build housing under spotlight

More questions on Lowfields Plans

For the first time in nearly 3 years, the Councils Executive will review what is happening with the “Yorspace” communal housing project at Lowfield. A meeting, being held on 26th September, will consider “Progress and Opportunities for Self and Community Build Housing” in the City.

Development site

The report comes in the wake of concerns being expressed about a large discount being agreed, by a Council official, for the transfer of a building plot to the Yorspace  “Community Benefit” Society .

Although Yorspace haven’t endeared themselves to the existing local community in Westfield, because of their trenchant support for the development of the playing field which is adjacent to their site, the main concern relates to the “affordability” of the homes that they hope to construct.

A Council official, at a private meeting held in August 2017, agreed an “exclusivity agreement” to sell the land to what was then styled as a  “Mutual Home Ownership Society”. The official decided that a discount could be offered because individuals would not benefit financially from the deal. Homeowners would buy shares in the Co-op in return for the leasehold of a property. When they move on, they can sell the shares.

No alternative proposals for the land were considered, there was no analysis of the advantages of communal ownership compared to those offered by the construction of (say) more Council houses on the land or indeed the possibility of an open market sale with the proceeds being used to quickly increase the availability of social housing in the City.

The report in 2017 gave an estimate of the value of the site. That figure remains confidential.  Another “behind closed doors” meeting held in January of this year valued the land – after discount – at £300,000.

Another, smaller, site at Lowfields recently sold for over £400,000.

 The Council justified its decision by quoting Section 123 of the Local Government Act 1972 which allow authorities to dispose of land other than at its full value.

However, that power is heavily constrained.

The issue with this sale relates to the absence of an “end occupier” agreement. Council officials confirmed, when considering amendments to the Local Plan, that this development would not be classified as “affordable”. This is because there is currently no requirement for the shareholder in the Co-op to be in housing need.

The Council could have insisted that, in return for any discount, the homes must be occupied by low income families or, at least, by transferring existing social tenants.

They did neither, as was confirmed in a response to a Freedom of Information enquiry a few months ago.

In effect, taxpayers may be subsidising the housing costs of relatively wealthy individuals.

Hopefully, the new report will candidly address these issues.

When the land sale was approved, Yorspace agreed to complete their development within 3 years. No work has started there or on the adjacent “self-build” plots. No construction timetables have been published.

NB. We have submitted a FOI request for information on the Council’s “shared ownership” programme. The last report (to another “behind closed doors” meeting held last year) suggested that such a model would not be of interest to existing social tenants or those on the waiting list. The Councils Executive has yet to review progress on this scheme (which accounts for a significant proportion of new build plans for the City)

Housing – Is the Councils policy working?

Statistics for the last available quarter (Jan – Mar) reveal that the number of house building starts in York fell.

Those attending a recent housing scrutiny committee, will have  witnessed a mundane exchange about obstacles to increasing the amount of social housing in the City. Most comment centred on the lack of skilled labour in the sector, with a joint plan with York College the only idea cited to address the issue. Historically, of course, such skills have been imported from other parts of the country, and indeed Europe, to meet peaks in the house building programme.

Other questions remain unanswered.

While the Council policy of purchasing empty homes on the open market – to add to the Council housing pool – has been a limited success, other “innovations” have stalled.

There are around 200 people on the “self-build” register in the City. Plots were allocated for their use at the new Lowfields development. It turns out that the Council has made no progress in finding buyers for the plots. This is another worrying factor on this controversial development where neighbouring residents have given a high priority to having the site development completed quickly. Self build is one of the slowest ways of providing a house, so hopes that the builders would leave Lowfields within 3 years are fading.

Nearby the future of the Yorspace communal living experiment remains in doubt. The Councils decision to sell a plot to them at a discount is likely to face a further challenge if and when contracts are exchanged.

These are both relatively small initiatives, though, compared to the Council’s decision to go big on shared ownership programmes.

Shared ownership allows people to buy a share of between 25% and 75% of a home from a landlord, usually the council or a housing association, and rent the remaining share at a reduced rent. Of the 600 affordable housing units the Council expects to build over the next few years, almost half will be designated as “shared ownership”.

Support for shared ownership came mainly from former Conservative Councillors at the authority (mostly not re-elected in May). Ironically they argued that the scheme would avoid the pitfall of “right to buy” applications which could impact on the rental availability of any new Council houses built, almost as soon as they were completed.

But the early signs are that there is only a very limited market for shared ownership tenure in York. Few of the 1700 or so who are on the housing waiting list seem to see this as a solution to their problems. (Many are older people seeking to “downsize”)

The Council offers to help individuals (with incomes of less than £80,000 a year) to buy homes on the open market and then allocate them to shared ownership. It has not published any figures which show how many have taken up this offer.

The Council also has some new build and conversion properties which it markets itself as shared ownership. It says on its web site that it does not have any such properties available at present. Nevertheless, it continues to advertise properties on Cemetery Road.

Again, no performance stats have been published by the Council. Councillors need to question how the shared ownership programme is impacting on the housing waiting list.

They may also wish to question further whether the Council is right to set up its own development and sales arm.

Local estate agents are better qualified to find buyers and renters.