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.

Shocking list of empty Council owned properties in York

Thursday can’t come soon enough for York taxpayers. On that day the City’s planning committee will decide whether to allow the Ashbank former social services building on Shipton Road to be converted into residential accommodation.

Ashbank has now been empty for a shocking 7 years.

Together with the Guildhall, it is the Councils most underused asset.

The above list was produced in response to a Freedom of Information request. The rates column indicates what the Council might have received if the properties had been let. To this must be added either the proceeds of a sale or lease income.

Several other valuable properties including Oakhaven in Acomb and the prime Willow House site next to the bar walls have also now been unused for over 3 years.

There are ongoing maintenance and security costs at each site.

The list does not include several brownfield sites which are suitable for development. These include the land to the rear of Acomb Library which was purchased 12 years ago but remains unused (currently it is a building compound).

Many years ago the Council used to have a Policy and Resources committee. One of its tasks was to challenge and optimise the use of the Councils portfolio. Sadly it was replaced by a “scrutiny” committee which rarely expresses any interest in the efficiency of the Councils processes.

Six monthly capital programme reports to the Councils Executive often fail to provide an update on long term unused assets. When they do get a mention it is restricted to a couple of anodyne sentences.

It is not just commercial properties that are a cause for concern.

The Councils housing department still often has a 10% vacancy rate on its garage blocks. There are waiting lists for garages in most parts of the City. Some of the garages are located in the City Centre where demand is high.

January 2020

The housing department has been told to advertise all vacancies in order to maximise income. They have failed to do so.

They don’t even make full use of free social media channels.

The result is that the Council loses thousands of pounds of income each month while on street parking spaces becomes unnecessarily congested.

Council set to abandon Oakhaven replacement plans.

Oakhaven

The former elderly persons home at Oakhaven has remained empty since elderly residents were moved out in 2016.

The building was briefly used as a homeless hostel and then for Police firearms training  

A report in October 2015 had set out the Council’s preferred strategy.

We said at that time “given the Councils shambolic record on project management, we doubt if we see any improvements much before the end of the decade”.

It turns out that we are being optimistic.

Delay followed delay

 As recently as 21st November 2018 the Council was maintaining that it would work with a private sector operator (Ashley House)  to build an “extra care” scheme. 

Now a report published today says the plans have been abandoned.

 “due to planning restrictions and financial viability this project has not progressed.

A number of alternative options for the site are being modelled for financial viability and officers expect to present a report to the executive making recommendations for the site early in 2020”.

Tens of thousands of pounds has been spent on maintaining and keeping the empty build secure. With increasing demands for older persons accommodation delays in excess of 5 years, in implementing projects, are simply not acceptable.

Some of the elderly tenants moved out of Oakhaven could have lived out their lives in a home that many cherished.

They deserve a better epitaph

More delays at Lowfield as “Yorspace” scheme struggles to find investors

Looks like there will be more delays on the Lowfield project as the communal housing section of the scheme has failed to attract sufficient investors.

It could mean the project will take even longer to complete.

It is not clear whether the Council and Yorspace have exchanged contracts for the sale (at a discount value) of the land in question.

The Councils track record on asset use is being increasingly criticised on social media with a deals for the sale of Willow House and 29 Castlegate (both empty for over 3 years) still not concluded

The Oakhaven building in Acomb is also still unused.

Given the claims made by Council leaders about addressing housing need urgently, the dithering on these projects is difficult to justify.

The Council is providing little useful update information on their Lowfields overall development timetable.

. Westfield Ward Councillors have been asked to “call in” the proposal which would see the perimeter railings removed. The local Lowfields Action Group say they have had no response to their enquiries about the plan.

No takers for Care Home contract at Lowfields

Care home site

According to a notice published earlier today, the York Council has received
no suitable tenders for the provision of a care home at its Lowfields site.

The Council has already invested heavily in providing infrastructure,
including roads, at the site. They promised a 30-month building timetable in  response to concerns expressed by residents in 2016 who feared that the nuisance caused by building works could drag on for a decade.

The failure to find a development partner for the care home, together with
delays on the communal housing section, means that there is no end in sight for the development work.

The delay  notice says, ” This item has been withdrawn because, following a tender process, officers have been unable to appoint a developer. Officers need to consult the market and consider the options before the Executive can make a decision”.

According to the Councils Elderly Care programme, which was last discussed in 2018, work on building the care home was due to start next month. Officials at that they said that they were confident on getting a good deal for the site following “soft market” testing. 

Now a delay on the start of building work on the home of over 12 months  seems inevitable.

There have been similar delays at Oakhaven on York Road where work is now over 3 years behind schedule.

Delays also dog the Haxby Hall redevelopment site on the other side of the
City.

Despite the delays in providing new care homes, existing facilities have
been closed. Some like Willow House next to the Bar walls remain empty.

Ironically, the original plan to provide a, mainly private sector funded,
care village on the site of the Lowfield’s school had been developed in 2010 to the point where work was scheduled to start. The scheme was shelved by the incoming Labour Council and 9 years later there is little to show but some “roads to nowhere” and large spoil heaps.

The site is now has little security. It is attracting children who want to play
on the dangerous spoil heaps.

The football pitches have long gone so alternative children’s play facilities
are non existent.

Even the Kingsway multi user games area has been turned into a building
compound for another development..

Lowfields plans in 2016

York Councils empty property list revealed

Freedom of Information response confirms that buyer has pulled out of deal to buy 29 Castlegate
List of long term empty properties in York owned by the Council

The York Council has confirmed that it owns 12 substantial properties in the City which have been empty for over 6 months.

Two of the properties, Ashbank and the Guildhall, have been unused for over 6 YEARS.  

Ashbank was reported as being sold for £1.3 million a year ago. The Council now just says it is “sold subject to contract”.

The new Executive is expected to review the affordability of a £20 million scheme at the Guildhall which would see the creation of a “business club” there. If the project goes ahead, work will start in the autumn with reoccupation expected in 2021.

The estimated total value of the assets is put at between £30/40 million.

Little attempt has been made to secure short term lets for the properties which include prime sites like 29 Castlegate, the former youth advisory HQ.

Most of the properties have been exempt from paying business rates. Had they been occupied then Council taxpayers would have benefited from an additional £200,000 a year in income.

To this would be added rental income of around £400,000 a year or a substantial capital receipt.

The Castlegate property was to have been purchased by the York Conservation Trust with the York Civic Trust hoping to subsequently  lease the building as part of its expansion plans for the adjacent Fairfax House.

The agreed purchase price of £430,000 was criticised at the time as being “too low” for a building in such a prime site.

29 Castlegate

Now the Council says that it was notified on 21st May that the Conservation Trust would not be purchasing the building. However, the York Civic Trust had been told the same at their AGM last year. The Council say that they are now “reviewing” the position.

No public reports have been made on asset utilisation issues at the York Council this year.

The Council is spending around £80,000 a year on maintaining and securing the properties.

Only one of the properties has a temporary occupant (20 Piccadilly)

The table does not include underused assets like 19/21 Piccadilly (Spark) or land with a development potential. The latter includes land purchased in 2008 to accommodate an extension to Acomb Explore Library and which has been unused ever since.

19/21 Piccadilly

The Council says that it has only one Council house, at Glen Lodge, which has been empty for longer than 6 months.

The Council Housing department has been criticised in the past for allowing some of its estate garages to remain empty for extended periods of time.

The revelations have led to calls for a more proactive approach by the Council in the use of its assets. The new Council leadership has been advised to reintroduce a 6 monthly public report on empty property issues.

It may be that the time has come for the York Council to seek outside help in managing its huge commercial building portfolio

Work starts on Burnholme elderly persons accommodation

Work has stared on building a new 80 bed care home at the Burnholme site.

When completed, the Council will have the right to fill 25 of the beds

A lot of building work going on at Burnholme

Work is also proceeding on renovating sports facilities on the Burnholme site. A new library complex has already opened.

The care home being built on the Fordlands Road site (by Octopus Health care) will be completed in the summer of 2020. A site for another home has been reserved in the new York Central development.

The progress being made on these sites contrasts with other projects aimed at addressing the needs of the City’s increasing elderly population on the west of the City.

Tenders are only now being sought for the long awaited elderly persons facility on the Lowfields site. Other specialist homes on the west of the City, such as Windsor House and Lincoln Court have already been cleared of their elderly occupants.

One embarrassment for the Council, is the elderly persons home at Oakhaven. Residents were controversially moved from this building 3 years ago.

Despite some temporary uses, the building has remained largely unused ever since.

The Council has not been able to say when work on a replacement will start.

The Council says that it will start building houses at Lowfield this summer. Many will be “shared ownership” although there seems to have been little research done on the size of the market – among those on the waiting list – for this type of tenure.

There is, however, a lot of demand from older people – currently occupying large council and housing association houses – who want to “downsize” to bungalows or flats.

Work has started on constructing the Tudor Road access onto the Lowfields site. A new lay-by has been provided nearby.

While we remain critical of the Councils plan to build on the playing field at Lowfield, it also now seems that they may have got the mix of home types wrong.

There should have been more bungalows.

The issue of the Yorspace” communal housing development – which is not classified as “affordable” – has also still not been resolved.

Haxby Hall elderly persons home plan hits buffers

Haxby Hall

The Haxby Hall home currently has a total capacity of 49 care beds. Within those 49 beds there is provision for approximately 35 residential care beds, eight beds for people living with dementia and up to six step down/short stay beds which are used interchangeably.

Services at the home are delivered by 51 staff (31.58 full time equivalents). When last inspected by the Care Quality Commission it was given a “good” rating 

It’s a year since the Council decided to pull out of Haxby Hall. The expectation was that a third party would take over the running of an enlarged, modernised home.

A feasibility study conducted in 2016 showed that a care home of up to 70 beds could be delivered on the site. One key issue for development was access to the site, which is constricted by the adjacent ambulance station. The plan for Haxby Hall was agreed by the Council on 7th December 2016.

A well attended supplier engagement event was held on 6 September 2017 to promote the opportunity and receive feedback on the proposal. Residents and their families were also consulted.

12 months later the proposal has been withdrawn from the Councils forward decision making programme. Difficulties in negotiating the new access are blamed for the project being shelved.

In January 2018 the then Director Martin Farren outlined the position

“The future of Haxby Hall is a key part of our Older Persons’ Accommodation Programme which looks to address the needs of York’s fast-growing older population by expanding and modernising care provision across the city.

“This report looks at options to safeguard the future of Haxby Hall older persons’ home and procure a provider who will deliver and operate improved, modern care facilities”.

The bids for the takeover were due to be received in September 2018. It was likely that residents would be decanted to other homes while work took place, with the new home scheduled to open in 2020.

No update has been given to any public meeting since then.

The latest delays follow problems at Oakhaven Elderly Persons home which has been empty for two years.

A facility scheduled to be provided at Burnholme is also understood to be delayed.

No detailed planning application has been submitted by the Council for the development of elderly persons facilities at the Lowfields site (although a, much more controversial, commercial housing development did get planning permission there a few months ago)

The Council is also pressing ahead with closing Windsor House which has specialised in providing support for those with dementia

All in all, we think that there is a need for some public reassurances about the timescales which now apply to the Councils Elderly Persons Strategy!

Empty elderly persons accommodation an increasing problem in York

Oakhaven

The enthusiasm shown by the York Council in moving elderly people out of their homes is being questioned.

Some empty Elderly Persons Homes have yet to be reused

We highlighted the neglected state of Willow House last month. It has been empty for over a year.

..but this pales to insignificance when you consider what has happened at Oakhaven on York Road.

Residents moved out of the building 3 years ago.

In 2015 the Council announced that a new facility would be built there as part of a plan to provide 525 new elderly persons places “before the end of 2018”. Work at Oakhaven was timetabled to be complete with the new facility ready for occupation by May 2018.  We said at the time “Given the Council’s shambolic record on project management, we doubt if we will see any improvements much before the end of the decade”.

More than a year ago the Council said that a new facility would not open until “2019 at the earliest”.

There is still no sign of work starting.

Oakhaven site plans published earlier in the year

In February the Councils preferred operator for a new facility Ashley House – who had been appointed in March 2017 – consulted on a proposed design but nothing more was heard about the plans.

No redevelopment timetable has been published by the Council and an update report doesn’t even figure in the Councils forward plan which cover the period up to the end of March. There will be an item on the November Executive agenda but this refers only to Lincoln Court and Glen Lodge

There has been  some short term use of the buildings to house potentially homeless people but these are now well catered for by a  new building at James Street

In the meantime, the delays will mean more pressure on hospital beds as managers struggle during the winter period to find suitable accommodation into which recovering older people can be transferred.

Oakhaven replacement plans on display this week

Last year, care company Ashley House won a contract from the City of York Council to design, build and operate an “extra care” sheltered housing complex at the site of the old Oakhaven care home on Acomb Road.

Oakhaven site

No planning application for the project – which is running over a year behind schedule – has yet been submitted but according to the Councils web site initial plans are being unveiled this week.

Drawings will be on display at Acomb Explore Library on Front Street from Thursday March 1 to Thursday, March 8.

A public event is also being on Thursday, March 1 from 4pm to 7pm at York Medical Group, 199 Acomb Road, York.

The site has been hit by controversy in recent years with the adjacent police station being threatened with closure. It was initially thought that that site would also be incorporated into the new development.

In addition, the nearby Carlton Tavern pub narrowly avoided an attempt to replace it with a new care home. That controversy is still ongoing.

The expectation for residents will be that a holistic plan for the whole neighbourhood will emerge quickly.

Oakhaven was closed by City of York Council in late 2015, as part of its plan to close authority-run homes which it says are out-of-date, and not up to modern standards.

The new “state-of-the-art” development will provide 56 apartments for older people, and will include a lounge and dining room serving hot meals.

People can also view the proposals or comment online by clicking here or via email  to OakhavenDevelopment@york.gov.uk.

The consultation is only open until 8th March