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York Council and its empty buildings

A report to a Council meeting next week offers a limited insight into the York Councils property dealings. It comes at an opportune time with various other Councils having been badly burnt recent by injudicious investments in land and property. Croydon and the Cambridgeshire County Council are both heading for the local government equivalent of bankruptcy.

Against that background taxpayers might would hope for York Councillors to now to adopt a more measured approach to investment. The commercial property market is likely – in the wake of the pandemic – to remain depressed for some time. It is not a good time to sell assets.

Instead we find a plan to borrow an additional £4 million on top of the £384 million already committed. That is a debt of nearly £2000 for every man, woman, and child in the City. 20% of tax payments will have to go towards paying interest charges.

So what is happening to these assets?

Oakhaven Elderly Persons Home.

Oakhaven – empty for 4 years

This has remained empty since occupants were moved out – prematurely as it turned out – in 2016.  The sale for a new care home to Ashley House fell through in early 2017. No attempt was made to find even a temporary use for the site which occupies a prime location near to local amenities and good transport links. Maintenance expenditure on the empty building continued to fall on taxpayers. Now the council is proposing an “off-market” sale to regional care home operator, Burlington Care Limited. The size of the offer has not been revealed. Ironically, the officer report admits “An open market exercise may be impacted by COVID 19 suppressing property values. The council budget has been significantly impacted by COVID and there is a need to realise value from vacant assets in the near future”

Willow House

Another former care home, which has been empty for nearly 5 years, is Willow House. It is on a prime site located next to the city walls. The site was nearly sold for student housing in 2017 but ran into planning difficulties.  Other offers were ignored by the Council and an offer from a company which utilises empty residential accommodation to accommodate the homeless in return for caretaking and security duties, was spurned. Now it seems that the Council intends to build 40 apartments on the site and will probably use its own “Shape” development company to manage the investment.  The site is worth more than £2.3 million.

Willow House – empty for 5 years

Morrell House

An elderly person’s home empty since early 2018. No use has been found for the site. It is to be considered for use by “self-builders” but if that is not successful it will be sold on the open market.

Moor Lane car park

This is the site currently in use as a flu vaccination centre. It has mostly been empty for the last 4 years. There has been a lot of developer interest in building on the site. The Council has decided not to include it in the Council house building programme and may therefore sell it on. On the open market – even in these depressed times – it is likely to be worth less per acre than the Willow House site.

Haxby Hall

The sale of this home to private care home operator “Yorkare” has stalled. COVID is blamed

& the strange ones

Generally, taxpayers have benefited in the long run when the Council has bought land and buildings in the City. There have been exceptions. For example, when the authority impulsively sold the site now occupied by the Hiscox insurance company on Peasholme Green. Had it included a betterment clause in the sale then taxpayers rather than shareholders would have benefited from the subsequent increase in land values.

Knapton Forest

It looks increasingly likely that the purchase of good quality agricultural land near Knapton, with the intention of planting trees on it, may go into the same ill-considered category.  When wooded, the area will not have a resale option but will involve an ongoing maintenance liability. 180 acres will support 50,000 broadleaf trees making a, carbon sequestration, contribution to the £1.2 trillion additional trees which would be required on the planet to reverse climate change! The £1 million project is also hailed as a major new passive leisure option for residents although, in truth, it is poorly positioned to make up for the open space lost in recent years to building operations in the City’s poorer areas.

Knapton Forest site

The major issue remains the lack of an environmental impact assessment. The land currently contributes to the local food supply chain. If the land is lost to food production, imports may increase resulting in longer transport chains and – critically – higher carbon emission levels. Storing carbon – like burying nuclear waste – simply pushes a problem onto the next generation.

The key to improving the environment is to reduce carbon emissions. Even the government seemed to recognise this, with its initiative yesterday aimed at replacing gas boilers with heat pumps and other benign energy sources.

Eco centre

The Eco centre is the small business facility at Clifton Moor which was promoted by the Council some 15 years ago. It was provided via a “design and build” contract on Council owned land.

Occupation levels have been encouraging although usually reflecting the general state of the economy. There are 63 individual units there. The Council currently leases back the centre and has managed the facility since 2015.  The rent paid by tenant contributions is claimed to offset the current running costs.

Now officials are recommending that the Council spends £3.9 million buying out the interests of the owner of the building. The Council is not revealing how its business case figures stack up, but it claims that it may generate additional income by fitting PV (solar) panels on the roof.

Judged against the current economic volatility this looks like a high-risk strategy.

Guildhall

The plans for the non-listed section of the Guildhall have been an economic  “basket case” for several years. The opportunity to sell part of the building for residential, retail or hotel use represented the least risk option and should have been pursued in 2012 when the building first became empty.

Guildhall

Instead, against a background of neglect and rapidly increasing repair costs, the Council opted for a risky plan to establish a hi tech small business start-up centre. The overall viability of the plan depended on letting part of the space as a high-end restaurant. The Council said it would run the unit itself.

£20 million of taxpayers money is at risk.

Now York University, via its Science City offshoot, has apparently offered to lease the business centre space at the Guildhall. Some civic and community use would continue.  Science City has a generally good reputation and the offer to get the Council off its, self-inflicted, hook would seem to be an attractive one.

It is unclear how the success of the new enterprise would be judged. It is even less clear how the demand for City centre “incubator” space will mature in the wake of the pandemic.

The restaurant shell building will remain empty awaiting a resurgence of the local visitor economy.

The Council currently has a 9.2% minority stake in York Science Park Ltd. which it would sell.

The lease deal would be “off market” raising once again accusations of a “family and friends” approach to commercial dealings.

“Town and Gown” relations are already stressed in the wake of the pandemic and a perceived lack of accessibility for residents and visitors to the historic Kings Manor buildings in the City centre, which are currently occupied by the University.

The Council has pointedly not published updated business case figures which reflect the new offer being made as well as ongoing concerns about the cost of the renovation project..

Risk Management

On what must be one of the most risky approaches to the financial management of Council owned property, the Risk Management assessment included in the report amounts to only 7 lines of text and concentrates entirely on the planned bid for the Eco centre.

Risks, delays & cost increases as York Council struggles to manage its commercial portfolio

York Guildhall

Yesterday’s announcement that more than £15 million of infrastructure schemes had been secured in North Yorkshire over the next 18 months – with £300,000 of funding going towards the York Guildhall offices project – will have been welcomed by many.

The money comes from the Government’s “Getting Building Fund” which “aims to boost economic recovery from Covid-19”.

According to a Council spokesman, the funding will now be used “for internal fit-out works” on the business club which will occupy much of the building.

That will come as a surprise to those who thought that the agreed £20.18 million budget included all costs.  Indeed, the option approved by the Council in February 2019, specifically identified £300,000 for “fixtures, fittings and furniture”.

Council report 2019. Option 1 was agreed

It seems that the only change is that this expenditure will now be funded from general taxation.

Even with this subsidy, and assuming that all offices and the on site restaurant, are all occupied, York Council taxpayers still face an annual bill of over £500,000.

An Executive meeting which took place last week was told in an update on the Guildhall project that “additional delays have meant that it is presently considered that these additional costs cannot be contained within the agreed contingency”.

The scale of the over expenditure was not revealed.

The Guildhall is not the only commercial portfolio project to come under scrutiny.

Some independent commentators are sceptical about the timing of the Councils £2.8 million acquisition of 25/27 Coney Street. Rent levels are now dropping and with them property valuations in some high streets. Coney Street is struggling more than most.

Meanwhile large numbers of Council owned properties remain empty and unused.

These include Ashbank (empty for 8 years), 29 Castlegate (3 years), Oakhaven (4 years) and Willow House (4 years 6 months).

Willow House stands abandoned with no sign of redevelopment work starting.

We now understand that Willow House – which was advertised for sale with Sanderson Weatherall – has been withdrawn from the market. The Council turned down a £3 million offer for the prime site shortly after it became available.

None of these properties are accommodating anyone.

All are incurring maintenance and security costs for taxpayers, while at the same time attracting no Business Rates or rent income.

At a time when local authorities are on their knees financially, poor resource management is  a matter of concern.

Plea to get empty Council space ready to meet hospital needs

York Councillor Mark Warters has suggested that empty York Council owned properties should be cleared, cleaned and used to provide additional hospital space should it be necessary.

Available empty properties include the brand new James House (which was due to open this month), Oakhaven and Willow House.  The latter are former care homes.

The properties could be used to supplement existing NHS hospitals. It is possible that additional space will be required for services such as pre and post illness infection testing.

Separately, it has been suggested that the Council be ready to reintroduce regular skip visits to local neighbourhoods. These would reduce the pressures on waste collection services where staffing levels are currently under pressure.

Skips visited many estates until about 5 years ago when the service stopped.

Their return could provide an alternative if uncollected waste causes a public health concern.

The Council are recruiting waste collection drivers and loaders now. Find out more by calling 01904 554234 or visiting www.workwithyork.co.uk/jobs

Council U-Turn on Lowfields care home confirmed

As previously reported, the York Council has abandoned its plans to build a care and nursing home on the Lowfields site. It had been unable to find a development partner for its scheme.

A meeting next week will hear that the plot (on the old school footprint) will be offered for sale to private developers with the condition that they construct “extra care” independent living units there.

The Council expects to receive around £450,000 for the site.

Independent living homes are aimed at the elderly. The scheme has similarities to the Hartrigg Oaks neighbourhood on the other side of the City.

This proposal effectively takes us back to 2010 when the original plans for the site – although much smaller and retaining a large amount of green space – envisaged its use as a “care village”. The site is ideally placed for easy access to a full range of services on Front Street.

Homes would be offered on a leasehold basis and would be ideal for homeowners seeking to “downsize”.

“Communal social facilities” would be included and might be also be made available to over 55’s living in the flats and bungalows which are currently being constructed.

The Council (rightly) claims that older people want to retain their independence and that there is a general trend away for care institutions. The Council has been closing its existing elderly persons homes over recent years. Closures have included Oakhaven on York Road although this site has also been unused now for over 4 years.

Planned Lowfields Care Village 2010

The Volte-face at Lowfields will inevitably mean more delays. The Wates development is expected to be complete in 2022. Work on the independent living unit would not start until 2021.  It could be another 3 years (or longer) before construction traffic finally moves off the site.

The new plan – which is welcome if very belated – comes a few days after residents complained about the current contractors leaving generators running during the through night period. It took some time to resolve the issue.

On 24th March (7:00pm) residents are due to hear an update on the project when local Councillors hold a meeting in the Acomb Methodist Hall on Front Street. The future of the communal housing, self-build, playground, police station and doctor’s surgery parts of the plan are likely to be under considerable scrutiny.

Details of the care home report can be found by clicking here

York Council report extract March 2020

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.

Lowfields elderly persons accommodation

Report published but little progress

The Lowfields Playing Field Action Group Facebook page is reporting that the York Council is dithering over a decision on the elderly persons accommodation planned for Lowfields and for Oakhaven.

Lowfields plans in 2016

The group says,

“A new report has been published today. It concerns the use of the plot at Lowfields (and a similar site at Oakhaven) which was reserved for an elderly person home. The Council sought tenders from developers and operators for the sites but were unable to find anyone prepared to undertake the project.

The Council is now agonising about what to do next.

Lowfields care village 2011 plans

The obvious answer is to market the plot (which is brownfield land) with the only use restriction being that any development should be aimed at older people. There are a lot of elders living in large properties who are seeking to “downsize” and both sites are ideally located near amenities.

We might then get back to the Hartrigg Oaks type of development which was the preferred choice for the Lowfield site when first discussed in 2010.

If the Council continues to be indecisive, the residents can expect building works on the site to continue long after the three year target completion date”.

Report click here https://democracy.york.gov.uk/…/Lowfield%20Oakhaven%20Healt…

That was the year that was – April – June 2019

It was to be a good Spring mainly due to the efforts of volunteers across the community.

Volunteers clear up litter as part of the national Keep Britain Tidy spring campaign
Acomb Wood

Volunteer efforts also helped to conserve key environmental sites like local woodland.

Vandalised fencing

Crime levels rose with anti social behaviour once again the biggest source of complaint in sub urban areas.

Scarborough footbridge

Work progressed on a £4 million cycle/pedestrian footbridge linking the railway station to Bootham. Its opening later in the year was to highlight the fact that the City still had a long way to go before it had a comprehensive, and safe, cycle route network.

Lendal Bridge

Another bridge over the Ouse attracted comment. Corrosion on Lendal Bridge served to emphasis the on going cost of maintaining the transport infrastructure in the City

Potholes on carriageways

By far the worst aspect of the transport system was the condition of roads and paths. Potholes became more pronounced in many streets. The maintenance budget was to be increased later in the year but by then frost had already taken its toll

Full recycling containers

There was little change in the recycling rate in York. There was no lack of enthusiasm from residents who regularly filled recycling banks to the point where some overflowed.

Goal posts on Westfield Park

Some simple tasks seemed to confuse the York Council. A request for the goals posts on a local park to be repainted has been outstanding now for 2 years.

Scarborough Bridge

Another area of poor performance earlier in the year was the removal of graffiti. Following sustained criticism from residents, the Council was to completely change its graffiti removal service later in the year. Early results have been encouraging although there have been no recent prosecutions for graffiti (criminal damage).

Balfour Street trees

A self seeded tree in Balfour Street had grown to the point where it was engulfing the adjacent railings and damaging the public footpath. This represented a safety hazard. It would be two years after the problem was first reported before the tree was felled. The felling provided space for two replacement trees to be planted.

Changes made to redevelopment plans for Bowling Green site
Acomb Bowling Club
Site compound

The Council granted planning permission for the (privately owned) Acomb Bowling Club to be demolished and replaced with housing. The owners were required to make a Section 106 contribution towards replacement facilities but this money found its way into a club located in the Holgate area.

Meanwhile, without any consultation with residents, Council officials agreed that land earmarked for a library extension could be used as a site compound and spoil heap. This caused considerable annoyance to some neighbours.

The Council published details of the number of Council homes that were affected by “standing water” . The number had changed little over the years.

On a happier note, the highly successful, Knights Rugby community team organised community events during the Easter holidays.

With the local elections on the horizon the Council revealed the number of issues that had been recorded by Councillors during the previous 4 years. Mostly those who raised the most issues were the Councillors who got re-elected in May.

Labour, LibDem and Green Council candidates. Some Tories weren’t on speaking terms.

There was big choice of candidates in the local elections.

The election manifestos were more significant for what they didn’t say rather than what was proposed. The slow progress on the Community Stadium was air brushed from history, as was the escalating costs of repairing the Guildhall.

In the end, the results showed major gains for the, now 21 strong, LibDem Group who subsequently formed a partnership with the Greens to run the Council.

The Tories fell to their second worst election result ever while Labour made only modest gains.

A few weeks later the LibDems topped the poll in the Euro elections in the City beating off a challenge from the BREXIT party. It was to be a different picture though later in the year when views polarised during an unexpected General Election campaign.

Euro election results June 2019
Castlegate

The Council was criticised for the large number of commercial properties which it owned and which had been left empty. These included former elderly persons homes like Oakhaven & Willow House together with offices like those on Castlegate. The properties were costing taxpayers several hundreds of thousands of pounds each year in lost rent income and maintenance costs.

Camera Van

The Police and Crime Commissioner was criticised for an over reliance on income from speed camera vans. The 6 vans concentrated on trunk roads apparently because that was where the greatest number of offenders could be caught and fined. Critics said that accident and average speed trends on monitored roads should be published. This would allow the the success of the initiative to be judged

Woodthorpe Post Office Closure

It wasn’t just the central Post Office that was under threat. The Woodthorpe sub Post Office closed suddenly.

Minster precinct

A new neighbourhood plan covering the area around the Minster was published. It generally received a positive response.

Hollyrood Drive
Front Street
A59 entrance to the City

By late May it had become clear that something was seriously amiss with street public service standards. Hedges and trees were obstructing paths. Weeds scared key entrances to the City. It would later become clear that the weed killing programme had simply not taken place on many roads. There would be some improvements towards the end of the year but several issues were never fully resolved.

Work started on demolishing Windsor House
York staged its first County Cricket match for over 100 years
…..and the Community Stadium pitch started to grow.

It became clear that the new York Community Stadium would not be completed by the final, final deadline on June. A later Autumn opening date was also to pass with key Rugby matches having to be rescheduled to the Bootham Crescent ground.

Council report.

There were also ongoing concerns about the viability of some of the facilities to be provided as part of the stadium deal. It seemed that the Council were now underwriting more of the risk on the commercial side of the development

Meanwhile, the cost of providing new football pitches for a Bishopthorpe based football team was revealed to be nearly £1.5 million

The cost included a high specification clubhouse.

Most of the funding was to come from taxpayers.

What annoyed some residents were claims by officials that the facility was a replacement for the playing fields being built on at Lowfields. It was pointed out that the new site (near the York College) was some 3 miles from Lowfields and lacked a direct public transport link.

Lowfields care home set to be ditched

It looks increasingly likely that the Council will abandon its attempt to find a developer who is prepared to provide and run an elderly persons care home on the Lowfields site.

Current Lowfield development plan

Part of the old school building section of the site has been reserved for the provision of a new care home since 2010.

It was announced earlier in the year that no tenders had been received for provision of the home

The Councils own resources are tied up in other projects including the Lincoln Court redevelopment (see below).

A report to a meeting next week says that the greatest demand for older people is for independent living one bedroomed flats and bungalows. Some of these are already schedule to be built at Lowfields but it seems that more may now be provided on the reserved care home site.

Such a decision would be in line with the plans announced in 2010 but it is unlikely to impress those who have been affected by the indecision of the last 10 years. .

A Council report published yesterday says,

The planning approval for the Lowfield Green development includes outline approval for an 80-bed care home. It had originally been envisioned that a care home developer would be procured to build on the site, with the Council buying 25 dementia and Nursing care beds back at the Council’s Actual Cost of Care rates.

A procurement exercise to deliver this failed to attract any compliant bids.

At a similar time, Officers were completing research with our older residents about their accommodation preferences.

This research highlights residents desire to live independently with care and support available where needed. Officers have since been working to establish how best to develop Older Persons’ Accommodation on the site, which will support those with care needs and also complement the surrounding high-quality mixed tenure accommodation.

A report is expected to be presented to the executive in spring 2020”.

Care home site

The change of approach is the latest in a series of reverses which have affected the controversial development. Residents strongly opposed building on the sports pitch at the site.

The Council responded by offering inducements including a local Police station and health centre. Neither materialised.

Plans for a “communal” housing development are also in delay.

Work on building houses on the sports pitch section of the site are expected to start in January, although its is now thought that building works, across the whole site, may continue for 5 years or longer.  

We revealed yesterday that the Council is also set to abandon its plans to build a new care home on the Oakhaven site.

Empty Council properties

The York Councils decision to spend over £2 million adding further properties to its investment portfolio has produced a backlash.

Critics have pointed to the ongoing delays in bring empty properties into use. Six months ago, a Freedom of information (FOI) request revealed a long list of under-used Council buildings. These included Oakhaven, Ashbank, Willow House, the Guildhall and, of course, 29 Castlegate.

The latter is one of the prime properties in the City centre and was valued at £575,000 in 2016. Since then there have been further increases in property prices in the City.

A further FOI tried to discover what progress has been made in selling the property following a decision by the York Civic Trust to pull out of a purchase deal 12 months ago. The FOI has been rejected (see right) on the grounds that there are ongoing commercial discussions taking place. It fails to reveal who is talking to whom about the empty property. No attempt has been made to let the property for temporary use in the busy Christmas period (it includes a frontage onto the Coppergate shopping centre).

Council response to FOI request

At last week’s Executive meeting, Councillors were challenged over their stewardship of the Council’s property estate.

They responded by claiming that the portfolio was “worth £335m and produced an income of £5.8m a year”.

This claim has prompted a further FOI request. A local resident now wants to see a list of all Council owned commercial properties, their value and the net income that each produces.

This is the kind of information that should be routinely provided for the Councils “scrutiny” committee. A six monthly review of investment returns is the least that taxpayers would expect to be published for public review.

Sadly, this no longer happens at the York Council.

Willow House

The delays in disposing of empty property is now a major issue for the authority. It some cases there may be good reasons for the delays but, if so, then there must be more transparency about the process*.

If the Council cannot effectively manage its estate, then there are companies in the City who would be delighted to help.   

*The Council has agreed to receive a staffing report on a 6-monthly basis. The reports will cover FTE numbers, Equality Data, Absence and Well Being, Starters and Leavers, reasons for leaving (i.e. retirement, redundancy, dismissal, settlement agreement) and Agency staff numbers.

More delays at Lowfield as “Yorspace” scheme struggles to find investors

Looks like there will be more delays on the Lowfield project as the communal housing section of the scheme has failed to attract sufficient investors.

It could mean the project will take even longer to complete.

It is not clear whether the Council and Yorspace have exchanged contracts for the sale (at a discount value) of the land in question.

The Councils track record on asset use is being increasingly criticised on social media with a deals for the sale of Willow House and 29 Castlegate (both empty for over 3 years) still not concluded

The Oakhaven building in Acomb is also still unused.

Given the claims made by Council leaders about addressing housing need urgently, the dithering on these projects is difficult to justify.

The Council is providing little useful update information on their Lowfields overall development timetable.

. Westfield Ward Councillors have been asked to “call in” the proposal which would see the perimeter railings removed. The local Lowfields Action Group say they have had no response to their enquiries about the plan.