Council urges Government to ‘Back York’ and enable the city to lead recovery in the region

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With the Council continuing to face significant financial challenges, City of York Council has stepped up its regional and national lobbying efforts.

The lobbying will urge the Government to seize the opportunities that are unique to York and make the city an ‘exemplar’ of driving recovery.

Since the pandemic was declared, the Council has seen demand for services increase, whilst at the same time, income has considerably fallen.  Early indications suggest that the Council is facing a £23 million* shortfall in its budget.  Over recent months, in addition to Government support, the Council has prioritised resources to support the most vulnerable in the city, as well as invested over £2 million to create local emergency funds to support the city’s businesses and residents facing financial hardship.

There are opportunities unique to York that if taken will help kick-start the economic recovery of the region. Recently it was agreed that the Council, with its partners, would develop a 10-year City Plan to enable York and the region to build back better by drawing on the city’s strengths; from utilising the biotech industry in the city, to seizing the once in a lifetime regeneration opportunity in York Central.  It is clear that, with further funding, York can go far in driving the recovery of our city and region.

That is why to truly build back better, City of York Council is urging the Government to make York an exemplar of how to lead ‘recovery’ in the North of England and the funding needed to unlock York’s potential and build on the work already taking place in the city.  With additional funding, City of York Council could:

  • Make £25 million available to further support local businesses in adapting to the crisis;
  • Enhance York’s world-renowned culture, creativity and heritage by making extra funding available to support local museums, libraries, arts and more;
  • Scale up the support on offer to residents facing financial hardship, particularly through the use of the York Financial Assistance Scheme;
  • Provide much needed funding for small charities and voluntary sector organisations who do not have the resources to fundraise themselves;
  • Speed up the delivery of critical regeneration projects and citywide infrastructure schemes, from York Central, to the dualling of York Outer Ring Road.

The campaign will support and link up with the work of other organisations and Councils who are lobbying for further funding for local authorities, including the Local Government Association, the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, IPPR North, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and more. As part of the campaign, City of York Council will also be producing a submission to the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, outlining the financial challenges for the Council, and highlighting the opportunities to invest in the city in partnership with the Government.

*The Council has not updated its budget forecast. Most of the speculative income loss relates to lower Council Tax and Business Rate income, although car parking income is down (and likely to remain so as long as parts of popular car parks remain bollarded off). The Council still intends to borrow increasing amounts of money and has made no announcements regarding any savings strategy.

York Council spent £4.5 million on buying commercial property last year including £2.8 million on 25/27 Coney Street

Community Stadium not completed, Guildhall business club costs rising

The Council has revealed, in the small print of a report to a meeting taking place this week, that “as part of the council’s response to the COVID_19 pandemic all major procurements are on hold in the short term”. This comes as no surprise with the Castle/Piccadilly development one of these projects now shelved

Council progress report July 2020

The Council has expected to recover its investment there using “long term revenue from commercial space”. Speculative building of that sort looks to be that thing of the past for a few years at least.

The same report reveals for the first time that, late last year, the Council purchased 25-27 Coney Street for just under £2.85 million This is the block containing the Holland and Barrett store. Just how the rent freeze during the health scare will affect income from this and similar commercial property investments is not explained in the Council report. Generally speaking, in the long run, the City has always benefited from civic investment in land and property ownership. Values in the past have always risen faster than inflation. In the short term, though, such purchases may place additional burdens on taxpayers.

25-27 Coney Street

There may be a bigger issue emerging at the Guildhall where delays have caused an escalation in the cost of the £20 million renovation and remodelling project. The report is, however, still claiming that the hugely expensive project will provide “a comprehensively refurbished and renewed Guildhall complex to provide a contemporary business venue for the City, the works include a green energy solution and dramatically improved facilities for community, civic and council use, with a riverside restaurant unit alongside”. Time will tell.

The report confirms that the “Community Stadium” is still a “live building site”.  “All certification and testing will only recommence once Government allows the gathering of people to resume, but only at that point. When all contractors and partners are able to return safely to the site to fully complete the works, they will. Only at that point can the Stadium look to hold test events required and open thereafter”. There is no comment in the report about the commercial and community uses planned for the site or the likely timescales for bringing all spaces into use.

Anyone’s guess when the Community Stadium complex will be fully occupied

Without test events being possible, it now seems unlikely that the football or rugby clubs will be able to play at the stadium from September (the likely start of the National League football season) .

York Council breaks even, but only after calling on £1.9 million from reserves

The York Council exceeded its expenditure budget during the last financial year by nearly £2 million..

Road repair programme failed last year

It was able to fill the gap by drawing on £1/2 million from its contingency allocation. It also raided its reserves to find an additional £1.4 million which it had previously earmarked for pay and pensioners liabilities. The final £309,000, held to repay unlawfully issued fines connected to the Lendal Bridge closure, was also utilised.

While this juggling of funds allowed the authority to emerge with a £128,000 surplus on its 2019/20 £123 million budget, the moves camouflaged large overspends on Education and Social Care. Promised efficiencies there failed to materialise.

The £1.5 million overspend by the Education department will no doubt result in a renewed focus on inessential expenditure. One trenchant “citizen auditor” has reported finding that the department apparently spent £10,000 renting rooms at a luxury hotel and golf complex in Humberside last year. The nature of the activity is being investigated.

Clearly the Council will now need to clamp down on anything other than essential expenditure.

The Council faces a new multi-million pound shortfall on its income this year as a result of the Coronavirus epidemic. It will not be able to call on the above reserves again but does have a buffer provided by the £7.4 million held in general reserves.

A meeting to discuss the report takes place on Thursday

Quality of Public Services in York

The Council has also released some information on public service quality. Unfortunately, many of the figures are not up to date. There is likely to be some cynicism about some of the results with only 20% of road surfaces in the City classified as “poor” or “very poor” by Council officials!

York Council performance indicators

Audit report raises concerns about York Council data security

A report due to be considered by a Council committee next week reveals continuing concerns about the security of personal data held by the Council.

The auditor says,

Whilst good progress continues to be made (on Information Security & GDPR) , further improvements are required to ensure compliance with the council’s policies for handling and storing personal and confidential information. There are also a number of issues still outstanding, relating to actions agreed in July 2019, following a GDPR readiness audit. These actions relate to policies, guidance, contract clauses; the information asset register; privacy notices; mandatory data protection training; management information on data security incidents”.

No further details are provided and the level of vulnerability of Council customers to data breaches is not explored.

On the impact of Coronavirus on the Councils activities the auditor is similarly vague. He says,

This opinion is however qualified, in light of the current coronavirus pandemic and the impact of this on the council. The opinion is based on internal audit work undertaken, and substantially completed, prior to emergency measures being implemented as a result of the pandemic.

These measures have resulted in a significant level of strain being placed on normal procedures and control arrangements. The level of impact is also changing as the situation develops.

 It is therefore not possible to quantify the additional risk arising from the current short term measures or the overall impact on the framework of governance, risk management and control”.

NB. Another report, to the same meeting, claims to address the impact of the health crisis on the Councils activities. Unfortunately, it adds little to what has already been published and singularly fails to quantify the exposure that the Councils projects and revenue finance actually face.

£1/4 million York Council expenditure so far on advertising and publicity during COVID crisis

City of York Council website home page – City of York Council

The York Council spent £285,667 on advertising and publicity during the period from the beginning on February to the end of May.

The figures for June are not yet published on the “Open Data” web site.

Of the total expenditure £189,057 was spent during May.

The largest supplier was Platinum Print of Harrogate who lodged bills totalling £137,090 last month.

Royal Mail charged £6982 to deliver Council newsletters.

The Council didn’t advertise on Minster FM, the local commercial radio station. It spent £1,500 in May with “York Mix”. There were also regular payments to The York Press.

The Councils communications strategy has been criticised for being slow to get started, confusingly complex and unnecessarily repetitive.  Some key information about home deliveries was never circulated.

It is likely that, when the COVID crisis is over, an inquiry into what has been spent, why and with what authority will be launched.

Sign of the times

It looks like the traditional figure signposts on the City centre will start to disappear shortly.

New direction sign in foreground. Old finger sign in background

The project to replace them with a “modern” equivalent could cost taxpayers £350,000 with a similar matching contribution coming from the York Bid.

Controversial in many ways, the timing of the expenditure looks even more suspect against the background  of a City centre now desperately trying to attract local shoppers.

The future off the redundant finger signposts has been highlighted by a campaigning Councillor. He wants to repurpose the posts for use in sub-urban York and in the surrounding villages.

This seems like a sound idea.

A new cast iron post can cost as much as £4,300 and repurposing existing signs would not only be cheaper but would also meet the Council’s environmental objectives.

Arguably the finger signs are also less visually intrusive designed as they were to complement Conservation Areas.

So what will happen to the recovered posts?

No one seems to know.

There are many locations – not least the routes of the public rights of way made even more popular for exercise during lock-down – which would benefit from better way marking.

Consigning the iron posts to the scrap heap would add insensitivity to the poor judgement of the original decision.  

York Council wants to borrow more money

The York Council leadership has written to the government asking for restrictions on borrowing to be eased.

The request comes in the wake of claims that the City faces a £24 million black hole in its finances.  The Council was urged last week to provide more details of the deficit but has so far failed to do so.

The only information available to the public was published prior to the last executive committee meeting at the beginning of May.  This showed that much of the deficit as made up of Council Tax and Rates income defaults although £10.9million was the assumed cost of extra social care.

Council budget deficit as at 7th May 2020

No savings for reduced travel, energy and materials costs were included.

Now Council Leader Keith Aspden has written to Local Government Minister Robert Jenrick making a case for government support.

Perhaps surprisingly the letter concentrates on the Councils borrowing powers. The present Council leadership committed to a £560 million investment programme only a few weeks ago and is now agonising about how much it can actually deliver in the new financial climate.

It has separately said that it will press on with the York Central development although many will feel that some of the basic assumptions about office and retail growth are now redundant. It seems the best – most fanciful – hope is that the government will agree to move the House of Lords to the site.

The Council leadership also says that it wants a 2 year moratorium on making a “minimum revenue provision” in its budget. This is the funding set aside to repay interest and principal repayments on borrowing. The implication of not paying off this debt (most is borrowed over a 20 year period) could be to push a bow wave of debt onto future generations.

Council letter to government 18th May 2020

This tactical approach is also exposed by another request in the letter.

The Council wants to borrow to cover revenue expenditure – a bit like taking out a bank loan to buy a jar of jam.

The Council goes on to ask for the suspension of S114 “so that struggling Councils don’t have to deliver a balanced budget in the medium term”. 

Section 114 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 requires the Chief Finance Officer, in consultation with the council’s monitoring officer, to report to all the authority’s members if there is, or is likely to be, an unbalanced budget. In practice, this is most likely to be required in a situation in which reserves have become depleted and it is forecast that the council will not have the resources to meet its expenditure in a particular financial year. A full council meeting must then take place within 21 days to consider the notice. In the meantime, no new agreements involving spending can be entered into.

Many will feel that issues like these do require full and public debate. That will involve ensuring that all Councillors and taxpayers are alerted to [problems at the earliest opportunity.

The Council could make a start by providing a candid and full disclosure of its financial position.

It should then go on to review its financial strategy and options in a way that promotes understanding by local residents.

Government boost for ailing York highways

City of York Council is getting a £5.592 million grant from the government to be spent on road maintenance. It would effectively double this years resurfacing and repair budget, although the phasing of the grant hasn’t been confirmed.

York residents say the worse public service in the City is road repairs

When the Council published its repairs budget a few weeks ago it attracted criticism as many paths and carriageways – although uneven and potentially hazardous – were omitted from the programme.

The new money should allow the Council to begin to restore the highways network to standards last seen in the previous decade.

How quickly additional resurfacing capacity can be made available by the Council and its contractors remains to be seen.

We hope that the focus will be on large scale patching and complete carriageway resurfacing schemes, avoiding the prospect of hastily filled potholes reappearing when bad weather returns.

West York snubbed in cycling budget hand out

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

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

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

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

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

No action to tackle public footpath ponding

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

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

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

Cycle margin leveling would encourage more cycling

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

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

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

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

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

Funding to be fast tracked to support York residents through the impact of coronavirus

Local ward funding is to be accelerated and used flexibly to help community organisations respond to local needs during the outbreak of coronavirus. 

This source of funding is ideal for supporting local charities, community groups and other agencies delivering the support to residents in need.

Ward Councillors are being encouraged to work with their communities to identify needs and solutions and use their ward budgets accordingly. The Council will be as flexible and as responsive as we can in approving expenditure, so long as it complies with the council’s financial regulations.

The Council will be able to process applications very quickly to ensure that funding can be with the relevant community organisation immediately for use to support local residents.

Any groups interested in applying for ward funding should go to www.york.gov.uk/WardGrantApplications to submit their application. To find out more, contact the Council’s Communities team, email: shapingneighbourhoods@york.gov.uk or telephone: 01904 551832.

Cllr Darryl Smalley, Executive Member for Culture, Leisure and Communities at City of York Council, said:

City of York Council is doing everything possible respond to the current situation, and the latest part of this is ensuring that every penny possible goes to those on the frontline in the coming weeks.

“Ward Councillors have been urged to consider how the ward budgets, particularly the Safer Communities Fund, can be deployed in a way that supports their communities through Coronavirus.

Ward committee funding will be as flexible as possible and any funds granted for date-specific activities will be extended until it is safe for them to be held.”