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.

Theatre Royal £500,000 Council grant decision next week – still few details available

The York Council is expected next week to confirm an additional grant of £1/2 million to the Theatre Royal.

The plan – which will be classified as “capital expenditure” and will increase the Councils already large capital debt – was revealed during the recent budget debate.

The report to the decision meeting which take place on 16th March is unsatisfactory in several respects. It fails to include essential information about the Theatres financial performance.

As a minimum the 2018/19 outturn, the 2019/20 and the (draft) 2020/21 budget should be made public. At the moment taxpayers have no idea whether the Theatre is profitable or not (probably not!).

There is no detail of the Theatres medium term business plans. There is no comment from the York Councillors (Crawshaw, Daubeney, Mason) who are supposed to look after the Council and residents’ financial interests on the Theatre Board

In 2015 the Council decided to sell the Theatre Royal building to the York Conservation Trust for £1. The Trust is a benign body which agree to make a major investment in essential repairs. The Council said that it planned to stop its annual support grant to the Theatre but instead agreed to make a contribution of £770,000 towards a £4.1 million restoration project. This project was intended to make the Theatre self-supporting.  The Council’s responsible executive member told the York Press in February 2016 “This funding agreement will strengthen York Theatre Royal’s sustainability for the future”

Theatre Royal refurbishment 2016

The refurbishment overran its timescale and the Theatre was effectively closed for nearly a year.

The most worrying aspect of the new deal is the decision to borrow money to fund it. The Council report says that the £500,000 borrowing will cost taxpayers “£35,000 a year” in interest charges and principal repayments. Only if the Council borrows the money over a 20 year term. Some of the proposed expenditure (IT, box office software) will be on items with an expected lifetime of less than 7 years. Borrowing money over a period longer than the life of an asset would be financial madness.

A more realistic borrowing time-frame would be 10 years, meaning taxpayers would be committed to ongoing payments of around £65,000 a year. 

NB The Council aggregates all its borrowing requirements and currently enjoys interest payments on its borrowings of less than 5%

Then there is the question of whether more investment will be sought in 4 years time?

The Council should not agree the expenditure without publishing a lot more information about the financial trajectory for the Theatre.

In the event of it ceasing trading, most of the taxpayer investment would be unrecoverable.

The demise of the Rose Theatre last year has already left the York taxpayer with a £40,000 plus bill.

It could be viewed by the Council as a timely warning about the need for prudent and well informed decisions.

Council Budget passed

The York Council approved the LibDem/Green budget last night

In an unconnected development, the Council is today inviting residents to sign up for FREE suicide prevention training workshops in the City

People are being encouraged to sign up for free suicide prevention training workshops in York next month as part of the #TalkSuicide campaign from local NHS and council organisations.

The Humber, Coast and Vale Health and Care Partnership is hosting two workshops in York on Tuesday, 10th March 2020 at Mariott Room, York Library, Library Square, York YO1 7DS – and members of the public are invited to attend to learn life-saving skills.

These one-hour workshops, which will run between 9.30am-10.30am and 11am-12pm, are free to attend but it is essential to register beforehand. You can register at bit.ly/talksuicideyork.

There were 6,507 registered suicides in the UK in 2018 – which amounts to one death by suicide every 80 minutes. Yorkshire and Humber had some of the highest rates of suicide in England in 2018.

The suicide prevention workshops will be group training sessions, including interactive video-based training from the Zero Suicide Alliance and discussion with people who work in suicide prevention within our local community. Free refreshments will be available.

Completing the training at the workshop will help you to:

  • Identify the signs of when someone might be suffering from suicidal thoughts.
  • Feel comfortable speaking out about suicide in a supportive manner. 
  • Signpost anyone suffering from suicidal thoughts to the correct services and support. 

The workshops are part of the Partnership’s #TalkSuicide campaign, which aims to reduce the stigma around talking about suicide by raising awareness about suicide in our communities and encouraging our people to complete suicide prevention training.

Jo Kent, Suicide Prevention Lead for the Humber, Coast and Vale Health and Care Partnership, said: “Every death by suicide is a tragedy and in Humber, Coast and Vale we are working collaboratively with the NHS, councils, voluntary organisations and other groups to prevent suicides from happening in our communities.

“The suicide prevention training is integral to this work as those who complete the training can make a real difference in their communities, simply by being better placed to identify those people who might be suicidal, and knowing what to say to them and signposting them to the most appropriate services.

“We want to train as many people as possible in our communities so if you can spare an hour on the morning of Tuesday, 10th March please register for one of the free suicide prevention training workshops taking place in York – the skills you learn could help you save someone’s life in the future.”

Can’t attend either of the York workshops? Workshops are also being held in Scarborough, Beverley, Hull, Scunthorpe and Grimsby during March. Visit talksuicide.co.uk to find out when these workshops are taking place.

You can also complete the training on the talksuicide.co.uk website, where you can also find out more about the #TalkSuicide campaign.

More graffiti

The Council will decide today whether to extend its graffiti removal service to include utility boxes. We hope that they will. The professions service introduced 4 moths ago has made a major diffidence to the appearance of parts of the City.

But we would like to see progress made in prosecuting those responsible. It should not be up to taxpayers (or utility company customers) to fund clean ups like these.

Some Councillors apparently want to use “community payback” to do the graffiti removal. From time to time, this might be an option but it does depend on a steady supply of offenders and there would be a supervision cost.

Probably best to give someone a full time job. There are plenty of other clean up tasks to do if, as we hope, graffiti volumes fall..

York Council budget set to be agreed tomorrow (Thursday)

The Council will confirm its budget for the forthcoming year at a meeting tomorrow. A tax increase of nearly 4 % is likely with only the two Tory Councillors favouring a slightly lower hike (3.5%).

Most of the tax increase will be spent on the care of the elderly.

Budget Council meetings are an opportunity for the ruling party (ies) to explain more about their plans. This year, these include, generally welcomed, extra investment in street level services including road repairs, extra litter /poop scoop bins, better tree maintenance, a review of waste collection (including plastics/food waste), additional staffing on waste collection rounds, improved city centre cleaning, more effective weed control plus more for  crime prevention.

More controversially there is a big increase in the “capital” programme which will involve borrowing more money.

Most attention at the meeting will focus on the alternative proposed by the Labour opposition. They support the planned tax increase.

As always, opposition parties enjoy the luxury of proposing polices that they won’t have to implement. So, Labour roll out again the ban on “non-essential car journeys” within the City Walls.

Packaged within their plan is £40,000 for “early evening family friendly activities in the city centre”, £30,000 for a good employer charter (including “union recognition”),  £70,000 “for substance misuse” (they probably mean reducing the problem), £75,000 for the one year funding of a  “Children’s Commissioner” and £50,000 for anti-fly tipping CCTV cameras.

Cuts would be made by reducing the (recently established) graffiti removal service, crime prevention (safer communities) work An apprenticeship post would be deleted and £100,000 spent on developing a “voluntary” tourist tax.

They want to scrap the £270,000 scheme to modernise 29 Castlegate (but don’t say what they would do with the empty property or indeed with the other half dozen or so unused properties that the Council owns in the City).

Their “big idea” is the reversal of the inflation linked 2.5% increase in crematorium charges, although they routinely increased the charges when they were last in power.

The Tory amendment is doomed as they only two of the 47 members.

But they gamely try the populist route with promises to collect dead Christmas trees, improve bus services and freeze car parking charges. Members pay would be reduced as would the number of scrutiny committees. £100,000 would be lopped from the Climate Change programme while York businesses would get the “free use” of an electric vehicle for 2 months, at a cost to taxpayers of £50,000.

5 staff would be sacked as would one executive member.

In both cases the amendments are engineered to provide an opportunity to issue leaflets saying XXX party voted against such and such a policy.

If the opposition parties had been serious about their proposals, then they could have been fed into the process before public scrutiny of the options took place.

Delays in York Council investment programme

A report which is being discussed on Thursday reveals that the Council has fallen behind with several major investment projects.

 It means that funding is being slipped from 19/20 into future financial years.

The biggest embarrassment is the Community Stadium project which is between 8 and 1 year behind schedule depending on when you started counting.

A development for the homeless on James Street has also recently been revealed as lagging 12 months behind its target completion date (although it doesn’t rate a mention in the Council report).

Setting the scene for a major increase in investment (and consequent debt levels), the report makes some strange claims.

Centre of Excellence for Disabled children “opening in May?)

Foremost amongst them is a statement that the Centre of Excellence for the Disabled, currently being constructed on Ascot Way, will open for business in May of this year. Really?

Site for new football pavilion

Lowfields

We are assured that show homes at Lowfields will also be available in “late summer” while the waterlogged Ashfield football site – located off Tadcaster Road – will have a clubhouse open by September!

Perhaps more understandably, cautious officials now say that the Community Stadium will be opening to the public “during the year”. No more hostages to fortune then!

Dumping and litter blights nature area

“Investment in waste and environment services to include additional staffing on waste rounds, improved city centre cleaning and effective weed control”. That’s what the York Council is promising in their newly published budget for next year.

In total – over two years – an additional £1 million will be found for a new system of “neighbourhood working”.

This, says the Council, will “improve the waste collection service to residents by increasing the number of green waste collections, adding two extra green waste collections each March from 2021 onwards.

The pilot of 3 free replacement boxes per property will continue and be made permanent.

The Council will develop neighbourhood working models across public realm and waste to better respond to the communities needs building on the success of local management, ownership and responsibility elsewhere in the council.

The Council will work with York Business Improvement District to review how city centre cleansing can be improved. The resilience of the services will be improved by removing the reliance on fixed term staff.

In addition they will invest in the weed control service to increase the areas treated and, in response to the world wide ongoing challenge about the use of glyphosate,  will trial alternative methods for dealing with weeds such as foams etc”.

The proposal is short on detail but improvements in cleaning services can’t come soon enough for some sub-urban areas.

Several amenity areas are now overwhelmed by fly tipping and litter.

The Westfield/Grange Lane park and adjacent nature area is a case in point and is particularly bad at present.

Westfield Park which is located between Grange Lane and Westfield Place

T

4% increase in Council Tax in York

Budget plans for next year published as residents say  highways maintenance is top priority for them

York residents will have a month to comment on the York Councils budget plans for the next financial year.

Plans for some of the key expenditure areas were published over the weekend.

Council Tax will increase by 3.99% with 2% of the increase being earmarked for social care services. The latter will get a £4.5 million boost.

The results of the Councils consultation on budget options are also published. Only 691 residents responded. Their top expenditure priority was, unsurprisingly, road and path repairs.

The Council plans to make £4 million in savings although many of these are, largely opaque, financial management tweaks.

Council staff will get a 2% pay increase.

£11 million will be invested in services as part of the Council budget plans.

  • As much as £1 million will be invested in a new waste and street environment services. This is in addition to capital investment of £6 million on new refuse collection vehicles.
  • Capital investment of over £12 million will support, repair and improve the highways network. This includes £275,000 for the creation of a reactive pothole repair team,
  • A long term investment of £3 million in planting more trees is proposed as part of the “northern forest”
  • Borrowing for house building results in a £1.5 million bill for interest charges on money already borrowed although £7 million is also allocated for modernisation works to the Council housing stock

Corporate

Savings include centralising communications budgets, fee increases and “making best use of Council assets”.

Growth includes £141,000 extra for Councillors pay and £80,000 for   an “organisational development programme to ensure delivery of key Council priorities”

As well as the welcome commitment to invest more in highways maintenance there are some, surprises in the capital programme . There is £100,000 for a trial of robotics monitoring of social care clients. It will utilise AI. £230,000 is earmarked to replace rising bollards on Bishophill, while a whopping £6.6 million will go on new refuse collection vehicles. This, in effect, confirms that the reason for the multiple vehicle failures last year was poor replacement programming (3 of the new vehicles will be electric powered).

29 Castlegate

More is to be spent maintaining and extending the electric car recharging network. £270,000 is to be spent renovating 29 Castlegate which has been empty for several years. The report says “The condition of the building both internally and externally is deteriorating whilst unoccupied” (Quelle Surprise!)

Theatre Royal

The York Theatre Royal will get another £500,000 to spend on heating, lighting and access improvements. (NB. The Theatre received a £770,000 grant 3 years ago to complete refurbishment work & was supposed to be self-supporting by now).

Installing “hostile vehicle” prevention barriers in the City centre will cost £1.6 million.

Health and Adult Social Care.

Savings include changes at Yorkcraft and revised charging arrangements.

Growth mainly reflects price increases from suppliers and increased demands from an ageing population.

Children and Education

Savings include reducing child placement costs & less for community centre maintenance.

Growth  items include an extra £250,000 for “safer communities” and £50,000 to create a Mental Health early intervention fund.

Environment and Climate change

Savings: Increases in fees and parking charges including evening charges, Minister badges and an “additional diesel duty” in 2021.

Growth items extra litter /poop scoop bins, better tree maintenance (halleluiah!), “ review of waste collection, including plastics and food waste” and including  adding two extra green waste collections each March from 2021 onwards, additional staffing on waste rounds, improved city centre cleaning, effective weed control (praise the Lord!), another study into re/opening Haxby railway station (the fourth in  the last 2 decades) and additional Taxi Licensing enforcement .

Housing

Savings  Extended use of smart mobiles, reduced use of sub-contractors, reduced void times plus new James House rents,

Growth   Electrical safety check programme, water hygiene testing, quicker repairs & “improving the care of estates

Capital investments include an average of £8 million a year to be invested in Council house modernisation and building insulation programmes.

NB. The report pointedly does not make any reference to Council House rent levels.

We will publish other details as they become available  

York Council seeks help in balancing budget

Without apparently any sense of irony, in the wake of a decision yesterday to hike Councillors pay levels by an average of 18%, the City of York Council is now asking residents, partners and businesses for their help in balancing the council’s budget for 2020/2021.

The consultation is now open and asks which areas the council should invest in and prioritise and where people feel savings could be made.

This year, there are a number of different ways to get involved with the council consulting sooner and holding special budget decision sessions which the public can attend or watch online. People can have their say by:

  • Taking an online survey at https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/York_20-21_Budget_Consultation by Tuesday 31 December
  • Completing the straw poll in Our City (the council newsletter for residents), distributed to York houses throughout December or available at West Offices or libraries and return it freepost by Sunday 12 January
  • Coming along to one of the following decision sessions in the new year at West Offices to tell us your thoughts:
  • Housing and safer neighbourhoods 13 January 2020 at 2pm
  • Economy and strategic planning, Environment and climate change and transport 13 January 2020 at 5.30pm
  • Children and young people and Culture, leisure and communities 14 January 2020 at 4pm
  • Health and Adult Social Care 15 January 2020 at 12noon
  • Leader and finance and performance 15 January 2020 at 5.30pm

Papers for these sessions will be published from Friday 3 January. The decision sessions will ensure that residents can view the budget proposals significantly in advance of previous years to ensure higher quality consultation.

The online consultation closes on 31 December 2019 and all printed questionnaire responses from Our City will need to be received by Sunday 12 January.

Councillor Keith Aspden, Leader of City of York Council said:

“We have recently agreed an ambitious council plan that promises to support and invest in our communities despite the financial challenges we face. 

“Demand for our services is increasing and in the last decade our funding from government grants reduced by £52m, equating to a 44% real terms reduction. Next year we need to save a further £4m with further savings needed in the coming years.

“We are committed to continuing vital services and making sure the right support is there for those who need it most.  Whilst we have set out an ambitious strategy for our city over the next four years; we want to ensure that York continues to make history and build communities. It is really important that we hear from residents, businesses and communities to make sure we invest in the right areas.”

Councillor Andy D’Agorne, Deputy Leader of City of York Council: “York is in a sound financial position which allows us some flexibility to invest in all our futures.  However, growing demand for adult social care as our population grows older is a continued challenge and as more and more savings are needed the decisions get tougher.

“We want to make sure our spending reflects our priorities to protect the most vulnerable and respond to the climate emergency.

“Your feedback in the council plan consultation helped us shape our priorities and we are looking forward to hearing where residents think we should focus our spending against each priority.”

For more information, please visit www.york.gov.uk/budget

Guildhall contract – further details

York Guildhall

The cost of the redevelopment contract for the Guildhall has been confirmed as £15.4 million. This covers only construction work.

To this must be added supervision, legal and fitting out expenses.

The contract was awarded to Vinci Construction on 16th September 2019.

It is expected that the total will be around £20 million but with substantial annual running costs.

The main use will be as a serviced office location although some Council use will be retained.