Worse things happened in..

The media seems to be stoking up a campaign against York Council Leader Keith Aspden. Comments from both Tory and Labour activists have gained prominent publicity.

All are based on the premise that allegation of bullying, made by the Council s last Chief Executive, are true.

In reality, no evidence was submitted which would have justified the Councils auditors (Masers) repeating the claims in their recent “Public Interest Report”.

The PIR is due to be considered at a public Council meeting on 4th May. 

Those who know Keith Aspden will confirm that he is not a “bully”. He can be assertive, and is persistent, but that is what you would expect, and hope for, from a Council Leader.

He may be criticised for being too politically introverted. Avoiding conflict – and surrounding oneself with sycophants – is a mistake that many leaders make.

But it does not make them incompetent.

So what about the glass houses brigade?

It was the Tories who appointed the last Council Chief Executive. They have a vested interest in defending their champion and averting attention from the costly shambles that arose in 2018. Any criticisms are likely to be judged against the background of graft and cronyism which is currently undermining the credibility of the national government.

It is a government that has also singularly failed to implement its policy which would have seen a ceiling put on severance payments in the public sector.

Labour are no better.FOI response Redundancies table 2 When they were last in control of the Council (2011-2015), they handed out £8.2 million in payoffs to 546 “redundant” staff.  Click for details More significantly they were responsible for 41 “compromise agreements”. These are legal means which prevent former employees from publicly pursuing – or commenting on – the terms under which they left the Council. Anyone following the inquiries into the way that Unions like the GMB conduct their equalities policies will be less than impressed by the strictures of the left.

So Keith Aspden should carry on with the good work he and his colleagues have done during what has been a very difficult year because of the Coronavirus pandemic.

But there must be changes.

It seems from the Masers report, that officer advice to the decision makers was wanting in several respects. It may be that a third-party intervention is needed so that new more transparent processes, and the public scrutiny that goes with them, can be introduced..

The Council needs to abandon its closed doors decision making processes. Yes, protect the privacy of individuals, but find a way of at least allowing real time scrutiny of any discretionary decisions.

And we live in a time where the use of social media is commonplace.

The Leader of the Council does not have a Twitter account. It, together with Facebook and individual web sites,* are now more important than ever as a means of communication.

Some soul searching is required. 

*NB. Keith Aspden abandoned his web site in October 2020 telling his followers that regular updates could be found on a centralised LibDem site . Only one item (library re-openings) has been posted there during the last 3 months.

There is a similar lack of communication from Councillors representing most other wards in York

Call for more transparency from York Council – how many, how much, how quick?

The York Council should publish daily updates “online” giving details of the progress that it is making in dealing with assistance requests.

The proposal comes after the Council issued a media release saying that it had settled £34 million worth of claims for the governments small business support grant.  The claim, contained in a media release from the Council, failed to give details of the value and total number of claims received, the number and value of those processed and the number of claims  where the recipient had confirmed that the money was in their account. There was no indication of the number and value of outstanding claims and how long they were expected to take to process. There was no indication how many claims had been rejected and for what reasons.

There is a similar lack of figures for business loans, rate rebates, hardship payments, food deliveries, rent rebates, ward committee payments, use levels at  the “Hubs” (that the Council set up 3 weeks ago at the governments behest) as well as the volume of work that has been passed to the 3000 volunteers who the Council says it has on its books.

At the moment the Council seems to be focusing on issuing “sound bite” media releases which encourage politicians to put their own “spin” on the figures.

The Council has been criticised for poor communications. A leaflet due to be delivered 3 weeks ago has still not been received by some residents. The information in the leaflet does however duplicate information readily available via radio, TV, social media and local noticeboards.

Now it has emerged that the Council plans 3 separate leaflets delivered from next week using Royal Mail.  The promised “Our City” is still not ready and there is still no “on line” database detailing the doorstep delivery options available in the City – the County Council (which covers a much larger area) has one up and running.

There is little scrutiny of what is going on. There have been no virtual Council meetings although one will have to take place in May to elect a new Lord Mayor. The obvious option of having an “on line” discussion forum has not been taken up. No Q & A  “on line” sessions with the Council leadership are taking place. Some Councillors are not answering Email requests for information.

The Labour opposition on the Council, while indulging is some public hand wringing about “not being political”, is trying to move work and funding to an organisation set up by one of their party officials.

The local Labour MP is playing every issue for maximum personal publicity and political advantage. (In fairness the Outer York MP – a Conservative – has been more circumspect.

We have a continually changing situation.

Things are not “all right”.

They may be as good as could be expected in what is a unique situation.

What people need, and deserve to have, though are up to date facts.

People can then make up their own minds about whether change is needed.

Council to publish comprehensive Coronavirus newsletter

The York Council announced today that it is to deliver a new “My City” newsletter to every household in the City.

The decision came after criticism of the fragmented nature of the authorities communications strategy.

Residents will be hoping that the newsletter finally provides comprehensive information on public service resilience and all aspects of the food/medicine supply chain.

The newsletter should be available in a few days time and will be delivered by Royal Mail.

The Council has also announced the availability of their e-newsletter. It will provide a weekly update about support and guidance direct to resident’s mailboxes.

To receive the e-newsletter visit: https://www.york.gov.uk/form/EmailUpdates).

Copies of the Councils media releases can be found here https://www.york.gov.uk/news

NB. In some neighbourhoods home delivery of newspapers has already been suspended for the duration of the health crisis.

Snail mail too slow

York residents are about to get a third leaflet through their letter box about coronavirus. The first was a small yellow leaflet which apparently didn’t reach every household (the leafleters quit).

The second letter came from the Prime Minister.

Neither missive revealed anything that people would not have already picked up from the TV, radio, web sites or social media.

They might have been some  solace for those living alone or those detached from modern technology. Perhaps less of a consultation when readers found they were referred to web sites for further information.

Now the Council leadership is apparently writing to everyone. The letter should arrive – via Royal Mail – over the next few days.

The, no doubt well intentioned initiative, makes the same mistakes.

The situation is changing rapidly. What is true, or a high priority, one day may have been overtaken by events the following day.  

Even judging by today’s standards, there is nothing new in the letter (see copy below).

It pointedly fails to reassure about the resilience of key public services. The basics for living are power (heating, lighting), shelter, water, security, food and (for some) health care.

The tricky subject of home food deliveries (for everyone) has still not been addressed. There is no comprehensive list of stock levels or food suppliers who will deliver to doorsteps.

Even basic Council services don’t get much prominence despite green waste collections having been abandoned and a mixed recycling presentation introduced earlier today.

Apparently, the letter will also include a card giving contact details of local ward Councillors. Now leaving aside the possibility that these representatives should already by now have made themselves known in the local community, what services can they provide in the current civil emergency?

Some don’t have contact telephone numbers listed on the Council web site. Some aren’t answering emails, others are isolating on medical advice.

So thanks to the front line staff who are all working hard and effectively.

Senior management at the York Council, on the other hand, needs to do more to address the basic needs of all its citizens.

Patronising, outdated or superficial letters aren’t helpful.

Communications probe in wake of York floods failures

Twitter 2

How events unfolded on “twitter” click to enlarge

A media release issued by the York Council on the afternoon of 26th December assured residents that “provisions were in place to protect the City” from flooding.

Less than 14 hours later the Foss barrier had failed, 700 homes and businesses had been flooded and telecoms were down.

The Council issued a further media statement late on 27th saying “The north east of the city is protected from flooding by a flood protection scheme, called the Foss Barrier”.

Which rather demonstrates the need for prompt and informed communications when a crisis develops.

As one of our commentators points out,

“We seem to receive at least one severe warning each year without a trickle of water being seen in the street (Huntington Road). I guess that it’s institutional ‘crying wolf’. Neighbours say that if there had been a real local warning – from, say, a tannoy fitted to a police car, then they would have been able to save more possessions. We are all going to have to move out of homes for six months for reconstruction”. 

Cllr Andrew Waller has agreed to take up any communications issues with the appropriate authorities

Coincidentally the Council will debate next week (11th Jan) a study on “E-Democracy”.  The review prompted the so called engagement survey where residents were asked to say how they would prefer to communicat with the Council.  Ironically the failure to publicise the survey led to a derisory level of engagement with it!

The study also failed to report on the speed of response to issues reported using existing “on line” systems. *

However, more intelligent and timely use of digital systems is undoubtedly at least part of the way forward.

Real time updates on flood levels should be possible even now, while many organisations in the business support and voluntary sector (and others) need to take a hard look at how well they have supported their clients over the last week.

Meanwhile the City remains grateful to the relatively  small number of organisations and individuals who, from Monday onwards, organised themselves to meet the emerging gaps in the provision of flood relief services

*It has been confirmed that the much hyped but dysfunctional issue reporting system launched in October is in fact an interim “fix” aimed at replacing a system lost when computer systems were transferred to West Offices 18 months ago.

 The new “all bells and whistles” personal account based system – originally promised for introduction in spring 2015 – is now expected to be available later this year and may be soft tested later this month.