The art of pretending to listen

North Yorkshire Mayor plan a fait accompli

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Many York residents will be irritated today, when they realise that the supposed consultation, on what the City might get out of losing its independence to a North Yorkshire Mayor, was a sham.

A list of funding requests to oil the coup appears to have already been endorsed by City Leaders. It is set to be nodded through as part of a heavy agenda at a “virtual” executive meeting next week.

The naive may have been distracted by the sweeteners leaked by the government this week. Variously these include siting the House of Lords, major government departments or even, temporarily, the House of Commons in the City. All are unlikely but mock indignation from southern peers and Lancastrian Mayors simply adds credibility to the ploy.

In a post COVID recession there will be no funding available for such changes.

Local government in York and North Yorkshire (YNY) is now seeking funding of £25 million a year in what is termed a Mayoral Devolution Deal. It forms part of what some are claiming would be a £2.4 billion investment package over the next 30 years. This is money currently allocated by central government (it is not additional funding).

Under the Councils plans it would fall into the hands of an elected Mayor.

Background reports suggest that the Mayor would operate through a combined authority committee comprised of – based on what is happening elsewhere – three or four unitary authority Leaders. It is possible – depending on whether the York authority can retain its present boundaries – that the committee would be comprised of the members of only one political party.

However, the rub is that it is the Mayor alone who would hold executive decision-making powers.

The Mayor would take on responsibility for police and fire in addition to a whole raft of powers covering transport, digital communications, urban modernisation, housing, planning, skills, business development, energy and the natural environment. This would involve setting up a huge support organisation dwarfing existing local government bureaucracies.

We have seen how the only other individual elected to executive authority in YNY (the Police and Fire Commissioner) became gradually enmeshed in debilitating power wrangles.  This ultimately led to her being jettisoned by her own party.

The old saying that Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely seems to ring true.

The Council has published a menu of changes that it seeks in return for the loss of independence. There is no mention in the programme of the principle of subsidiarity – decisions being taken as close to those who are affected as possible.  There is no mention of any need to fetter the powers of the mayor. There is no “recall” option. There is no requirement for a consensual budget approvals process.

It would be the Mayor who would approve Spatial (strategic) plans for the whole of the area. It would the Mayor who would have compulsory purchase powers which could be used to reshape both town and country.

The list of so called “asks” includes something for everyone.  

Some environmentalists will love the idea that we’ll only – even in remote rural areas – be using electric vehicles in 5 years’ time while the now obligatory “plant more trees” campaign has acquired ritual status in all government documents. The same environmentalist may skim over the plan for agriculture – an important industry in North Yorkshire – the policy for which depends almost entirely on bio science driven change. Concerns about genetically modified crops would be side lined as would be the chlorinated chicken debate and the other less desirable impacts of BREXIT.

Only the truly gullible would be bought off by such illusions.

Will a LibDem dominated York Council executive buy the “pig in a poke”?

 We hope not.

Other devolved structures are available which, although perhaps not producing the same headline expenditure opportunities, would at least retain more independence for the City.

Those other choices, which should include the status quo, need to be exemplified with residents being given a real opportunity to influence which, if any, are pursued further.

Conspiracy theory

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Once again York is being touted as the new home for the House of Lords.

Several newspapers are claiming that the move of government departments to the City is gaining traction. One even claims that some officials have been “house hunting” in the area.

As we have said before, re-establishing York as the capital of the north is an attractive prospect. The City has excellent transport links while an ideal location for a second chamber – or whatever you may wish to call it – exists next to the railway station.

The prospect must be enticing for City leaders. But any move is likely to be a decade away and much can happen in the interim.

It may, or may not, be a coincidence that at precisely the same time as this enticing prospect hit the headlines again another, less welcome, government initiative floated into view.

The North Yorkshire Mayor

As well as the prospect of devolved resources from Whitehall, the North Yorkshire Mayor would take on some powers which have hitherto been rooted in local communities. Not least amongst these is strategic planning. Decisions on, for example, York’s Green Belt could rest in the hands of a politician who would, based on election results during the last 40 years, be unlikely to enjoy the support of most York residents.

That was a recurring issue when the City formed part of the North Yorkshire County Council between 1973 and 1997. Controversial, even perverse, decisions are easier to take when those affected are 40 (or 200) miles away.

Eventually poor and insensitive decision making on essentially local issues led to the City reasserting an element of independence.

The next few weeks may be a critical time for York. A positive and proactive strategy is needed to lead the City out of the health crisis.

Negotiations on devolution, and the prospect of another local government reorganisation, will be an unwelcome distraction.

City leaders must get their priorities right.

Plan for North Yorkshire “Mayor”

Would include York with elections scheduled for 2022

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The York Council has revealed that it is in discussions with other local authorities in North Yorkshire about forming a “combined authority”. Government policy is to devolve some funding to regions but only if they agree to be governed by an elected Mayor.

West Yorkshire has a “combined authority” while South Yorkshire has already elected its own Mayor.

It seems that York may have little choice in the matter.

Details can be found by clicking here.

Consultation is promised prior to the Councils executive meeting on 23rd July. That meeting will apparently detail the Councils expectations of any deal. Council media releases refer to the, ludicrously titled, “big conversation” as the preferred conduit for resident comments (although there are no questions about devolution on the “on line” survey).

While more funding for the region would be welcome, the prospect of power being put into one persons hands in such a large an area as North Yorkshire will give many a sinking felling.

York extracted itself from the North Yorkshire County Council in 1997 in the hope that a unitary authority would be more sensitive to local priorities. The results have been mixed, partly as a result of the highly volatile local political scene.

The only current post which is in any way similar is that of the Police and Crime Commissioner (now incorporating fire) which has been a lamentable failure. The post is hopelessly remote, is not accountable in any real way and, so far, has attracted poorly qualified candidates. The current post-holder seems to have little empathy for the problems of York.

The PCC powers would probably transfer to any new Mayor.

All in all, the obsession national politicians have with the American “city boss” model is profoundly depressing. Decisions taken in Northallerton (or Craven) are unlikely to be any more sensitive to York concerns than those currently determined in Whitehall.

But it does look like this is where things are heading.

York Council plans more devolution to residents

The York Council says that it will give more powers to local residents to influence how resources are used in 4 key public service areas.

They are:

  • Increased ward budgets.
  • A “Safer Communities” fund to meet residents’ priorities.  
  • More ward control of spending on highways to meet residents’ priorities
  • Timely delivery of Housing Environmental Improvement Schemes (HEIP). NB.These are tenant funded.

The plans are broadly to be welcomed.

Over the last 8 years the number of locally determined improvement schemes has declined while those that have been approved have faced unacceptable delays in implementation.

One set of new parking laybys in the Westfield area took over 4 years to plan and construct.

Askham Lane lay by took 4 years to complete

A report to the Councils executive meeting this week, paints a confused picture of what is wrong with the current “ward committee” process and what might replace it.

Councillor dominated “Ward teams” will stand in for residents associations where the latter do not exist.

£250,000 has been allocated to wards for them to spend making local communities “safer”. Although joint working with the police is proposed, the major issue – an institutional reluctance to expand the use of technology solutions such as CCTV – remains. So, the most that residents will likely see will be “target hardening” style initiatives.

Two additional staff members are to be employed helping to administer ward committee improvements. Last year £157,000 of ward budget was not spent. This is put down to process delays.

£500,000 is being allocated for local highways improvements (road and footpaths). A further £500,000 is allocated for “walking and cycling” improvements. The irony, that better highways maintenance is the best way of encouraging safe walking and cycling, appears to be lost on the report authors. 

Perhaps School Street will now be resurfaced?

The £1 million simply should be added to the road and footpath resurfacing budget.

The budget is classified as “capital” meaning that it must be spent on an asset with a long lifespan. That would seem to rule out a crash programme aimed at removing the trees, hedges and weeds which obstruct many existing foot and cycle paths.

 The idea of recognising and responding to local concerns is the right one though.

Poor highway maintenance is invariably the most criticised local public service in residents satisfaction polls.

The Council plans to introduce a “6 stage” process in allocating the estate improvement budget.  As the main criticisms of the existing process is that it is cumbersome and slow, the introduction of additional bureaucratic stages is unlikely to be welcomed.

The report talks of the provision of parking lay-by taking up to 24 months to complete. In the past, the use of contractors had cut this target time down to less than 4 months. Councils should return to the old procedure where Residents Associations/Parish Councils took responsibility for drawing up improvement lists.

Walton Place footpaths need repairs

Finally, the report talks of using a mechanistic formulae for assessing the “social value” of each project. As a way of spending scarce public resources this is a discredited approach. The value of projects can best be determined by door to door surveys thus giving residents a chance to directly influence their neighbourhood.

The report does not propose any PFIs to monitor progress on any of these programmes.

It does, however, require decisions to be made in public and with a public record. Regular “on line” updates are proposed (although these have been  promised in the past but have never been produced in a timely or accessible way)

There are no proposals which would provide better support for Residents Associations. The Council recently refused to even publicise RA activities on its web site.

How much locally?

The Council has published a list indicating the amounts that will be available to spend in each ward. In Westfield (one of the largest wards) during the present financial year that totals £55,878  

With highways (£63,830) and safer communities fund (£17,181). That figure increases to nearly £120,000 over 4 years.

 To put that into context a 4 space parking bay costs around £10,000, while the resurfacing of Stonegate is costing £1/2 million this year.

West Yorkshire Combined Authority – York’s share of costs benefits revealed

A Freedom of Information response has revealed the amount that York has paid into the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, as well as the claimed benefits.

Last year, York paid £21,645 as its share of the cost of the “Your next Bus” project which we commented on a few weeks ago.  The City is due to pay another £21,645 this year towards the project.

smart ticketing

smart ticketing

 It is unclear when this new bus tracking system will be operational.

The WYCA also claims to have spent £318,149 on “smart bus ticketing” in the York area.  This was funded by central government grant and should lead to the extended use of cashless payment options for bus travel.  Again it is unclear when this option will be widely available in the City.

York is also due to pay £48,486 to the WYCA this year as its share of the Leeds Region Local Enterprise Partnership costs.

Benefits are expected to include participation in an “Apprentice Hub” programme and an employer ownership pilot.

The WYCA had a (largely inherited) pension liability of over £68 million at the end of the last financial year. It currently admits a total deficit on its reserves of £33 million but has a working balance of £7.9 million. It is not known whether, under devolution proposals, York will remain a participant in the WYCA.

NB. Over £150,000 a year in “special responsibility payments” are being claimed by Councillors serving on WYCA committees although these area not highlighted in the annual figures published by the York Council. All WYCA members receive a basic allowance of £4500 a year

York Council backs all horses in devolution race – loss feared on wager

Back wrong horse

This follows detailed dialogue between the council’s Executive and its officers alongside peers from neighbouring local authorities, central government and key organisations such as Local Enterprise Partnerships.

York has expressed an interest in potential bids for the Leeds City Region; a City of York, North Yorkshire and East Riding proposal and for further dialogue about a broader Greater Yorkshire geography”.

The bids can be read here

The Council has not released details of residents responses to its much hyped “consultation” on the issue.

The Council goes on to say, “These conversations with government will continue ahead of decisions on which, if any, deal York will be part of and the full economic, political and governance workings of it. The Executive has been clear on its commitment to consult and has undertaken face-to-face engagement with residents and businesses through a series of devolution conversations. Any decision on being part of a new authority will have to be ratified by Full Council”.

Mayors new clothes

2682C7DE00000578-2988585-Nothing_to_hide_Mayoral_candidate_Yolanda_Morin_stripped_off_in_-a-6_1426016467288The York Council is embarking on a, largely nominal, consultation exercise on the desirability of handing powers to an elected Mayor in Yorkshire.

Unfortunately what powers and resources such an official might have is largely opaque. Hence it is impossible to predict with any accuracy what impact such a post might have on everyday life.

Up and down the country there have been some able Mayor elected. They are balanced by some pretty poor ones in places like Tower Hamlets and, much more close to home, Doncaster who have presided over poor services and questionable practices.

In London, the Mayor spends most of his time on public relations duties. London is, in any case, very much different from Yorkshire.

The latest push for devolution coincides with a plan to give Scotland more powers. Yorkshire has broadly the same population as Scotland so why shouldn’t it be able to determine its own priorities goes the argument?

But would a Mayor under siege in a Doncaster bunker be more sensitive to local needs than someone in an office a further 180 miles away.

We doubt they would.

The Council is right to give people a chance to air their views. Given the lack lustre information pack issued by the Council they would be wise not to expect a big response.

The pack contains some strange claims, not least  that the new system might help to “preserve the green belt”. The contrary might more likely be the case.  A regional baron exercising powers from Bradford might find it much easier to ride roughshod over the views and aspirations of a small City like York

The new Council has inherited a mish mash of regional and sub regional bodies. It is in two enterprise partnership areas and seeks to maintain a foot in both the the Labour dominated West Yorkshire Combined Authority and in Tory dominated North Yorkshire. Added to mix, are four  Police and Crime Commissioners (whose role could be taken over by an elected Mayor). Their demise would, at least, be a welcome relief for taxpayers.

So some rationalisation is needed.where-boris-bikes-go-video-animation-21471977

But change should start with the principle of subsidiarity – that decisions should be taken at the level nearest the people that the decision affects.

Unless that principle is agreed, and electoral systems are used which ensure that all views can be articulated,  then further consideration of elected Mayors, or extending the powers of the currently opaque “combined authority”, is simply not worth spending any time on.

The Council says, “a series of drop-in engagement events will be held across the city from next week to offer residents and businesses more information about what devolution means for York”.

The drop-in events will be held at the following locations where officers, members of the Executive and the Chief Executive will be on-hand to answer any questions on devolution:

York Explore, Marriott Room
• Thursday 13 August 12.30 – 2pm 
• Thursday 20 August 5.30 – 7pm

West Offices, Hudson Board Room
• Monday 10 August, 5.30 – 7pm 
• Tuesday 18 August, 11.30am – 1pm

Alternately, email feedback to: or write to: Devolution, Business Intelligence Team, City of York Council, West Offices, York, YO1 6GA.

Residents will note that the Council’s new found interest in devolution doesn’t extend to holding events in the suburbs!

Council failing to communicate on major public service changes

Jargon used to hide York Councils real intentions

Residents attending today’s “drop in” at the Acomb Library (1:00pm – 5:00pm) should beware.

They will be talking to the “rewiring” team about changes to “place based” services.

Use of jargon and euphemisms is a well tested way of disguising the true motivations and intentions of corrupt organisations

In reality the proposals in York include plans to charge for waste collection while making local residents responsible for managing and maintaining local parks and open spaces.

Council to charge for refuse collection

The PR campaign is part of an emerging trend with the Council encouraging other propaganda initiatives aimed at influencing public opinion…..while being economical with the facts

These may include the ostensibly independent (business led) @YorkLocalPlan twitter account.

This group advocates building “at least” 850 additional homes in the City each year and erroneously claims that there is only room for 5000 to be built on brownfield land. In fact, over 2000 additional brownfield planning permissions have been granted during the last 2 years…. all on brownfield sites which were not identified on the draft Local Plan for housing. More are in the pipeline.

 Still at least that organisation is unashamedly driven by vested commercial interests.

More worrying is the impenetrable “rewiring” project. It aims to save over £4.5 million a year for the Council.

Of this £800,000 will be cut from street level public services.


It is dressed up as a devolution project in a report to the Councils Cabinet next week

The reality is given away in a paragraph in another report which says,

” Community Open Space Management – As part of the review of Place Based Services the Council are looking to transfer the management of open space to local communities. Such a transfer would reduce both day to day and long term costs and enable the Council to achieve savings”.

The Council report – rightly – does criticise some local Councillors for not providing “leadership”.

 In truth many – particularly on the Labour side – do not live in the wards that they represent and rarely even visit the people that they are supposed to represent. They don’t produce newsletters, don’t survey public service quality standards and only follow up issues when there is an election in the offing. They are the people who are least likely to drive community action.

It is also fanciful to suggest that all communities have the capacity to take on public service management . 

While the devolution of powers to local communities is welcome

Seeking a way of blaming local volunteers for a deterioration in public service standards is a deplorable tactic