Tree felling near Knapton Forest

The York Council announced last week that it had obtained external funding for the planned new “forest” near Knapton.

Ironically the first signs of activity on the proposed site have been tree felling works over recent days. (Clearly some of the trees were diseased).

No sign yet of any environmental evaluation.

The expectation was that there would be an attempt made to justify turning good quality agricultural land into a forest, with benefits and adverse consequences clearly enumerated.

Seems that will not happen nor has any public consultation on layout and other options yet started.

Council to borrow over £20 million more.

The York Council will consider tomorrow adding over £20 million to its debt burden.

 The cost to taxpayers of paying interest and redemption charges on the extra borrowing is put at £1.4 million a year.

The Council says that the costs of the new Knapton forest will now be met from “external sources”. It is therefore switching that expenditure into buying electric vehicles and associated charging facilities at a cost of over £5 million.

£100,000 will fund an “access barrier review”. This is thought to be a response to a section of the cycle lobby which is opposed to the use of safety barriers where they slow cycle movements. While an audit of infrastructure standards and repair works on the York cycle network is long overdue, concentration of limited resources on the relatively trivial barrier issue reflects poor prioritisation.

£1.1 million will be spent repairing Lendal Bridge while £1 million is reserved for the – more than slightly opaque – “COVID recovery fund”.

Probably the most controversial proposal is the plan to cut another £3.2 million from highways maintenance. This is the fund which is used to reconstruct road and path surfaces. It is a long-term investment which gives carriageways a 30 year plus lifespan. In turn this minimises the risk of frost damage. The large number of potholes which we have seen on the highway network recently suggests reconstruction should be a high priority.

All parties promised improved highway maintenance standards at the last local elections

. The cut in the highways maintenance budget is partly justified by officials who point to the £5 million being paid by central government for the resurfacing of Tadcaster Road (for the second time in less than a year). The resurfacing will not provide any additional benefit for road users.

Money is being transferred from highways resurfacing to fund the Council’s £2 million contribution to the Fordlands Road flood alleviation scheme. This is the scheme which should have been completed, and funded, as part of the recent improvements to the A19 in Fulford.

The report points out that there could still be further costs to be added to the budget as work on York Central, the Guildhall, Castle Gateway and dualling the outer ring road proceeds.

A copy of the proposed programme can be viewed by clicking here

Council confirm £2 million price tag for Knapton Forest land

Still no environmental or economic impact assessment

Knapton Forest land

The Council has published a report on its plans to establish a new 50,000 tree forest on land near Knapton.

The scheme had been criticised as “impulsive” with taxpayers believing that economic and environmental assessments of the effects of losing such a large area of good quality farming land – located near to potential consumers – should have been completed first.

No such evaluations, or a cost benefit analysis, have been published in the latest papers.

The project – which does have some merits – will disappoint many Liberal Democrat voters who were promised that accessible public open space would be provided to offset the loss of green fields, to new developments, in the Westfield area.  

Other open spaces and footpaths have recently also been sealed off by landowners, making informal leisure options even less accessible for many thousands of residents.

The report reveals that “£1.65 million was used in the land purchase in West York and a further £400,000 was approved for the purchase of adjacent land subject to negotiations with the current landowner (ongoing). Council also allocated £25,000 revenue funding (2020- 2021) rising to £50,000 in 2021/22 and 2022/23 to support woodland creation and this budget sits within the CSCP budget”

The Council says that it is still trying to access “external funding” to offset the costs of the project.

We will see.

No update is provided on the promise to purchase more potential woodland in “an area near to the inner ring road”.

There are many other sites in the City – already in public ownership – where more trees could be planted. 

Existing tree stocks have been neglected in recent years with many “highway trees” now needing either crown reduction or crown lifting work. The Councils budget allocation for tree maintenance work has been inadequate for many years.

NB. The report lets slip that the completion of the land purchase was announced in a “LibDem media release in October”.  At that time, the restrictions on revealing the site location – imposed by the Councils Executive at a formal session – had not been formally lifted. It is without precedent for a major Council decision to be formally announced by a political party in advance of the Council itself issuing a progress statement. Those concerned will no doubt be hoping that no one reports this indiscretion to the Standards Committee!

Council report December 2020

York Council and its empty buildings

A report to a Council meeting next week offers a limited insight into the York Councils property dealings. It comes at an opportune time with various other Councils having been badly burnt recent by injudicious investments in land and property. Croydon and the Cambridgeshire County Council are both heading for the local government equivalent of bankruptcy.

Against that background taxpayers might would hope for York Councillors to now to adopt a more measured approach to investment. The commercial property market is likely – in the wake of the pandemic – to remain depressed for some time. It is not a good time to sell assets.

Instead we find a plan to borrow an additional £4 million on top of the £384 million already committed. That is a debt of nearly £2000 for every man, woman, and child in the City. 20% of tax payments will have to go towards paying interest charges.

So what is happening to these assets?

Oakhaven Elderly Persons Home.

Oakhaven – empty for 4 years

This has remained empty since occupants were moved out – prematurely as it turned out – in 2016.  The sale for a new care home to Ashley House fell through in early 2017. No attempt was made to find even a temporary use for the site which occupies a prime location near to local amenities and good transport links. Maintenance expenditure on the empty building continued to fall on taxpayers. Now the council is proposing an “off-market” sale to regional care home operator, Burlington Care Limited. The size of the offer has not been revealed. Ironically, the officer report admits “An open market exercise may be impacted by COVID 19 suppressing property values. The council budget has been significantly impacted by COVID and there is a need to realise value from vacant assets in the near future”

Willow House

Another former care home, which has been empty for nearly 5 years, is Willow House. It is on a prime site located next to the city walls. The site was nearly sold for student housing in 2017 but ran into planning difficulties.  Other offers were ignored by the Council and an offer from a company which utilises empty residential accommodation to accommodate the homeless in return for caretaking and security duties, was spurned. Now it seems that the Council intends to build 40 apartments on the site and will probably use its own “Shape” development company to manage the investment.  The site is worth more than £2.3 million.

Willow House – empty for 5 years

Morrell House

An elderly person’s home empty since early 2018. No use has been found for the site. It is to be considered for use by “self-builders” but if that is not successful it will be sold on the open market.

Moor Lane car park

This is the site currently in use as a flu vaccination centre. It has mostly been empty for the last 4 years. There has been a lot of developer interest in building on the site. The Council has decided not to include it in the Council house building programme and may therefore sell it on. On the open market – even in these depressed times – it is likely to be worth less per acre than the Willow House site.

Haxby Hall

The sale of this home to private care home operator “Yorkare” has stalled. COVID is blamed

& the strange ones

Generally, taxpayers have benefited in the long run when the Council has bought land and buildings in the City. There have been exceptions. For example, when the authority impulsively sold the site now occupied by the Hiscox insurance company on Peasholme Green. Had it included a betterment clause in the sale then taxpayers rather than shareholders would have benefited from the subsequent increase in land values.

Knapton Forest

It looks increasingly likely that the purchase of good quality agricultural land near Knapton, with the intention of planting trees on it, may go into the same ill-considered category.  When wooded, the area will not have a resale option but will involve an ongoing maintenance liability. 180 acres will support 50,000 broadleaf trees making a, carbon sequestration, contribution to the £1.2 trillion additional trees which would be required on the planet to reverse climate change! The £1 million project is also hailed as a major new passive leisure option for residents although, in truth, it is poorly positioned to make up for the open space lost in recent years to building operations in the City’s poorer areas.

Knapton Forest site

The major issue remains the lack of an environmental impact assessment. The land currently contributes to the local food supply chain. If the land is lost to food production, imports may increase resulting in longer transport chains and – critically – higher carbon emission levels. Storing carbon – like burying nuclear waste – simply pushes a problem onto the next generation.

The key to improving the environment is to reduce carbon emissions. Even the government seemed to recognise this, with its initiative yesterday aimed at replacing gas boilers with heat pumps and other benign energy sources.

Eco centre

The Eco centre is the small business facility at Clifton Moor which was promoted by the Council some 15 years ago. It was provided via a “design and build” contract on Council owned land.

Occupation levels have been encouraging although usually reflecting the general state of the economy. There are 63 individual units there. The Council currently leases back the centre and has managed the facility since 2015.  The rent paid by tenant contributions is claimed to offset the current running costs.

Now officials are recommending that the Council spends £3.9 million buying out the interests of the owner of the building. The Council is not revealing how its business case figures stack up, but it claims that it may generate additional income by fitting PV (solar) panels on the roof.

Judged against the current economic volatility this looks like a high-risk strategy.

Guildhall

The plans for the non-listed section of the Guildhall have been an economic  “basket case” for several years. The opportunity to sell part of the building for residential, retail or hotel use represented the least risk option and should have been pursued in 2012 when the building first became empty.

Guildhall

Instead, against a background of neglect and rapidly increasing repair costs, the Council opted for a risky plan to establish a hi tech small business start-up centre. The overall viability of the plan depended on letting part of the space as a high-end restaurant. The Council said it would run the unit itself.

£20 million of taxpayers money is at risk.

Now York University, via its Science City offshoot, has apparently offered to lease the business centre space at the Guildhall. Some civic and community use would continue.  Science City has a generally good reputation and the offer to get the Council off its, self-inflicted, hook would seem to be an attractive one.

It is unclear how the success of the new enterprise would be judged. It is even less clear how the demand for City centre “incubator” space will mature in the wake of the pandemic.

The restaurant shell building will remain empty awaiting a resurgence of the local visitor economy.

The Council currently has a 9.2% minority stake in York Science Park Ltd. which it would sell.

The lease deal would be “off market” raising once again accusations of a “family and friends” approach to commercial dealings.

“Town and Gown” relations are already stressed in the wake of the pandemic and a perceived lack of accessibility for residents and visitors to the historic Kings Manor buildings in the City centre, which are currently occupied by the University.

The Council has pointedly not published updated business case figures which reflect the new offer being made as well as ongoing concerns about the cost of the renovation project..

Risk Management

On what must be one of the most risky approaches to the financial management of Council owned property, the Risk Management assessment included in the report amounts to only 7 lines of text and concentrates entirely on the planned bid for the Eco centre.