Sparks set to fly over Spark decision

There has been an angry response to the planning committees decision to extend the planning permission for the Spark container village on Piccadilly. They agreed to a 2 year extension although the government was only suggesting a 12 month, post COVID-19, relaxation.

A prominent local architect Matthew Laverack has now written to the media to criticise the decision (right).

It has been claimed that some members did not declare an interest in the application despite close contacts with the applicants. Several are believed to be customers of the establishment. Some had made representations in favour of an extension of the lease on the site while others were executive members covered by the code of collective responsibility.

This has prompted allegations of cronyism and a complaint has been lodged under the Councillors “code of conduct.” It is likely that the investigation into any such complaints would take months to resolve. Spark will be able to continue to trade in the interim, provided that they adhere to the terms of the planning consent and fulfil the requirements of the proposed lease extension.

Spark have yet to make any net rent or profit share payments. When last published, some business rates payments were also outstanding. The businesses modest contribution had not even covered the costs to the taxpayer of providing services to the site.

 In 2016 Spark had forecast a surplus of £213,000 on operations over a 3 year period.

Cllr Nigel Ayre agreed at a meeting which took place on 14th February to renew the Spark lease for 2 years. However, in the light of the large number of complaints from residents and the failure of Spark to make payments to the Council, several conditions were imposed (see left) .

The current lease has ended so the business is operating on a “tenancy at will”.  

Taxpayers will be looking very closely over the next few weeks to see whether all the lease conditions have been fulfilled.

If not then the site will need to be cleared.

Even if only used for car parking, it would at least bring in an income for the  Council. It could provide, in what are difficult times, accessible spaces which could benefit other City centre small traders not least those operating in the Shambles market. .

Sadly the impending recession means that the opportunity to permanently redevelop the Piccadilly site for the benefit of the City may have passed the Council by for now at least.

Spark new planning application

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Spark-April-2018-150x150-2.jpgThe controversial Spark container development in Piccadilly has applied for a two year extension of their planning permission.

The move was expected following the decision of the York Council recently to grant an extension of the site lease. However, the organisation must fulfil several other lease conditions before any extension is implemented.

Quite how the current Coronavirus restrictions will affect this and other business development plans remains to be seen.

Trebles all round

Eleven hundred years ago had Eric Bloodaxe sailed up the Ouse and been greeted by the Anglo-Saxon Witan offering rent free accommodation, 24/7 feasting/pillaging and no restrictions on behaviour, he would have been pleasantly surprised.

In his case he might have chosen to take those options anyway, whatever the views of the local population.

Today residents wake up to find that they may have to endure another sea born invasion, as the SPARK container “village” will carry on for another 2 years, courtesy of a compliant York Councillor who yesterday authorised an extension to the lease of land in Piccadilly.

The business will have to gain an extension to its planning permission (and operating license) but this looks like another behind closed doors “done deal”.

So far, the business has failed to implement the planning conditions imposed some 2 years ago which were intended to reduce the visual impact of the sea containers.

Quite simply the development is an ugly carbuncle blotting a neighbourhood which is long overdue for regeneration.

The containers were also sited too close to existing residential accommodation. Metal boxes are inherently noisy and, of course, lack the insulation credentials that a City, which recently declared a “climate emergency”, might expect.

                           Containers arrived in Sept 2017

We don’t know which officials, members and reporters have so far enjoyed the hospitality of Spark.

Whatever that number may be, its “trebles all round” for a business that boasts a £3 million turnover but can find no profit to share with local taxpayers who will be expected to continue to subsidise the operation.

Spark – Questions that need to be answered

In November  2016 we first heard of a plan to site shipping containers on Piccadilly and use them as vending units.

It was the start of “Containergate” with an outfit called Spark York persuading naive Councillors to give them the use of a prime site at 17/21 Piccadilly for a minimal rent.

As well as £13,333 a year in rent the Council was promised a 30% share of the profits which were forecast to total £213,085 over 3 years.

Business plan considered by York Council Executive Nov 2016

On that assurance, the Council spent £40,000 on installing new utility services to the site

The developers made a series of claims about what their (visually hideous) development would bring to the City. The small business growth figures strained everyone’s credulity but Councillors bought the line.

 It subsequently transpired that the firm were unable to raise the £220,000 set up costs and had to resort to the commercial loans market. Although they had beneficial use of the site from September 2017, it was to be the following summer before Spark opened for business.

Further controversy followed the granting of planning permission. Quite simply the owners chose to ignore a series of conditions – including the need for a disabled access – and even now have failed to cover with cladding the garish street art which dominates the Piccadilly frontage.

The original business model failed, and the scheme concentrated on alcohol sales as its main form of income. It enjoyed a good summer in 2018 but the high noise levels proved to be a major irritant for the occupiers of nearby flats.

Thankfully the nightmare lease was due to come to an end in June.  We would be rid of the containers and a start could be made on building something that would be a credit to the city.

But now York Councillor Nigel Ayre is apparently considering extending the Spark lease (The original decision was taken by the Councils Executive).  He is being promised footfall and “economic vibrance” on Piccadilly, although the rest of the street is likely to be a building site for much of the next two years.

Spark are good at some things. PR is one. They held a party when they opened which was attended by the media and several Councillors and officials. It appears to have been an insurance policy judging by the report being considered next week.

Party time at Spark in 2018

The report fails to examine the performance of the company against the claims that they made in 2016.

  • Where is the list of small businesses Spark claim to have “incubated” at the premises?
  • The operators claim to have had a turnover of £3 million across the whole site yet the Council has had a zero share of any “profit”. (The original plan was for an annual turnover of £272,000 a year yielding a profit of £64,620). Where is the updated business plan?
  • Who at the Council agreed that the repayment of loans should take precedence over the Council being recompensed for its investment?
  • Where can a full set of accounts be viewed? (there is little information at Company House)
  • Why are no other options considered? Parking revenue alone could be worth around £100,000 a year even if a start on the permanent redevelopment of the site is delayed for 2 years
  • Is the Council still the preferred creditor if the business goes bust? It was told in 2016 that it could sell the containers to fund any outstanding infrastructure costs.
  • Why is no independent up to date valuation of the site assets provided?
  • How much have the Directors received in remuneration from Spark (and any subsidiaries) since September 2017
  • How much has been paid in Business Rates and how much is outstanding?
  • Who at the Council has received hospitality from Spark? Has it all been properly registered?
  • Where can financial details of the container occupants’ businesses be found?
  • Are any of the Spark Directors potential beneficiaries of any of these businesses?

Until these, and other, questions are answered it would be irresponsible for the Council to consider any extension of the lease.

In the meantime, the planning department should take enforcement action on outstanding breaches of the planning permission.

Other businesses in York deserve to be competing on a level playing field. They, and taxpayers, seem to be the losers in the current arrangement.

Spark April 2018

Still no profits at Spark

The Council has confirmed that the promised profit share on the Spark container village development on Piccadilly has still not materialised.

Spark York

Payments should have been made at the end of the last financial year.

Only one single “rent” payment of £13,333.33 has been received by the Council.

In their original pitch to the Council in 2016, the operators promised a share of the profits on the project which were expected to more than cover the £40,000 costs of the Council providing mains services to the site.

No explanation for the failure to make a payment has been published nor is there any item on the Council forward decision-making programme which would suggest when an explanation may be forthcoming.

It is estimated that, had the site simply been used for car parking, the Council would have received around £200,000 in income over the last 3 years.

The containers are due to be removed in June 2020 although the Council has been very slow to market the availability of the site for permanent redevelopment.

There have been ongoing problems on the site with several planning conditions not being observed.

Over £4000 in Business Rate payments are also owed to the Council.

Business rates at Spark FOI Reef IGF/13909

NB. Under EU regulations, which are still expected to apply after 31st January 2020, government bodies are specifically prohibited from subsidising private companies.

30% chance of winning a planning appeal in York

Latest figures published by the York Council suggest that anyone who has a planning application rejected by the local authority has a 30% chance of having the decision reversed on appeal. Appeals are considered by independent inspectors.

The figures reveal that inspectors rejected two appeals against decisions that the planing committee had made and which were in conflict with the recommendations of local planning officers.

One of the these concerned the controversial Spark Container Village who tried to avoid providing cladding on the public frontage of the shipping containers.

Some 18 months after the containers were occupied, the cladding has still not been provided. With the Council still not having advertised the Piccadilly site for sale, there is growing concern that the situation will drift on.

The planning permission for the containers does expire in June 2020 so the matter must come to a head within the next few months.

More changes at Spark

The shipping container village on Piccadilly may look a little different this winter. Spark has applied for planning permission to install plastic sheeting to close the gap between the canvass roof and the side of the development.

No sign yet of the cladding being installed. Nor has the council confirmed that they have received their share of the “profits” on the enterprise from last year.

No profits for Spark?

The Council has confirmed that it has not received any payments from the Spark container village as part of the “profit sharing” arrangements agreed nearly three years ago.

The payments were expected to help offset the £40,000 of taxpayers money spent in providing electricity and other services to the site.

Spark

The first payment was due in April

The company also haven’t yet provided the cladding required by a planning condition dating back nearly 2 years. The Councils planning department is coming under increasing pressure to take enforcement action.

The Spark owners were recently quoted in the local newspaper as wanting to continue to use the site when their current lease expires in June!

Developers try to overturn Moor Lane planning ruling

……..as Spark finally submit proposals for cladding their shipping container village

City of York Council has received notification from the Planning Inspectorate that the applicant for the Moor Lane planning application (18/02687/OUTM) has appealed the Council’s decision to refuse the outline permission for up to 516 residential units.

The Planning Inspectorate has notified the Council that the Inquiry will start on 12th November 2019 and it is anticipated that the Inquiry will sit for 12 days.

The Council will send notification of the appeal to any person who was notified or consulted about the application and any other interested persons who made representations.

If however the representation was part of a petition, each individual on the petition will not be notified by the Council.

Spark

Separately the Spark container village people have finally submitted details of their plans to provide cladding on the development frontage.

cladding plans

They say,  “We propose to attach to this frame a secondary timber structural frame which will be over clad with treated softwood or Siberian Larch battens of 50mm width running vertically with a 50mm gap forming a continuous wrap and palisade along the external boundary. The timber cladding will be overplanted with Clematis growing from planters situated at first floor level”.

The development reaches the end of its 3 year lease next June. We doubt very much whether even fast growing clematis will make much difference to its appearance during the intervening months.

NB. The Council has so far failed to say how much “profit share” they enjoyed from the Spark lease last year.

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