Future of York Libraries

The York Council is taking the next steps in a review of the role, function and management of its Library service. The Libraries have been run by an independent social interest company since 2012.  The company’s contract is coming up for renewal.

The Council report looks at what more residents might expect to get from the Library service over the next decade.

The comprehensive report makes it clear that the York Library service is one of the most successful – judged against a range of criteria – in the country.

A “needs assessment” seeks to establish what changes need to be made.  It ranks highly the need to further establish libraries as the “hub” of resilient communities. They would be a focal point for the coordination of local public services and could address issues with inclusion. Learning and skills would be a key objective as would access to health and other advice. They have a role to play in promoting culture.

The 16 existing libraries are generally viewed highly by users. York has more libraries per head of population than most comparable local authorities.

Despite the national trend of library visits declining slightly over time, Explore Libraries footfall has been holding up well, thanks in large part to the reading cafés which have been opened. Compared to other English unitary authorities, Explores performance is upper quartile.

Explore’s footfall in 17/18 across all branches was 1,014,173.

A public consultation exercise revealed that user’s top priorities for the different types of library, the top answers were the same for all libraries: Borrowing books, reading and studying space, local information, events, computers. There was just one exception which was that archives and local history was also a priority for York Explore.

Non-users indicated that the top three things that would encourage them to come to a library in the future was: a reading café on site, better information about services, and more events and activities.

The report talks obliquely about shared buildings. It stops short of proposing he closure of any libraries although some Councillors privately say this is inevitable (and has happened elsewhere).  Unless and until a properly costed and resourced business plan ins produced then the “vision” will not have a future. The devil will be in the detail of any tender document that may be issued.

But the plan could deliver the much needed, and long outstanding, expansion of the Acomb Library. In turn, that could deliver a “one stop shop” public service office – incorporating Housing, Police and health teams.

A useful benefit for the Acomb side of the City.

Pen pictures of each library can be accessed via these links

City of York Council; When things go wrong

There have been some strange goings on at the Council over the last few days.

First up we reported yesterday that there was something seriously amiss with the “planning on line” web site..

Some residents routinely use the site to check what planning applications have been made for the area in which they live. We do so routinely for the west of York  and report applications on this site.

There was something unusual about the list of applications which the Council claimed to have validated for the Westfield ward during the week commencing 7th May. Closer examination revealed that the list include applications that had not only been validated months – and in one case 3 years – ago, but all had actually already been approved.

In most cases the planning permission had been implemented.

So a computer glitch?

Yet 24 hours later the incorrect information is still on line.

York Council planning web site 13th May 2018

Equally worrying is the way in which decisions, delegated to officials, are reported in an opaque manner on the Council web site.

Today we are told of a “Decision for provision of the Ways to Wellbeing service is already approved through the Better Care Fund decision making process which is on an Executive Member level”

What? We have no idea what the Council is trying to tell us?

On some occasions the Council seems to be trying to be more open.

It reports today that it has decided what grants to make from an “improving lives” financial advice campaign. Over £166,000  is being handed out to local organisations with Citizens Advice getting the lions share.

But in listing the awards, the Council inevitably prompts  more questions; not least “What are taxpayers actually buying for this money?”

At the very least  the expected outcomes for the expenditure should be listed, together with a summary of the monitoring process that the Council will use to determine whether it has received value for its investment.

 

York to lead the way in animal welfare policy

 

Senior councillors are being asked to formally adopt an animal welfare licensing policy.

This has been drawn up using guidance from the Institute of Environmental Health Officers, ahead of the new Regulations being issued by DEFRA relating to animal welfare licensing.

The policy relates to licenses being issued for activities relating to animal welfare. These are issued for establishments which board animals, breed dogs and offer horse riding. They are also issued for keeping dangerous wild animals, for pet shops and zoos. Animals to be trained and used for exhibition must also be registered with the council.

Besides licensing 34 animal boarding premises, York licenses eight pet shops, four riding schools and one dog breeder. The sole licensed zoo is for Askham Bryan College’s educational purposes and the council has registration for eight animals which can be exhibited.
The council inspects premises along with vets, to ensure standards are met.

Freedom of Information and the City of York Council

A year or so ago, the then new York Council Chief Executive promised a fresh approach to the amount of information on Public Services made available to York residents. Questions would be answered without the need to submit formal Freedom of Information requests to the Council. It would be unnecessary to refer many issues for determination by the Information Commissioners Office (ICO)

So how have things turned out.

The Council legally must respond to FOI requests within 20 working days

Many – but by no means all – requests for information are submitted via the “  What do they know” website https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/body/city_of_york_council

There is a mixed picture on response times

Responses to FOIs are (eventually) published on the Councils web site. https://www.york.gov.uk/info/20219/freedom_of_information/1535/freedom_of_information_responses But it can be a laborious business trailing through the list to find information.

Several recent responses do give reason for concern.

  • As long ago as last May 2017, a request for information about the number of public service reports registered by Councillors, was turned down. The Council claimed that this might influence voting intentions in last year’s General Election. The information was provided after the election had taken place (i.e. outside the so called “purdah” period). However, the grounds for rejecting the request were spurious and were referred to the Information Commissioners Office. The ICO said they were then powerless to intervene and declined to issue guidance to Local Authorities about how FOI requests could be reconciled with the Local Government Act 1986.  That failure is now being investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner.
  • Vacant garage problem

    In January 2018 a request was submitted asking how many vacant Council owned garages there were in the City. It would take two months to get a partial response. Failure to advertise vacant garages for rent has lost the Council a significant amount of revenue in recent years.

  • On 11th February the Council were asked to provide a list of Business Rate debtors in the City. This information has previously been published routinely in committee reports. The Council promptly turned down the request quoting “purdah” grounds (because a council by election was taking place in the Holgate ward four days later). The grounds for refusing that request have been referred to the ICO as it is unclear why the publication of, what could only have been a factual list, could possibly have favoured the chances of an election candidate (even if the Council had managed to respond in three days to the request).
  • The Council do publish some information about Coppergate fine levels. Numbers are much higher than was expected

    More worrying is the failure to respond to a request made on 5th January 2018 regarding the profile of those fined for flouting the access restrictions on Coppergate. The Council does publish the actual number of offenders but has, in addition, been asked to indicate whether the drivers concerned are local or visitors (from the postcodes of the fine notifications). This type of information was provided – albeit reluctantly – by the Council in 2014 when the original ANPR traffic camera scandal first peaked. Responses from the FOI staff suggest that the complainant should refer the issue to the ICO!

  • On 9th March 2018 a request was made for information about the number of reports received by the Council about “damp” houses. No response has been received.

So, far from things getting better, the York Council has failed to even answer relatively simple enquiries on time.

Added to the highly selective nature of the stats quoted in many committee reports, it is difficult not to conclude that the Authority has something to hide and that it will do its utmost to frustrate those who seek transparency.

Some choice for York – “Wild Bunch” or “Trotsky’s chums”?

It looks like the coalition, that has run the Council for the last 3 years, will be coming to an end.

The faction that plunged daggers into the back of the last Tory Leader are now re-sharpening their blades. They hope to cut into core public service standards in the City. Four right wingers, emboldened by national changes in the Tory party, are demanding low (or zero) Council Tax increases funded by a widespread close down of public services like libraries. They are disparagingly referred to by other, more moderate, Tories as the “Wild Bunch”.

On the other side of the Council, new Labour Councillors lack experience and historical perspective. They embrace a high tax, high borrowing philosophy. They cite “austerity” as the cause of all evils without actually explaining how any alternative would be funded (or even allowed by central government). Despite adopting locally the Corbynite tactic of never quite explaining their policies (e.g. Europe, single market, tax etc), the Labour group is clearly now far to the left of anything seen in the City during the last 60 years. Many experienced, moderate Labour representatives have quit, or are likely to face the “Momentum” ice pick, before the May 2019 Council elections.

So should the LibDems seek to reach an administration agreement with either of these Groups?

The answer is probably “yes”.

The City faces a difficult year.   It is a time when Councillors, from all sides, should put York first. That inevitably means compromise and ideally seeking a broad consensus on dealing with issues.

The Council can now choose to revert to the committee system which was used to run the City until 1995. Councillors from all parties (and none) would be more directly involved in the decision making processes

Council officials – some of whom must bear some of the blame for the current crisis – will need to burn the midnight oil if an alternative constitutional model is to be made available in time for the Council’s annual meeting, which is scheduled to take place on 24th May.

They will not start with a blank sheet of paper.

There are many other Local Authorities who now operate using the committee model. These include the Nottinghamshire County Council (Tory/Ind majority), Kingston (Conservative), Sutton (LibDem), South Gloucestershire (Conservative), Brighton and Hove (Green when Committee system adopted, now NOC), Newark and Sherwood (Conservative), Barnet (Conservative), Norfolk (Conservative, NOC when Committee system adopted) & Reading (Labour)

Numerous smaller authorities never changed to the “Cabinet/Leader” governance model.

Some councils have chosen to create versions of the Leader/Cabinet system (which means that they do not require a formal change under the Act) that include aspects of the committee system.

The most common arrangement is to set up non-decision making group of councillors, usually corresponding to cabinet portfolios, which examine papers and make recommendations about how decisions should be made. This system worked in a balanced Council in York between 2007 and 2010 (Labour then decided that they would not participate) The decisions are subsequently made at meetings of the cabinet or by individual cabinet members, and may well follow the recommendations of the ‘committees’ although they are not legally required to do so.

Either way, it is time to put personal and party ambitions to one side and do what is best for the City. 

Quandary for programme organisers at York Rose Theatre

Yesterdays York Council meeting has piled pressure on the Artistic Director, of York’s soon to be unveiled Rose Theatre, to change the published cycle of Shakespearean plays.

A virtuoso audition at last nights York Council meeting, by former Tory Council Leader David Carr, could see Julius Caesar added to the theatre bill.

Caesar famously abolished the democratic traditions of Rome’s senate before declaring himself  “Dictator”. Many of Caesars opponents mysteriously disappeared in the process.

It was left to Brutus and other conspirators to end the regime when they stabbed Caesar in the back (and front, and pretty much everywhere else).

Carr is likely to be at a loose end this summer as he has quit the Tory party so may be persuaded to take on the lead role. Who would take the role of Brutus is still to be revealed. Conservative members will be forming an orderly queue.

In the meantime it is to be hoped that York Councillors will quickly get together to agree a new management arrangement. There have been 5 Council Leaders during the last 4 years with another getting within 2 minutes of appointment last night before the daggers were drawn again.

LibDem Councillor Andrew Waller, who was also the York Council Leader between 2008 and 2011, will be the acting Leader for the next week or so.

By now Councillors should have worked out that a more inclusive way of doing business is required in a balanced  authority were no party holds more than 28% of the seats.

It is probably too late to reintroduce the “committee system” before next years all out elections.

However, an agreement to form an all party Executive, to guide the City through what is likely to be a difficult year, could be the best way forward.

But that would require all Groups to behave in a constructive way and for the “gladius” to be sheathed for a while at least

 

Police confirm “nothing to investigate” decision on suspended Councillors

Cllrs Aspden and Carr

It will come as no surprise to most residents that the Police have decided that there is no case to answer following an allegation made by Council Leader Carr regarding the conduct of two Executive councillors (Aspden and Ayre).

He arbitrarily suspended them from their offices in September. The power he used was designed to give elected Leaders an opportunity to change Cabinet placements but – when a coalition existed – needed to be exercised with caution, tact and agreement.

His action was none of these.

His public claim that the allegations against the two Councillors were “serious” was highly prejudicial (and likely in most residents eyes to be viewed as untrue)

The Police decision will hopefully bring Cllr Carr’s resignation forward by a few weeks. A fresh start could then be made in time for the important budget Council meeting on 22nd February.

The Councils Standards Committee could now decide to extend the period of uncertainty which has descended on West Offices.

They already have had had the opportunity to consider a report produced by, what officials at the time claimed to be, an independent third party, into allegations linked to the leaking of “confidential”  information to residents. This, in turn, arose from a further confidential report into “contract” issues.

But the Standards Committee failed to use the autumn profitably to test the issues raised. Several members of that committee themselves have also issued public statements which could be regarded as prejudicial to the fair and impartial assessment of any allegations.

The water is further muddied by another report which the Council Leader has been pressurised to make public. It also referred to the actions of Councillors and officials at a stormy Audit committee meeting earlier in the year.

The Councils Chief Executive has been indecisive and  ineffectual in dealing with the issue. There is no obvious way forward.

However, what is clear is that there needs to be more transparency in the Council with all reports routinely published unless there are real, pressing and justifiable reasons not to do so.  

 

 

 

 

York Council to let new £1.3 million broadband network contract

 The Council has issued a media release which is relevant to the cable laying operations currently taking place in the west of the City.

It  claims“Plans to help York stay the most digitally connected city in the UK will be considered by senior councillors at next Thursday’s (7 December) Executive meeting.

The council is proposing to renew the ICT service contract which over the last decade has put York ahead of the rest of the country.

Through installing a future-proof fibre network, the contract has driven improvements to council services, including online reporting, CCTV and traffic management, and connecting the city’s schools, universities and community buildings to high-speed internet access”.

In reality, of course, “on line” reporting systems for the general public are far behind those of comparable Councils while the advanced parking availability sign data stopped being displayed several years ago.

The new contract is expected to be worth in excess of £1.3 million per annum.

The statement goes on to say, “The council’s bold steps and commitment to digital infrastructure has created the platform for multi-millions pound private sector investment which has:

  • provided free wi-fi in the city-centre and park and ride service
  • provided ultra-fast broadband, with speeds between 250 Megabites and 1 Gigabit per second, to over 20,000 York homes and businesses – with over 70% of the city to be covered by 2019
  • attracted businesses to York and given local businesses a competitive advantage
  • helped secure funding to trial the technology of the future, including digital pothole scanning and a traffic system which ‘talks’ to cars across our road network

The existing contract runs out in August 2018. If the Executive approves the proposals, the council will seek a technology provider for the contract that includes design, management and support of the council’s data network services, internet, office and mobile telephone services, as well as the council’s e-security protection services”.

 

The report also proposes including Harrogate Borough Council within the same contract.

 

Gremlins breeding in Council IT department?

It is not only the Council planning portal that is suffering problems.

The much vaunted – but never quite delivering – “do it online” reporting system has broken down again.

As we reported earlier in the year, anyone trying to report issues such as full litter bins will find it difficult to upload a photo of the problem. The Council actually encourages residents to provide an image of the issue being reported (to provide clarity on location and timing).

The Council site currently rejects most images offered. In turn this prevents the issue being uploaded to the Council’s Customer Relationship Management system. It is a repetition of a problem which existed when the system was first launched (and which seemed to have been fixed about a year ago)

Officials at the Council promised a fix several weeks ago but the system is still not working. Litter bin locations are, however, now shown on the site but the image upload problem persists.

Quite why the  Council simply didn’t purchase “off the shelf” the well tried Fix my Street system when they had the chance five years ago remains a mystery.

“On line” reporting is by far the cheapest channel of communication with the Council. It is quicker and avoids unnecessary manual intervention. It should be the preferred method of contact for routine problems. 

The Council pointedly refuses to publish performance statistics on the time taken to deal with issues reported via Email to the Customer Centre (the obvious 24/7 alternative to “on line” reporting) . These are thought to be in excess of 3 days. That is simply not good enough if the alternative “on line” systems are faulty.

Rumours persist that the Councils reporting system, which was developed “in house”, has been subject to an ongoing intellectual property rights wrangle.This continues to hinder its development and roll out.