York Council reveals number of littering and fly tipping fines issued

The Council says that it only issued two Fixed Penalty Notices for littering during 2019.

13 Penalty Notices were issued for fly tipping.

The information comes from a response to a Freedom of Information request recorded in the “What do they know” web site.

With the Council now only updating its register of responses on its own web site every 6 months (and then with headline information only), the independent site is now the only way that residents can keep up to date with the claims being made by the York authority.

Cost of political advisers

The site also reveals the costs of providing “political advisers” for Council Groups.

The figures reveal that costs have almost doubled over the last decade

The advisers are supposed to undertake background policy research to assist Councillors in their duties.

The curtain of secrecy falls again at York Council

Those hoping for more transparency at the York Council under its new LibDem/Green leadership have been desperately disappointed this week.

First a failure to reform the system for granting early release resulted in a “behind closed doors” decision which could be costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Now the Council has closed down direct access to the responses that it has made to Freedom of Information requests.

For over 10 years residents were able to browse “on line” what the Council had said in response to requests.

No more.

The responses have been removed from the Council web site and users must now search a disclosure log before requesting copies of the responses.

There are hundreds of FOI and  Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) requests made each year.

York Council block direct access to information

In most cases the issue titles used on the log – which is 6 months out of date – give little clue as to what has been asked. Much less could users second guess the answers.

Instead they must make an application for access to the source document.

In most cases we would expect that researchers would simply submit a new request.

At present the “What do they know” web site is unaffected https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/select_authority

The performance of the Council in responding to FOIs is poor. There is one current example – a request for  copies of Service Level Agreements – which has been outstanding for over 4 months; well outside the performance target set by the Information Commissioner.

Ostensibly the Council has made the change to ensure that those with disabilities have the same opportunity to get information as the able bodied.

Unfortunately the Councils interpretation means that both sectors of the community will now share a common level of ignorance and inconvenience.

As a minimum the Council should put a link on its “register” to the actual documents. Web services such as “dropbox” make this very easy to do.

A parallel service for disabled uses should also be made available.

An iron curtain descends?

It seems that the York Council will stop publishing responses to Freedom of information requests on its web site.

In 2009 the York Council became one of the first in the country to allow on line public scrutiny of the responses to information requests.

We have been critical in the past about the speed of the Councils information responses.

This came to a head in 2014 when the Information Commissioner became involved. The then Labour controlled Council introduced a new web page which offered links to all FOI responses.  The web page was immediately criticised as responses were not listed in chronological order and were grouped under, seemingly, random headings. There was no search facility.

Improvements were promised but never materialised.

Other independent web sites grew up which aimed to make getting and viewing information easier.  The best known is probably https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/

Now a report to a meeting taking place on Wednesday suggests that some officials want to make access to information even more difficult.

They intend to replace the current listings with what they term a “disclosure log”. No example of what such a log might look like are provided.

The report quotes an EU decision taken in 2016. The equivalent UK legislation became effective on 20th September 2019. It was aimed at improving accessibility for people with disabilities.

This is being interpreted by officials as preventing the publication of information on the Council web site in PDF* or Word format.

*NB.  There are many papers published on the Councils web site in PDF format including, ironically, the report being considered at Wednesday’s meeting!

Of concern, will be the implication that the FOI archive of decisions (going back 6 years) may no longer be easily accessible. This provides vital information for researchers. It also helps to avoid duplicate requests.

That, and loss of transparency on future responses, would be a major step backwards.

The report is for the “information” of the Council’s Audit and Governance” committee. They rightly should take a view on the issue but any decisions on obstructing public access to information must properly be made by the Councils Executive, following proper consultation

There is an provision in the legislation which allows an exemption for (historic) information translations where this would be an unreasonable burden on taxpayers.

The legislation does not cover third party web sites so information on https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/ should be unaffected.

Proper provision for disabled access can, and should, be made using, for example, a mirror site.

But this must not be at the expense of the amount of information released into the public domain.

York Council stops publishing Freedom of Information responses

The York Council has stopped publishing its responses to FOI requests on its web site.

For many years the authority made information publicly available on this web site https://www.york.gov.uk/info/20219/freedom_of_information/1535/freedom_of_information_responses

No FOI responses for 2019 published by Council

That practice stopped last summer although there was no consultation or publicity given to the change of policy.

The new LibDem administration has apparently gone along with this change of approach.

The Council is not required by law to publish responses but it is regarded as good practice. Most Councils do publish this information and it has the advantage of helping to discourage duplicate requests,

Some responses are published when a request has been submitted via the independent web site What do they Know” However this is not the York Councils preferred channel for submitting and answering information requests.

It provides is own “on line” information request form (click)

The Council received 2068 requests under FOI and Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) during the last financial year

News blackout

The Council has also scrapped its “Ward News” web pages.

For many years the authority provided web pages which told local residents what was going on their local neighbourhoods. These were linked to background pages for each ward (click for example)

The pages typically carried “what’s on” lists and event posters. These have now been binned by the local authority.

The Council is also refusing to publish, on individual Residents Association web pages (example), details of their meetings. Copies of agendas and meeting minutes had been published by the Council for several years but,
in a recent decision, these have now been black-listed, ,

This seems to be part of a deliberate strategy aimed at reducing resident influence at West Offices. Half a dozen residents associations have been forced to disband in recent years while the overarching York Residents Federation was also ditched last year.

Liberal Democrat Councillors had previously promised more support for residents organisation.

Unfortunately things now seem to be getting worse rather than better.

Spark container village – payments to Council revealed

In response to a Freedom of Information request, the York Council has revealed that it has received £13,333 in rent from the Spark container village on Piccadilly since they first arrived in September 2017.
Spark April 2018

This amounts to little more than £700 a month since the organisation took over the prime site.

No payments have been received by the Council from the “profit sharing” scheme agreed as part of the deal to allow shipping containers to be installed on the site. The council says it is still awaiting receipt of accounts for last year. The last accounts filed by Spark were for the year ending March 2018.

£19,856 is owed by Spark and its tenants for Business Rates. The Council says that it is taking recovery action.

The original Spark business pitch to the Council talked about a £71,000 profit each year. Part of this was to be used to repay the Council’s initial investment (which cost over £40,000) in new utility infrastructure,

The container village has been controversial from the start with long delays in meeting some planning conditions. An instruction to replace graffiti style street art with cladding on the Piccadilly frontage is still outstanding (click for background)

The contract allows for the Council to take back the site if, after 21 days, the tenants have failed to pay the rent or complied with their obligations under the Lease.

Many of the individual units have been empty over recent months.

Although warmer weather may give the containers a temporary boost in customer numbers, it is surely long overdue for the Council to test the market by advertising the site for permanent redevelopment.

York Council response to Freedom of Information request 29th April 2019

£100,000 costs of York Council “witch hunt” revealed

In response to a Freedom of information request the York Council has revealed that it paid £98,348.37 to solicitors acting against LibDem Councillor Keith Aspden.

Cllr Keith Aspden

Copies of invoices submitted by solicitors acting for the Council have now been published. They total rather more that the figure admitted by the Council.

 Cllr Aspden had – unjustifiably as it turned out – been accused of breaking the Council’s Code of conduct.

Cllr Aspden was suspended from his executive position and was only recently formally exonerated.

In addition to the costs of engaging outside solicitors, the Council incurred undisclosed internal staffing and other expenses.

As well as loss of earnings, Cllr Aspden was forced do pay for his own legal representation.

To put the matter into perspective, had the £98,000 been spent on road repairs then an additional 6 streets in the City could have been resurfaced last year.

The matter is still subject to an inquiry into how the case came to be so badly mishandled. Compensation may also be on the cards.

At least one official who was involved in the case is set to leave the authority.

Now York Council tries to hide cost of Lord Mayors bash

Hard on the heels of its decision to hide information about the work rate of individual Councillors, the York Council has now refused to reveal the costs of yesterdays Lord Mayors luncheon.

A citizen posted a series of questions under Freedom of Information rules which would have revealed which Councillors paid for their own meals at the exclusive Star Inn the City restaurant following the Guildhall event.

The request has been refused because of the “the context, history, purpose and impact of your requests and contact with and about the council, its officers and particular Councillors, the information that has already been made public regarding the Lord Mayors lunch and the fact that you are aware of where council expenditure will be published”.

While the Council may find the particular citizens dogged pursuit of wrongdoing an irritant, it is not a reason to suppress facts in which there is a public interest.

Nor has the Council yet explained why it publicly claimed that the event could not take place in the traditional Assembly Rooms venue “because it was unavailable due to repair works”

It subsequently transpired that the Assembly Rooms will continue to operate as a normal dining venue until at least July.

Those Councillors who have made a contribution towards the costs of the event – or made a charitable donation in lieu – would be wise publicise the fact.

In the meantime the York Council should come out from behind its barricades and provide more citizen engagement than can be achieved by some ritual flag waving.

NB. Total direct costs of Lord Mayors Day – including refreshments – are normally around £6000

 

York data sharing website launched

York businesses invited to sign-up

City of York Council has launched a new website featuring local data, giving residents and businesses free access to a wealth of information about their city, which will be used to build new solutions to all kinds of challenges such as those around sustainability, transport, energy and community engagement.

York Open Data is a place for businesses and organisations to publicly share their data so that anybody can connect to hundred’s of up-to-date, searchable data sets and use them to make a difference in their local area.

Anybody wishing to get involved in York Open Data is encouraged to make contact and sign-up to future events at www.yorkopendata.org.
(more…)

York Council got Freedom of Information costs wrong

A media report, claiming that responding to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests made to the York Council cost on average £700 each, was wrong the authority has admitted.

Ironically it took another FOI request to reveal the real figure of £137.

Behind closed doors logo

The Council claims that the mistake was due to an error in a press release that it issued.

£715 was the maximum cost for processing a request.

The Councils FOI web page is poor lacking even an on line form on which to record requests.

 Since it was under LibDem control in 2010, the Council has, however, routinely published on its web site the answers to the FOI requests that it has processed.

The Council’s Audit committee is due to consider the FOI processes next Wednesday.

It will hear that the number of FOI requests has escalated since Labour took control of the Council and adopted a “behind closed doors” decision making regime. The number of requests increased from 804 in 11/12 to 1384 in 13/14 (72%).

81% of the requests were responded to within the 20 day deadline.

98 dissatisfied residents asked for their requests to be reviewed and 93 went as far as complaining to the Information Commissioners Office (ICO).

In 40 cases the ICO found against the Council.

The types of information requested from the Council varies a lot.

  • Some is commercially motivated with potential tenderers seeking information on upcoming contracts.
  • Others are routine trawls for information from vested interests. These would include companies flowing up “no next of kin” deaths as well as unclaimed Business rates.

In both these cases the Council should routinely publish on its web site the information that is available. That would be much cheaper than responding to individual request for information.

Many of the requests though reflect the interest that residents have in the way that the Council is being managed.

It would take a sea change in attitude from the present Council if the information needs of residents were to be anticipated and built into monitoring systems rather than have to be dragged from a reluctant, obstructive Leadership.

Labour’s housing waiting list scam – Freedom of Information request submitted

click to access

click to access

A Freedom of Information request has been submitted aimed at getting to the bottom of the recent drop in the number of people on the social housing waiting list in York.

The number on the  list fell from over 4600 families at the beginning of September, to only 2200 in October. No new social housing developments were completed for occupation during that period.

It turned out that a behind closed doors decision had been taken to kick more than half of the applicants off the list.

We now understand that most of these were deemed to be people who did not have a real housing need and who had not applied for any of the homes advertised during the previous 12 months.

Of the others, 140 were already homeowners and 187 had no local connection while 13 had no local connection and were also homeowners

57 applicants had their application banding changed from Gold to Silver.
The Council has to respond within 28 days to the FOI request.
The request seeks details of how the decision was taken, when and by whom.

It asks the Council what consultation was undertaken.

It seeks more information about the categories of people who have been thrown off the register.