Risks, delays & cost increases as York Council struggles to manage its commercial portfolio

York Guildhall

Yesterday’s announcement that more than £15 million of infrastructure schemes had been secured in North Yorkshire over the next 18 months – with £300,000 of funding going towards the York Guildhall offices project – will have been welcomed by many.

The money comes from the Government’s “Getting Building Fund” which “aims to boost economic recovery from Covid-19”.

According to a Council spokesman, the funding will now be used “for internal fit-out works” on the business club which will occupy much of the building.

That will come as a surprise to those who thought that the agreed £20.18 million budget included all costs.  Indeed, the option approved by the Council in February 2019, specifically identified £300,000 for “fixtures, fittings and furniture”.

Council report 2019. Option 1 was agreed

It seems that the only change is that this expenditure will now be funded from general taxation.

Even with this subsidy, and assuming that all offices and the on site restaurant, are all occupied, York Council taxpayers still face an annual bill of over £500,000.

An Executive meeting which took place last week was told in an update on the Guildhall project that “additional delays have meant that it is presently considered that these additional costs cannot be contained within the agreed contingency”.

The scale of the over expenditure was not revealed.

The Guildhall is not the only commercial portfolio project to come under scrutiny.

Some independent commentators are sceptical about the timing of the Councils £2.8 million acquisition of 25/27 Coney Street. Rent levels are now dropping and with them property valuations in some high streets. Coney Street is struggling more than most.

Meanwhile large numbers of Council owned properties remain empty and unused.

These include Ashbank (empty for 8 years), 29 Castlegate (3 years), Oakhaven (4 years) and Willow House (4 years 6 months).

Willow House stands abandoned with no sign of redevelopment work starting.

We now understand that Willow House – which was advertised for sale with Sanderson Weatherall – has been withdrawn from the market. The Council turned down a £3 million offer for the prime site shortly after it became available.

None of these properties are accommodating anyone.

All are incurring maintenance and security costs for taxpayers, while at the same time attracting no Business Rates or rent income.

At a time when local authorities are on their knees financially, poor resource management is  a matter of concern.

Coronavirus York updates; 29th April 2020

Coronavirus cases in York

here are 258 known cases of coronavirus in York out of a local population of 209,893. That is a rate of 1229 cases per million – the 142nd highest rate in England.

Government loans for small businesses but York grants scheme flops

The new government “Bounce Back Loan” scheme will launch on 4 May 2020.

The scheme will help small and medium-sized businesses to borrow between £2,000 and £50,000. The government will guarantee 100% of the loan and there won’t be any fees or interest to pay for the first 12 months.

Loan terms will be up to 6 years. No repayments will be due during the first 12 months. The government will work with lenders to agree a low rate of interest for the remaining period of the loan. The scheme will be delivered through a network of accredited lenders.

Read more here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/apply-for-a-coronavirus-bounce-back-loan

Meanwhile the York Council has still not provided an update on its grant scheme for “micro” businesses prompting concerns that the scheme was just a bit of “window dressing”. The scheme promised £1 million in funding.

Criticism of the Councils reaction to the health crisis is increasing in other areas. It appears that only a small proportion of the residents who volunteered to help have actually had their offers taken up while several businesses say they are continuing to deliver food in the City but were not included on the Councils recent advertising leaflet.

Theatre Royal £500,000 Council grant decision next week – still few details available

The York Council is expected next week to confirm an additional grant of £1/2 million to the Theatre Royal.

The plan – which will be classified as “capital expenditure” and will increase the Councils already large capital debt – was revealed during the recent budget debate.

The report to the decision meeting which take place on 16th March is unsatisfactory in several respects. It fails to include essential information about the Theatres financial performance.

As a minimum the 2018/19 outturn, the 2019/20 and the (draft) 2020/21 budget should be made public. At the moment taxpayers have no idea whether the Theatre is profitable or not (probably not!).

There is no detail of the Theatres medium term business plans. There is no comment from the York Councillors (Crawshaw, Daubeney, Mason) who are supposed to look after the Council and residents’ financial interests on the Theatre Board

In 2015 the Council decided to sell the Theatre Royal building to the York Conservation Trust for £1. The Trust is a benign body which agree to make a major investment in essential repairs. The Council said that it planned to stop its annual support grant to the Theatre but instead agreed to make a contribution of £770,000 towards a £4.1 million restoration project. This project was intended to make the Theatre self-supporting.  The Council’s responsible executive member told the York Press in February 2016 “This funding agreement will strengthen York Theatre Royal’s sustainability for the future”

Theatre Royal refurbishment 2016

The refurbishment overran its timescale and the Theatre was effectively closed for nearly a year.

The most worrying aspect of the new deal is the decision to borrow money to fund it. The Council report says that the £500,000 borrowing will cost taxpayers “£35,000 a year” in interest charges and principal repayments. Only if the Council borrows the money over a 20 year term. Some of the proposed expenditure (IT, box office software) will be on items with an expected lifetime of less than 7 years. Borrowing money over a period longer than the life of an asset would be financial madness.

A more realistic borrowing time-frame would be 10 years, meaning taxpayers would be committed to ongoing payments of around £65,000 a year. 

NB The Council aggregates all its borrowing requirements and currently enjoys interest payments on its borrowings of less than 5%

Then there is the question of whether more investment will be sought in 4 years time?

The Council should not agree the expenditure without publishing a lot more information about the financial trajectory for the Theatre.

In the event of it ceasing trading, most of the taxpayer investment would be unrecoverable.

The demise of the Rose Theatre last year has already left the York taxpayer with a £40,000 plus bill.

It could be viewed by the Council as a timely warning about the need for prudent and well informed decisions.

Residents at Foxwood Co op this morning

Foxwood Residents Association officials are visiting the Coop shop on Beagle Ridge Drive this morning. They will be encouraging shoppers to nominate Foxwood as a beneficiary of a grants scheme set up by the Coop. The local residents Association gets a grant equal to 1% of the shopping bill of any participating member. This is a unique a “no cost” opportunity to help the local community.

 

Grants to help keep your home warmer this winter and beyond

As the cold weather continues to bite across the county, householders in York are being reminded that they can apply for up to 100%-funded grants to help insulate energy inefficient homes and reduce heating bills.

Funded by the West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s Tackling Fuel Poverty Programme, the scheme, which has been running since early 2017, will help pay for the cost of topping up existing loft insulation or installing new cavity wall insulation.

Householders struggling to heat their homes and earning less than £20,000 a year combined income, can apply for 100% funding while 75% grants are available for those households earning between £20,000 and £35,000.

Residents who think they may be eligible should call City of York Council on 019040 552300 or email betterhomes@york.gov.uk.

To qualify, homes should have suitable, un-insulated cavity walls or minimal loft insulation.

New energy efficiency grants available in York

A new two-year project to help improve the energy efficiency of the private homes of lower-income households in York is being launched this week by City of York Council.

cavity-wall-insulation-illustration-244136Grants and loans will be available to less well off households towards the cost of cavity wall and loft insulation. A small number of grants are also available to insulate loft extensions and solid walls.

Households with annual incomes below £20,000 per year could receive 100 per cent funding whilst those with annual incomes between £20,000 and £35,000 could receive 75 per cent towards the cost of the improvements.

Qualifying households will be in the five priority wards:

  • Micklegate,
  • Guildhall,
  • Holgate,
  • Clifton and
  • Fishergate.

These have been identified as having higher numbers of poorly-insulated privately rented or owned homes and where households suffer higher rates of fuel poverty.

City of York Council will be working with Willmott Dixon to deliver these energy efficiency measures through the Better Homes Yorkshire framework set up to support the ten local authorities in the Leeds City Region to work together to secure funding and improve properties.

This funding follows the council’s Northern Health and Housing Summit ‘Better Homes, Better Health’ held in York in June this year, when the impact of cold and how to tackle it was a central theme.

Research commissioned by the council from the Building Research Establishment identified that cold homes are associated with a range of poor health outcomes such as respiratory andcirculatory problems, and can exacerbate certain conditions including asthma, diabetes. Recovery following hospital discharge can also take longer and sometimes increases the risk of conditions such as depression and anxiety.

Eligible residents living in the priority wards who need cavity wall or loft insulation should contact the council’s Housing Standards and Adaptations team on 01904 552300 or email housing.standards@york.gov.uk. Residents not living in these wards but who have low incomes with high heating costs may also be eligible for help and should also call 01904 552300.

For help with energy debts or other advice contact Citizens Advice York on 03444 111 444, visit www.yorkcab.org.uk; or contact Age UK York on 01904 627995.
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Applying for national Flood Resilience Grant now even easier in York

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

York residents and businesses can now complete and submit their application for up to £5,000 flooding support at the click of a button.

The application form for the national Flood Resilience Grant is now available to complete online at www.york.gov.uk/FloodResilienceGrants and can be completed and returned electronically. The national grant provides up to £5,000 to support the resistance and resilience of property flooded as a result of Storm Desmond and Storm Eva as part of a national package of financial support available.

The resilience grant will enable those who have been flooded to better prepare their homes for future flood events, both to prevent flood water from entering the property and to speed the recovery if it does.

The council has already received over 70 applications for the grant, with many hundreds of queries about the funding taken.

A new case worker, jointly funded by City of York Council and Two Ridings Foundation has recently been appointed to help guide people through the grant process.

Further information about the Flood Resilience Grant is available at www.york.gov.uk/FloodResilienceGrants

More financial support available for people affected by floods

flood barrierYork residents and businesses are being reminded that they could receive up to £5,000 to support the resistance and resilience of their property as part of a national package of financial support available.

The Government is providing the funding to enable local authorities to provide grants of up to £5,000 to homeowners and businesses that have been flooded as a result of Storm Desmond and Storm Eva to help fund additional flood resilience or resistance measures for their properties.

The resilience grant will enable those who have been flooded to better prepare their homes for future flood events, both to prevent flood water from entering the property and to speed the recovery if it does.

People who think they may be eligible for a grant needs to register their interest by emailing: floodresiliencegrant@york.gov.uk or calling 01904 552300.

They will then be sent:

More information about the grants is available at www.york.gov.uk/FloodResilienceGrants

The update from the Two Ridings foundation, which is allocating the grants from  the York Flood Appeal, has still not appeared on their web site .

The organisation promised that it would be published earlier in the week.

 

Discussion starts on grant funding of Community Centres in York

 

The report on how part of the grants for local Community Centres could be reinstated has been published.

Sanderson House community centre

Sanderson House community centre

The centres affected are located in Foxwood, Chapelfields, Bell Farm and Heworth.

A fifth – the Burton Stone Centre – was to have been sold off to a third party operator but this has fallen through. It continues – at least for the moment – to be run by Council employees, but without a volunteer user committee.

The Community Centres running cost grants (which totalled £140,000 in 2013) were stopped last year by the then Labour run Council.

It had been hoped that the new Council, having made £70,000 available to support the centres when it met in July, would allow for the reinstatement of some caretaker roles.

In turn this would have allowed the centres – which otherwise depend entirely on volunteers –  to increase their opening hours.

A report to a meeting taking place next week offers three choices for the use of the funding.  They are:

  1. The Council could retain the £70k budget with no direct grant funding to the voluntary management committees. The budget would be used to maintain the condition of the five premises enabling funds to be directed to those buildings which have the greatest identified repair and maintenance requirements.
  2. The Council could split the £70k equally across the five centres, offering them a £14k direct grant each.
  3. A combination of options A and B to provide some direct grants, whilst retaining some of the budget for the Council to contribute to the repair and maintenance liabilities. A sinking fund would also be established to allow a planned approach to asset replacement.

Option (c) would reinstate only a £4000 a year grant to each of the five centres. See below for details

Foxwood Community Centre propsed grants

The rest would be syphoned off to pay for maintenance work at the buildings which are still owned by the Council.  As landlord the Council would be responsible for these repairs anyway.

There is a suggestion that an “apprentice” be appointed   – at a cost of £10,000 – to monitor the project.

Some people already feel that there has been too much interfering by Council officials in the work of the voluntary committees which work tirelessly to run the centres. Officials seem to want to weigh volunteers down with “service level agreements” and commitments which are simply too onerous for spare time volunteers to feel comfortable with.

We hope that “no strings” grants of at least £20,000 a year can be agreed for each centre. To allow for forward planning they should be guaranteed for the duration of at least the present Council (i.e. until 2019)

A decision on the grants will be taken at a meeting on Thursday, 3rd December, 2015 4.30 pm at West Offices. Residents may make written representations to the meeting and/or may register to attend in person and speak. (Telephone – (01904) 552062 Email laura.bootland@york.gov.uk)

Delay over Community Centre funding plans

One of the key policies of the new coalition Council was the restoration of grants to Council owned Community Centres.

Foxwood Community Centre

Foxwood Community Centre

The centres (Foxwood, Chapelfields, Bell Farm, Heworth and Burton Stone/Clifton) lost their grants under the last Labour administration and there were fears that some would close.

In July the new Council identified £70,000 to help underpin the centres. The voluntary groups currently running the centres have managed to kept them open until now.

The Council had been expected to allocate the total budget to individual centres on 14th September but unexplained delays have dogged the process since then.

Now it appears that the Councils Environment Executive member (Andrew Waller) has been debarred from making the decision which had been scheduled to be taken in November.

Instead Deputy Council Leader Keith Aspden will agree the allocations on 3rd December.

The is still hoped is that enough money will be made available to allow a part time caretaker to be appointed at both the Foxwood and Chapelfields centres.