Fake news or wishful thinking?

Council publishes new “Our City” newspaper

No doubt the York Council would be criticised if it failed to keep residents informed about what goes on in the City and how the Council spends taxpayers money. Whether spending £10,000 on putting a magazine through everyone’s letterbox represents a prudent use of resources may divide opinion.

The current edition of “Our City” is tidier and therefore more accessible than previous editions. But it fails an important test.

It isn’t objective.

Telling people that things are going well when patently many street level public services in the City are far from that, transforms an information source into a propaganda channel.

There are major problems with keeping the streets tidy and free of weeds. The refuse collection service is now chronically unreliable. Many roads and paths are potholed. Some are dangerously obstructed by trees and hedges. These issues don’t merit a mention in “Our City”.

The Council does praise the hugely expensive community stadium project without telling people precisely when the stadium will come into use. Apparently the IMAX cinema (a plus for the City) will open in December but there is no explanation for the delays that have dogged the future home of York City FC and the York Knights Rugby team.

But the main concern will be the failure to be frank about the risks involved in some of its projects.

The Council is acting as its own housing developer and hopes to build 600 homes in the City over the next few years. It has recruited a significant number of additional staff to do so. It could have used local companies to undertake the work but chose not to. It is a high risk venture but, at the end of the day, in York any new homes will be occupied one way or another.

The same can’t be said about the £20 million Guildhall redevelopment. There is little evidence to suggest that a “business club” is needed in the City and even less that the York Council would be the best organisation to manage one.

The “Our City” article disingenuously talks of the project generating £848,000 a year in rents. It fails to point out that would involve renting out all the available space and that, even then, the income would be barely sufficient to pay the interest payments on the money that the Council intends to borrow to fund the scheme!

Sadly similar mistakes have been made in the past. £12 million was spent on the Barbican concert hall. The Council chose to manage that facility itself despite a complete lack of experience in the field. It later turned out that the hall manager had failed to apply for an entertainments licence for the building and had operated it unlawfully for several months. The Barbican ran at a loss of £800,000 a year and eventually had to be sold on to the private sector.

Whether anyone will come forward to rescue the Guildhall project remains to be seen.

Continuing concerns over Chief Executives health in York

It is nearly 6 months since the Chief Executive of the City of York Council went on sick leave. The problem arose shortly after the May local elections and left the largely inexperienced new Council with inadequate senior management capacity.

The result was that there was a lack of direction during the summer period with the standard of several public services noticeably falling.

The Council drifted into several decisions, including a £20 million Guildhall redevelopment contract, without the rigorous reappraisal that a new administration, acting with the advantage of experienced advisors, might have chosen to approach differently.

The Council must now consider whether to continue with a temporary Chief Executive – a senior officer “acting up” – or whether to move to something more permanent.

Long service Chief officers in local government are entitled to 6 months sick leave on full pay followed by 6 months on half pay. So potentially if the Chief Executive continues to be absent there will be funding available in the budget to cover any backfill.

Not an easy decision and the health of employees must always be a paramount consideration.

But York taxpayers will now expect to see a roadmap published which shows a way back to having a full management team in place in the City.

There are simply too many decisions coming along (including the completion of the Community Stadium, the Guildhall, York Central, York Bypass improvements etc.) to allow a continued policy drift.

The York Council will consider the future of its Chief Executive post next week

York climate change action plan update

City of York Council’s full council declared a climate emergency in March 2019, and agreed to set a target to become net carbon neutral by 2030.

A report is now being taken to the council’s Executive to provide an update on the next steps to progress the climate change action plan.

Following the climate emergency declaration, a new cross-party climate change policy and scrutiny committee was created to help develop the climate change action plan. Its first meeting will take place in September (and every other month after that).

The council is in the process of recruiting officers to two new posts to address sustainability and climate change to support on this work.

A report detailing the next steps will be taken to a public Executive meeting on Thursday 29 August.

York has a strong history of taking the lead on reducing carbon useage, including:

  • £2m programme of LED street lighting;
  • Solar PV installed on 541 council houses;
  • Air source heat pumps installed in 57 council houses;
  • A programme of cavity wall and loft insulation across the council’s housing stock;
  • Work with private tenants and homeowners to draw on funding from Government and regional programmes for improved energy efficiency and delivered through Better Homes Yorkshire;
  • Plans to use an innovative water-source heat pump for heating the redeveloped Guildhall complex;
  • Council support for the Treemendous initiative to plant 50,000 trees in York;
  • Investment in improvements to cycling infrastructure including the recent opening of the Scarborough Bridge cycle route and promotion of cycling – including achieving Cycling City status;
  • The i-Travel programme which includes active promotion of walking, cycling and sustainable travel options to groups and individuals.

Help us shape our council plan

Residents, businesses and community groups are being asked to comment on how City of York Council can help them achieve the best quality of life in the city.

Highways England have confirmed that the Council is responsible for removing weed growth on former trunk roads like the A59. Hopefully “cleaner” will come before “greener” in the York Councils list of priorities when addressing highway obstructions

Through the council plan consultation, City of York Council is wanting to hear from residents, businesses and community groups and ask them to comment on eight suggested outcomes for the council over the next four years. They are:

  • Good health and wellbeing
  • Well paid jobs and an inclusive economy
  • Getting around sustainably
  • A better start for children and young people
  • A greener and cleaner city
  • Creating homes and world-class infrastructure
  • Safe communities and culture for all
  • An open and effective council.

As well as comment on these themes and what they mean to them, residents, businesses and community groups will also be asked what they think the council could do to achieve the outcomes and what they could do in support.  

The consultation is available to complete now at https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/YorkCouncilPlanConsultation2019 and closes on Sunday 15 September. 

Residents without online access will also have the chance to contribute their views at venues around the city or add their thoughts to pop-up boards in public spaces or other activities taking place across the city.

Councillor Keith Aspden, Leader of City of York Council said: “Residents, businesses and community groups make York such a fantastic place to live and work. We want to hear from them what we can do to deliver against the suggested outcomes and how they may be able to support this journey to being a cleaner, healthier city with an inclusive economy.”

 “Once complete, this plan will set our ambitious vision for the future of the city and set clear expectations on how we propose to deliver improvements for residents, against which we will monitor delivery and measure performance.

“We look forward to hearing suggestions from people about what our priorities should be.”

Councillor Andy D’Agorne, Deputy Leader of City of York Council said: “The council plan is important so we can clearly set out what we hope to achieve over the course of the next four years. These proposals acknowledge the need for us to address the climate emergency declared by full council and listen to residents’ ideas about what the council should do to address this. We would like to hear what actions individuals, businesses and organisations might take to support this work.

 “As well as climate change, the proposed outcomes also consider a range of social, economic and environmental factors we are keen to prioritise and ensures the city supports a good quality of life for residents.

“We look forward to hearing from residents, businesses and local community groups. We think it is really important they have a chance to discuss and play a part in the work we will be doing over the next four years and want to hear their views and suggestions.”

Counter fraud team saves taxpayers £328,275 in York

Counter fraud work by the York Council saved taxpayers over £300,000 in York during the last year.

The figure is revealed in a report which will be considered by a Council committee next week.

The report reveals that it received 345 reports of possible fraudulent activity.

42% of the cases related to fraud in social care. 22% in Council tax/Rates, 18% related to housing fraud and 11 concerned benefit claims.

Officials also investigated the misuse of blue badges for parking. Officials claim that 84% of investigations were successful with two people prosecuted and a further 10 cautioned.

Three false applications for school placements were also halted.

In 2018/19 the team identified over £201,000 of losses to the council, for social care fraud. This was a 19% increase from the previous financial year. Over £137,000 of savings were produced which represents a substantial rise compared to 2017/18 (£38k).

Two people were prosecuted for fraudulently claiming monies, from the York Financial Assistance Scheme, that they did not require.

So who will be York’s next Lord Mayor?

It’s not just the political future of he York Council which is up in the air.

With the defeat of Keith Myers in the Acomb poll on Thursday, the City is desperately seeking a replacement to be the next Lord Mayor.

George Hudson was Lord Mayor of York

It is still the Conservatives turn to nominate. However, They are down to only two remaining members. To become Lord Mayor a Councillor must have at least 4 years service on the Authority. Many former post holders will feel that many more years of experience are required if someone is to make a success of the office.

.. and there is the first problem. Only Tory Paul Doughty from Strensall qualifies. He may, or may not, want to take on the exacting full-time role. If he does, then he will face the decision whether to nominate his partner as his consort or find another volunteer.

The Sherriff of York – nominated by the Lord Mayor – also forms part of the Civic Party. The holder does not have to be a Councillor. Given his interests in conservation, this might be an ideal role for Keith Myers, if he can get over his disappointment in not achieving the top job.

But suppose the Tories turn down the post. What happens then?

This has happened in the past. Groups unwilling, or unable, to nominate lose their accumulated qualification points.

Qualification points?

Points totals are reported to a meeting which takes place each November

The Council uses a points system which allocates each group on the Council a point for each Councillor that they have (at the end of May each year). The group with the largest number of points nominates the Lord Mayor for the following year. When a party nominates, they lose 47 points (equivalent to total the number of Council seats) and must start to accumulate points again.

The system has worked well. In non election years the likely incumbent has had plenty of time to prepare for the office, while smaller groups do qualify to provide the city’s figurehead.  The Green party nominated the Lord Mayor for the first time a couple of years ago.

So, if the Tories turn it down, what happens then?

The Group with the next highest points total would be asked to nominate. That means someone will get only 3 weeks to prepare to take on the role from 23rd May. Many dates will already be in the prospective Lord Mayors diary .

The Labour group have the next highest points total. However only one of their number – their current Leader Janet Looker, who is also a previous Lord Mayor – has over 4 years experience. There are others who may qualify under a rule change agreed last year which allows those who have served for 4 years and who were re-elected on 2nd May to be nominated.  However, that means an inexperienced Councillor being thrust into a new role with minimal time to prepare.

The task might be less daunting if the nomination goes to a former Lord Mayor.

All should become clear when the invitations to attend Lord Mayors Day are issued.

Good luck to whoever is passed the chains of office.

So where next for the York Council

The LibDems emerged from Thursday’s elections with the most seats. …..but they are short of an overall majority.
The York Council HQ at West Offices

The onus will be on their Leader Keith Aspden to negotiate a programme which will guide the City through, what are likely to be, 4 challenging years.

He would be wise to pause for thought. The immediate aftermath of a successful election – and the hyperbole that surrounds it – doesn’t always provide the best environment for considered decision making.

There is, however, an element of urgency. Towards the end of the last coalition administration growing tensions were evident. They weren’t restricted to the, rapidly disintegrating, Tory group members. Decisions were put on the back burner while some long held LibDem polices were jettisoned.

That needs to change quickly.

If a coalition arrangement is to continue, then the only two groups which could together commend a majority in the Council chamber are the LibDems and the Green Party.

 The latter are not famous for their tight discipline and consistency. But it could work if a policy programme could be agreed. If they are to negotiate, then the Greens must not overplay their hand. They remain a small party with limited electoral appeal. They need to identify a small number of policy areas where tangible change – and improvement – is deliverable. It will mean some realism about what is possible given the financial constraints placed on the Council.

There are two areas where there may be common ground between the two parties.

The first relates to the way in which the Council does its business.  The “Strong Leader” executive model may work efficiently where there is a party with an overall majority. It is markedly less successful where the Council is “balanced”. It reached its nadir when, two years ago, the then Tory Council Leader summarily sacked two (LibDem) members of the Executive. It later turned out that the justification for doing so was entirely bogus.

A return to the committee system may be a potential area of agreement. The system allows for all members of the Council to participate directly in the decision-making process. No party, after all,  has a monopoly on wisdom

The Committee system might also help to address the second major failing of the Council – a lack of transparency. The Greens said in their manifesto that there should be a presumption in favour of disclosure (of information).

They were right.

At the moment the Council hides behind an opaque wall of silence. Freedom of Information requests flourish. The costs of answering them are greater than would have been the expense of voluntarily publishing information routinely.

With openness people would come to trust the Council more.

There are other more specific policies which would signal that change had taken place.  

Public service standards in the poorer wards continue to decline. Life expectancy is lower there and obesity levels – and lack of attractive active leisure facilities – are higher.

The LibDems could address their growing “Middle England” image by prioritising a programme focusing on improving public services in the poorer neighbourhoods

The voting patterns on Thursday revealed that the electoral turnout was as much as 15 points down in neglected wards when compared to the leafy suburbs and villages.

That can’t be good for democracy and may explain why some extreme politicians have seen success over recent years. Extremism feeds on disillusion and neglect.

Action now may be the best way for the politicians of the centre to consolidate their influence on the reins of power in the future.

Of course, it takes two to tango and there may not be a majority for discursive decision making on the new Council.

If so, the LibDems may try to establish a minority administration.

If they do, they would be wise to spread power around the Council chamber as far as they are able. Scrutiny committees should be chaired by opposition Councillors, as should the influential Audit committee.

There are experienced independent Councillors who could contribute by taking senior roles in the planning process.

Whatever happens an early statement of intent will be expected by the residents of York.

Council election manifestos compared

7. Transport

It is said that there are 200,000 transport experts in York. Unfortunately none of them seem to have got near the party policy manifestos this year

Transport is always a controversial area. It is important that parties put forward clear policies. This didn’t happen in 2011 when Labour omitted to mention that they intended to sell off City centre car parks (they tried to sell off Union Terrace car park within weeks of taking office), introduce a universal 20 mph speed limit at a cost of £600,000 (which actually saw both vehicle speeds and accident levels on some roads increase) or draconian access restrictions on Lendal bridge. They also halved the amount spent on road resurfacing.

The Coalition has fared a little better with road repair expenditure increasing (albeit, so far, with little obvious effect). Passenger approval ratings on most bus services have improved. The number of bus passenger trips has increased from 16.2 million to 16.8 million.

There have been mistakes. The decision to scrap the ResPark discount for low emission vehicles, and make it available only to drivers of electric models, was ill-judged. There are no electric vehicles charging points on York streets ( those in car parks are unreliable). “On street” and “on line” systems also fail to display the number of free car park spaces (a facility which was available 10 years ago). The Council resolutely refuses to publish bus service reliability stats (despite the facility being available since “next bus” technology was rolled out a few years ago).

None of the parties say what their policy is on the number of, and charges for, central area parking spaces. They also fail to offer any policies on taxis in general and whether UBER should operate in the City.

All parties offer more investment in resurfacing footpaths and roads. Labour quote £1 million pa. Given that the resurfacing of Stonegate this year will cost £1/2 million, the scale of the problem will be apparent. The LibDems promise to “reconstruct” all adopted highways. Reconstruction involves providing a new base as well as a wearing layer. It is much more expensive then either surface dressing or providing a bitmac overlay. The promise looks optimistic to say the least.

Similarly the Greens hopes for a discrete “off road” cycle network “as exists in some places on the continent” seems to ignore the constraints of an historic city layout… ..and the relative lack of success of the Baedeker raids!)

Although the manifestos avoid the usual mistakes (promising a central bus station, river buses, linear cable cars etc), there will be a feeling that none of the parties is yet ready to embrace the rapidly changing transport technologies which are becoming available.

So how hard does your York Councillor work for you?

The York Council has published a prompt response to our annual request for information about Councillor issue raising numbers. This allows residents to see how many issues have been raised during the last 4 years by individual Councillors.

The information is published at the end of each year. All Councillors have access to the central complaints handing service at the Council. Some have claimed in the past that they choose not to use it. One or two say that they use the report it on line system, although this is limited to certain types of issue.

As well as monitoring public service standards and pursing local problems, Councillors have other roles. These include attendance at a range of meetings.

Either way, York enjoys the services of some hardworking local representatives who will legitimately hope for re-election on 2nd May.

Number of issues reported by local Councillors in York