Ward budgets under review

The York Council is reviewing how the £4.8 million budget, delegated to be spent pro rata in wards across the City, is being used. Those reading the report will be little the wiser.

Even before COVID struck, there was a marked lack of transparency on the budget process while prioritisation had become an almost mystic art.

 In most parts of the City, resident involvement – the principal objective of devolution – has been almost completely missing.

Originally, the money was apportioned to be spent on

  • Local improvements (something which has been happening in the City for over 20 years).
  • “Pride in York”,
  • Safer Communities (crime prevention),
  • Highways improvements, &
  • Council estate improvements (another long running programme which is funded from rents).  

The precise division of the budget can be viewed by clicking here

Muddy paths are unusable for exercise

 In the autumn the budget was top sliced to provide funding for COVID relief. A list of the schemes benefiting can be seen by clicking here.  £55,000 has gone to a limited number of organisations.

As with the rest of the report, there are few numbers detailing how many residents have actually benefited and in what way.

Promised investment in snicket repairs hasn’t happened.

While responding to the pandemic will be viewed as a worthy initiative, the report fails to detail the Councils response to many other requests for help .

For example, the lockdown has meant that many more people are exercising on local off-road paths. The result is that many are now showing major signs of wear and tear.

It is a similar situation with the off-road cycle network.

Ward spends are closely monitored and reported on, with all ward spending published as an online ‘Officer Decision Log’ and a regularly updated spreadsheet uploaded to the open data platform

York Council report January 2021

No updates on highways, pedestrian, cycling or estate improvement schemes are provided on the Councils open data web site.

The format of most officer decisions is impenetrable click

  All in all, the system has turned into a bureaucratic labyrinth which needs to be simplified and managed properly.

Transparency, proper performance management information and resident involvement would be  good places to start.

Are you being served?

It isn’t just the numbers engaging with Council webcasts (see next story) that is exciting Councillors interest.

A meeting next week is set to agonise about how to get more engagement by residents both in respect of their local community as well as on a citywide issues.

There is a cause for concern.

York Council engagement slide

Communication levels by individual Councillors seem to have gone backwards in recent years. Only the occasional political diatribe now finds its way through many letterboxes

Residents in many wards has come to expect annual surveys on local public service standards. A newsletter reporting back on progress would be delivered to homes every few months while campaigns and petitions, for local improvements, were regular events. Several web sites were set up (Facebook, Twitter, “blogs” etc) but few are updated regularly these days .

Many of these initiatives have faded in recent years. Ineffective leadership and a lack of drive seems to be the main problem.

Ward committees were set up to try to provide a better local engagement opportunity. Attendance at these (should be) quarterly meetings has never been high. This may be partly because there has been little “reporting back” on residents concerns.

Incredibly as we approach the end of the financial year, some wards have yet to allocate, much less spend, their delegated budgets. According to the list of minutes published on the Councils web site, some apparently haven’t even met for nearly two years.

Very few Councillors are routinely active on social media, although the propensity for personal abuse on some channels, may be a deterrent. There is really, though, no reason why they should not contribute each week to a “ward news” type site. Indeed the time may have come for a trial of a monthly “podcast” for each neighbourhood.

Those areas that do not have a Parish council or active Residents Association do seem to miss out.

The report on engagement to next weeks meeting is disappointing. It points to the “My Castle Gateway” consultation as a paradigm. In reality that was a ponderous exercise which – lacking a critical financial appraisal – arguably produced the wrong outcome.

A similar approach is threatened for the debate on the future of the City Centre. It would be a slow and costly process which would be likely to engage only a particular section of the local community; sometimes referred to as the “provincial, academic, socialist elite” (PASE) .

We need less hand wringing for the York Council, less navel gazing and more action.

If people see change and improvement being implemented then they may respond.

York Council publishes some delegated budget decisions

Sample of decision list 26th Nov 2019

For the first time the York Council has published a “decision notice” which indicates how some of its ward committee budget is being spent.

A copy can be downloaded by clicking this link

The list is far from comprehensive and concentrates mainly on the Haxby & Rural West Wards. Publication however represents a step forward.

The latest combined list of schemes can be found on the Councils web site by clicking here.  Several wards don’t seem to have made much progress in allocating their budgets.

To what degree residents feel involved in this process – and what progress has been made in implementing those decisions which have already been taken – is open to debate.

York Council plans more devolution to residents

The York Council says that it will give more powers to local residents to influence how resources are used in 4 key public service areas.

They are:

  • Increased ward budgets.
  • A “Safer Communities” fund to meet residents’ priorities.  
  • More ward control of spending on highways to meet residents’ priorities
  • Timely delivery of Housing Environmental Improvement Schemes (HEIP). NB.These are tenant funded.

The plans are broadly to be welcomed.

Over the last 8 years the number of locally determined improvement schemes has declined while those that have been approved have faced unacceptable delays in implementation.

One set of new parking laybys in the Westfield area took over 4 years to plan and construct.

Askham Lane lay by took 4 years to complete

A report to the Councils executive meeting this week, paints a confused picture of what is wrong with the current “ward committee” process and what might replace it.

Councillor dominated “Ward teams” will stand in for residents associations where the latter do not exist.

£250,000 has been allocated to wards for them to spend making local communities “safer”. Although joint working with the police is proposed, the major issue – an institutional reluctance to expand the use of technology solutions such as CCTV – remains. So, the most that residents will likely see will be “target hardening” style initiatives.

Two additional staff members are to be employed helping to administer ward committee improvements. Last year £157,000 of ward budget was not spent. This is put down to process delays.

£500,000 is being allocated for local highways improvements (road and footpaths). A further £500,000 is allocated for “walking and cycling” improvements. The irony, that better highways maintenance is the best way of encouraging safe walking and cycling, appears to be lost on the report authors. 

Perhaps School Street will now be resurfaced?

The £1 million simply should be added to the road and footpath resurfacing budget.

The budget is classified as “capital” meaning that it must be spent on an asset with a long lifespan. That would seem to rule out a crash programme aimed at removing the trees, hedges and weeds which obstruct many existing foot and cycle paths.

 The idea of recognising and responding to local concerns is the right one though.

Poor highway maintenance is invariably the most criticised local public service in residents satisfaction polls.

The Council plans to introduce a “6 stage” process in allocating the estate improvement budget.  As the main criticisms of the existing process is that it is cumbersome and slow, the introduction of additional bureaucratic stages is unlikely to be welcomed.

The report talks of the provision of parking lay-by taking up to 24 months to complete. In the past, the use of contractors had cut this target time down to less than 4 months. Councils should return to the old procedure where Residents Associations/Parish Councils took responsibility for drawing up improvement lists.

Walton Place footpaths need repairs

Finally, the report talks of using a mechanistic formulae for assessing the “social value” of each project. As a way of spending scarce public resources this is a discredited approach. The value of projects can best be determined by door to door surveys thus giving residents a chance to directly influence their neighbourhood.

The report does not propose any PFIs to monitor progress on any of these programmes.

It does, however, require decisions to be made in public and with a public record. Regular “on line” updates are proposed (although these have been  promised in the past but have never been produced in a timely or accessible way)

There are no proposals which would provide better support for Residents Associations. The Council recently refused to even publicise RA activities on its web site.

How much locally?

The Council has published a list indicating the amounts that will be available to spend in each ward. In Westfield (one of the largest wards) during the present financial year that totals £55,878  

With highways (£63,830) and safer communities fund (£17,181). That figure increases to nearly £120,000 over 4 years.

 To put that into context a 4 space parking bay costs around £10,000, while the resurfacing of Stonegate is costing £1/2 million this year.

Getting to know you?

The Council has launched an online survey aimed at finding out how residents want to interface with their local Councillors.

The survey can be found by clicking here https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/8ZTKMZ3

The questions asked are mundane and are unlikely to unlock suggestions for improved communication.  Attitudes seem to be rooted in the 1990s with an inability to supplement the public meeting/ward committee culture.

The survey does ask whether residents would view local Councillors Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter feeds? Most competent and caring Councillors already use these channels albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Some however fail to say where they live and offer no direct telephone contact.

It is ironic that the survey comes at a time when another part of the Council is trying to restrict residents access to information. Its “freedom of information” web page hasn’t been updated since last summer. The Council is removing residents association meeting details for its site and will no longer publicise local events.

The Council has never been good about communicating what is happening in local neighbourhoods particularly as far as spending its budget is concerned.

Some three months after the Council election some residents are still waiting for their first communication from their new representatives. There is a suspicion that some newly elected members were taken by surprise by their own success.  Some Councillors need to put their own house in order before publicly agonising about changes.

More can be done to create a greater sense of community. Councillors should be local “leaders” in this regard. Organising litter picks is one of the survey options offered, but something more is required.

There is no reason why the Council could not host an electronic noticeboard on which residents could pose questions and express views about the local neigbourhood. Councillors could provide answers and offer solutions to problems.

That would at least recognise that – although public meetings might still have a role to play in dealing with major issues – the day to day challenge of keeping public service standards at a satisfactory level requires a little more innovation.

As for local Councillors, they should make sure that they survey residents opinions and priorities on a door by door basisi at least once a year. 

That is the best way of staying in touch.

Some Councillors in the past have surveyed residents views on a regular basis

Verges damage by vehicles – York report published

Damaged verges

Damaged verges

The York Council recently set up a working group to consider the problem of vehicles parking on grass verges.  The problem became worse between 2011 and 2015 when the – mainly ward committee funded -lay-by provision programme was suspended.

Now the provision of additional car parking is one of the top requests for the use of the newly restored local budgets.

The working group’s – somewhat long-winded interim report – has now been published.  The report comes to no final conclusion.

It has been obvious for some time that verges in vulnerable locations need to be strengthened.

The relativity new matrix protection systems are ideal as they retain the green appearance of the verges and allow water to drain through yet remain undamaged when cars park on them. 

They are the type of project that all Ward Committees should be getting on with quickly.

A lot of residents did contact the Council to complain about damage to verges and many of these are evidenced in an annex to the report.

Any resident driving over a verge to access an off street parking space does need to pay for a proper verge crossover. Some estate improvement grants are available to tenants who want to install one.

Otherwise the Council should construct one and bill the property owner. 


Ward Committee grant application form published

The Council has recently published a grant application form for use by local voluntary Groups seeking help from a Ward Committee.

In some wards, decisions on allocations have apparently already been made but with little evidence that proper consultation was undertaken or that there was transparency in the decision process.

Click to download

Click to download

In LibDem represented areas like Westfield, the funding available to the Ward Committees is expected to be spent on tangible improvements to the local environment.

Suggestions already received from residents include:

  • improving vehicle parking ,
  • enhancing public spaces,
  • providing (and servicing)
  • additional litter, poop scoop & salt bins, plus
  • more public seating,
  • street lights,
  • hard landscaping/paving &
  • better play equipment

We are still awaiting details of how the funds, announced in July (see below), will be allocated at a local level.

In wards like Westfield around £52,000 is available to spend before 31st March 2015

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

Details of Ward Committee funding revealed

£53,445 boost for Westfield area

Details of how much local communities will have to spend through new Ward Committees have been confirmed as part of plans brought forward by the Liberal Democrat-Conservative Executive.

click to enlarge

click to enlarge

The proposals, which are opposed by the Labour Group, will see Ward Committees given an allocation of a £925,000 budget to fund projects such as street clean-ups and offer grants to local voluntary groups.

The process for allocating highway improvements has been partly localised as part of the plans as has some social care funding.

Work will also be undertaken by council officers to identify further budget areas which could be devolved to communities.

Local Councillors are expected to announce shortly how they intend to consult over the use of the different funding streams

. Re-establishing proper Ward Committees was a key part of the Liberal Democrat manifesto

The proposals begin the process of devolving power and budgets to local residents and community groups.

This enhanced pot of money will give wards the opportunity to tackle local priorities and develop community initiatives.

It increases overall funding to nearly £1 million from the £75,000 in grants available under the previous Labour Council.

Westfield Councillor Andrew Waller commented,

“It is disappointing although perhaps not surprising that the Labour Group is opposing the moves. The previous Labour Council removed ward credits, stripped power and budgets away from local communities, and spent four years ignoring local residents.

The new Executive trusts elected ward councillors to work with their communities and make the right decisions – rather than impose everything from West Offices like the previous Labour administration.”