“Act in haste, repent at leisure” time for York Council transport changes

Cycling numbers decline in York

It looks like more of the road restrictions introduced in the summer, as part of the Councils reaction to the COVID crisis, will be dropped.

The most criticised restriction – closure of Bishopthorpe Road –  was scrapped a couple of months ago, although officials are now threatening to revive the idea as part of “a review of the Local Transport Plan”.

A report to a meeting taking place next week provides an insight into how travel habits have changed in the City since COVID struck.

The most recent monitoring data, for September, shows that AM peak traffic volumes are around 80% of pre-lockdown, with the PM peak around 85% of pre-lockdown levels. Between the peaks, and at weekends, vehicle trips are down by around 5-10%. Bus use is 50-60% of pre-lockdown levels.

There is some bad news for the cycling lobby.

“Cycling levels appear to have fallen by around 30% in the peaks, whilst interpeak levels are not changed in comparison to the same period last year. It is likely that fewer people are commuting to and from work by bike or cycling to the railway station for onward travel by train, offset by higher levels of exercise/ leisure cycling”.

The report pointedly fails to comment on pollution and air quality levels in the City. These continue to be at record low levels (so probably don’t suit a doom and gloom narrative).

click to access

Several of the “emergency” schemes involved little more than putting out more traffic cones. Those in the Marygate and Monk Bar car park were largely unnecessary. The £10,000 a month taxi shuttle service for disabled people from the latter continues to run although it is little used. Most of the 40 parking spaces lost at Marygate are set to be restored as part of a new scheme to install a permanent cycle path link to Bootham.

Of the others, the report recommends

  • The temporary one way restriction on Coppergate is extended
  • The temporary cycle lane at Castle Mills Bridge on Tower Street is removed (only 3% of users are cyclists and there is an alternative, off road, route along the riverside)
  • The proposed scheme for improvements to York’s North – South cycle route is taken forward to implementation, with a proposed restriction on Navigation Road
  • The proposed scheme for improvements to cycle lanes on Bootham is taken forward to implementation, with a consultation commenced on the rest of the Shipton Road cycle lane scheme, including the element which would require changes to residents’ parking on parts of Bootham.
North – South cycle route

The Council has not heard whether its plea for funding a further tranche of works will be approved. These include the very expensive, but desirable, cycle bridge over the river and railway on the A1237 as well as some more eccentric ideas (a cycle path for Dunnington to the City centre).  

Despite the lack of obvious government enthusiasm for the Councils plans, the authority intends to spend £40,000 on further development of the ideas.

As we have said many times, one of the main criticisms of the Councils transport polices over the last 12 months has been its total insensitivity to the state of repair of the existing infrastructure.

Infrastructure is decaying

That is particularly true of cycle paths many of which are obstructed by potholes, weeds, and hedges. White lines have worn away, signage has faded and, in some cases, disappeared altogether.

It is that neglect that is limiting the expansion of walking and cycling numbers in the City.

Capital expenditure (funded by borrowing) is limited to providing or improving assets with an extended lifespan. Resurfacing existing paths could fall within that definition.

The suspicion is that the executive Councillors favour high profile vanity projects simply because they provide an opportunity for a good “Photo Op”.

The reduction in the numbers cycling is one symptom of poor prioritisation

29 Castlegate remains empty

29 Castlegate – £1/4 million repair bill

One of the properties owned by the Council which has remained empty and unused for a long period of time – 29 Castlegate – looks like it will remain so indefinitely. Budget provision to upgrade the property – which occupies a key position next to Fairfax House – is being taken out of this year’s programme.

Apparently a decision, on the future of the building, will be taken at a meeting next month.

The property, which most recently accommodated a youth support centre, was to have been sold, with the York Civic Trust the most likely occupant. That deal fell through amidst claims that the Council were not getting “best value” for the property.

 The Council now says that the refurbishment work cannot start until the next financial year. £270,000 has been allocated for repairs to the building

It remains unclear why the Council did not try to sell the property on the open market and why no attempt has been made to find at least a temporary use for what is a prime site.

Council could face £2.7 million COVID overspend

The York Council has revised down the impact that the pandemic may have on its budget this year.

It had previously talked of a £20 million deficit.

This is now much less following some government funding including additional support for the loss of income from fees and charges. The Government will fund 75% of any loss

Nevertheless, the Council believes that it may have to eat into its £7 million reserves to balance the books this year. Next year may be even more challenging with Council Tax and Rates income set to fall.

A list of the pressures on the Councils budget can be read by clicking here

The Council has not tabulated the “mitigation” measures that it is taking to reduce expenditure.

There has been increased expenditure on helping the elderly and disabled. The work of volunteers has been praised by the Council.

A report being considered next week says, “The Council has remained committed to our Home First approach to managing people’s recovery, avoiding placements in residential and nursing care whenever possible. However the impact of COVID-19 and the associated lockdown has meant that more people than we had planned for have needed social care funded through the council. This together with increasing mental health referrals, the increased cost of care and the 4 more complex needs of those the council is supporting has resulted in increased pressure on the adult social care budget”.

Council slow to repair empty Council homes.

One of the largest drops in performance is in re-letting empty Council homes. This has increased from 37 days at the end of March 2020 to 59 days at the end of June 2020. Delays to repairs are still a major problems with this service and so far the Council are choosing not offer work to local tradesmen many of whom would the opportunity.

The published performance results (click) don’t provide information on key COVID measures (e.g. traffic and cycling levels).

“We won’t close Castle car park” pledge by Council

…..but they might!

A report on the Castle Gateway regeneration project published today says that the scheme should go ahead but it says, “there are no plans to close Castle Car Park until suitable replacement parking is available”.  

Castle car park has been very busy in rent months

However, the construction of a multi-story alternative on the St George site will be shelved.

The Council’s Executive are being recommended to agree to the  “recommencement of the paused procurement of a construction contractor to undertake the design and subsequent construction of the proposed apartments, pedestrian/cycle bridge and riverside park at Castle Mills

They’re also being asked to approve the design and submission of planning applications for a “high quality public realm scheme on Castle Car Park and Eye of York” while a decision on the future of the site at 17-21 Piccadilly – currently the home of the Spark container village – will be delayed until next summer.

“Spark York who have resolved their outstanding planning issues and have a lease until early 2022″.

York Council report 24th Sept 2020

The immediate additional financial commitment for the Council will be £1.5 million.  In total the project cost – which was to be funded by borrowing – was £46 million. This would generate additional interest payments of around £1 million per year which would have to come out of what is now an overcommitted revenue budget.

In effect, there will be further cuts in public service standards across the City.

 It was hoped that the borrowing would be paid off through the sale of flats which would be built on the former Castle Mills car park site. However, there was still a funding deficit of £4.7 million and no resources were allocated for turning the Castle car park into “a world class open space”.

The Castle car park provides over £1 million a year in income for the Council.

The Council has already spent £2.2 million on consultation and design activities for the project.

In a separate report the Council has been warned about the risks to local public services

The report fails to put the scheme costs into the context of the overall Council capital and revenue budget position.

An oddly detached from reality section of the report claims that the “Castle Gateway masterplan is a “significant opportunity to drive the city’s response to Covid-19 due to the:

  • Focus on sustainable transport to create new key pedestrian and cycle routes
  • Reduction of vehicle journeys inside the inner ring road through the closure of Castle car park
  • Creation of significant new public realm
  • Enhanced cultural and heritage offer and the creation of a new major event space – building on the city’s unique selling points and expanding the capacity to attract responsible tourism to support the city’s economy
  • Regeneration and investment in rundown parts of the city  Development of new city centre homes, including new affordable and council housing
  • Capacity to reinvigorate the economy by supporting jobs in the construction sector”

So we have the Benito Mussolini solution to unemployment emerging. Borrowing to fund massive public works contracts which – in the case of the bridge and park – will have no short-term economic benefits (other than perhaps for a handful of the green socialist, city centre dwelling, elite).

Businesses dependent on those who choose to use, because of the health crisis, personal transport when they visit the City, will lose out.

We need to be careful with our commentary.

“El Duce” gained a reputation for having errant stationmasters shot if trains didn’t run on time.

The lowest risk part of the scheme maybe the construction of the blocks of flats. Maybe that could continue, even though rising unemployment, and reducing business rate income, could compromise the Council’s ability to service the planned borrowing.

On balance, the Council really should decide to pause the project for 18 months and review it when the health crisis is over.

To do anything else could be very risky.  

York Museums Trust: £1.95m bailout bid

Council taxpayers are to be asked to provide guarantees of up to £1.95 million in financial support as the York Museums Trust (YMT) project a budget deficit.

Castle Museum

According to figures being considered by the Council next week the Trust, – which manages the Yorkshire & Castle Museums as well as the Art Gallery, – faces a £1.54 million deficit this year.

It has already made provision for £200,000 in redundancy costs. A 20% reduction in staffing is planned. The Arts Council have provided an emergency grant of £412,000.

£3.5 million of the Trust’s annual income comes from admission charges. These have largely dried up as a result of the COVID health scare.

The report says;

Covid-19 therefore creates an immediate financial threat to YMT’s
continued existence and the trustees have now logged a serious
incident report with the Charities Commission reflecting the fact that
they will require financial support in order to remain a going concern.
Without this they will run out of cash in January 2021.

Furthermore, the ongoing financial position will remain difficult into 21/22 since surveys of visitors undertaken nationally by the Association of Large
Visitor Attractions suggest that only 20% of the previous audience
numbers will be received on reopening.

If the Trust folds, then the museums – and most liabilities – would revert to the Council. It is estimated that, in such a scenario, the Council would face additional annual expenditure of around £2 million a year.

YMT has requested revenue funding support of £1.35m this year and up to £600k next year in order to keep York’s attractions open and to continue looking after the collections. This request reflects the fact that, as a charity, YMT are required to hold a level of financial reserves.

The York Museums Trust was founded in 2002 by the then Labour controlled Council. It currently receives an annual subsidy of £300,000 from York taxpayers.

The Yorkshire Museum is expected to remain closed until next March. The Art Gallery and Castle Museum (bookings only) have reopened.

NB. The YMT management were criticised during the lock-down period for failing to promptly reopen the Museum Gardens for use by residents. The gardens were one of the few open spaces available for socially distant exercise in the City centre.

Museum Gardens were slow to reopen

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

money GIF

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.