Residents are being invited to start a “conversation” about plans for the Willow House site next to the Bar Walls.
It is the first sign of activity by the Council on a property which has been empty and unused for over 5 years. Together with the former Oakhaven care home in Acomb, it is one of the Councils major ongoing embarrassments.
News that any redevelopment planning application will not be ready for over 12 months will just add to residents frustrations.
Given the value of the site (over £3 million), it is a surprise that the Council are going to seek to redevelop the site itself using its “Shape Homes” front organisation.
The Council says, “The first drop-in event on the site of the former Willow House on Walmgate, will start sharing ideas between residents and architects from Stirling Prize-winners Mikhail Riches. This will include asking residents about the area and what they would want from new homes and open spaces.
It is hoped that the site which was an outdated care home can be added to the council’s ambitious Housing Delivery Programme. The programme will deliver 600 homes with twice the number of affordable homes required by planning and built to be highly energy efficient.
This will be the first of a series of three resident consultation events for this site, the same approach as was used successfully on other Housing Delivery Programme sites at Duncombe Barracks, Burnholme and Ordnance Lane”.
The drop-in event will take place on 29 June from 4-7pm on the green next to Walmgate Bar. Residents can also join a walk around the site at 5pm. In the autumn, we’ll invite residents to a hands-on design workshop with the team and, early in the new year, we will also organise a local exhibition and an online survey on the plans to date. A full planning application is planned to be submitted by summer 2022.
Meanwhile, just over the road from Willow House, the long term empty building site next to the Barbican has apparently been occupied by squatters. Whether this improves the appearance of one of York’s biggest eyesores – and missed opportunities – remains to be seen.
Certainly, according to media reports, the protestors have a very naïve view of what can be achieved using the Council’s compulsory purchase powers.
Yet fundamentally they are right. Persimmons – the owners – have consistently failed to explain why they haven’t developed what is a valuable prime site. Their position is doubly confusing when judged against a background of continuing heavy demand for city centre properties in the City.
They have exacerbated the problem by failing to keep the area tidy.
We doubt that the York Council would do any better – they have left too many of their own properties vacant in the City (see above) to able to preach.
There may be a germ of an good idea, though, if a “Friends of Barbican Park” group could take over the maintenance of the area. At least in the short term, it has potential to be a welcome “natural area” in what otherwise is a largely concrete enclave.
Certainly those who walk the City Walls would appreciate an improved view.
Developers have submitted their final proposals for building on the remaining plot on Hungate.
The latest planning application would see an increase in the number of flats proposed from 169 to 226. No on-site parking will be provided. There will be some ground floor retail units.
The announcement comes hard on the heels of a planning application which would see 211 apartments constructed on Rougier Street.
While a lot of people will be pleased to see the Hungate development – which started over 10 years ago – completed, there will be some scepticism about the number of apartments being provided on a relatively small site.
The lockdown restrictions have highlighted the need for access to safe open space. Unfortunately land values – established during a very different economic climate – make the provision of the alternative to flats – terraced homes with private gardens – financially challenging.
This may be why the City center’s worst eyesore continues to lie empty and abused.
The site at the junction of Barbican Road and Paragon Street has been derelict for more than a decade. Originally intended for use as a student block, it has failed to attract serious developer interest.
Now it provides an embarrassing backdrop to the historic City Walls.
Perimeter hoardings now covered in graffiti.
Directly opposite – on the other side of the Walls – is the Willow House former elderly persons home which has been unused for over 4 years. The Council has still not responded to calls for the building to be used as temporary accommodation for the homeless.
The York Council itself is planning to build hundreds of apartments on the York Central site as well as at Castle Mills.
The next year will tell us how many people want to occupy small flats in high density city centre developments.
Post pandemic, we suspect that the option might be losing some of its appeal.
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.
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”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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..
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.
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 budgetincluded 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.
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.
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.
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.
Generally public service standards on Council housing estates in the centre of the City have been better than those experienced in the suburbs.
This is probably because core services (highway maintenance, street cleansing, grass cutting, graffiti removal etc) are more in the public eye. Consequently issues are more likely to be reported.
However there are exceptions. There is emerging evidence that service level agreement standards are not being met.
The Hope Street/Long Close Lane area has its fair share of issues. Principal among them is of course the long term empty Willow House building. Lack of progress by the Council in selling the building – which could provide housing for dozens of people – is shameful
Elsewhere the Groves area also has its fair share of problems
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 and29 Castlegate (both empty for over 3 years) still not concluded
TheOakhavenbuilding 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.
According to a notice published earlier today, the York Council has received no suitable tenders for the provision of a care home at its Lowfieldssite.
The Council has already invested heavily in providing infrastructure, including roads, at the site. They promised a 30-month building timetable inresponse 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 noticesays, ” 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..