Happy families

Not unexpectedly York Liberal Democrats have announced that they are entering into a “partnership” with the York Green Party to run the York Council. Together the two groups can command a majority of the votes on the new Council.

it was perhaps too much to expect that the new administration would have some policy announcements to underpin the “happy families” photographs. They may be right to adopt a cautious approach although there are pressing issues to be addressed not least those relating to empty property, strategic planning, financial strategy and hiccups in leisure programmes.

As a minimum we would have expected the two parties to have issued a statement indicting how the new authority would be managed. We await confirmation that they will attempt to re-introduce all party decision making committees for example.

There is also the “elephant in the room”. Lack of transparency has been a hallmark of the York Council for the last 8 years. The Council has become semi detached from people who live in the City. Assurances that this will change in the future are needed before any new officials take office on 22nd May.

Policy prospectus decidedly short on specifics. Appears that the Greens aren’t keen on a return to the committee system?

NB. The Liberal Democrat Group has not announced who its officers will be for the forthcoming year. The Leader of the Group would also expect to become Leader of the Council next week, so there is a certain amount of urgency.

It’s “spend, spend, spend” time at the York Council

2019/20 York Council budget choices

With the Council elections scarcely 2 months away, decisions on the York Councils budget are likely to be clouded by posturing. All the parties will want to appear to be investing in providing better public services and will highlight those that voters have been most vocal in criticising.

A decision on the Councils budget takes place tomorrow (Thursday)

The coalition has decided to sink together. They are weighed down by historic decisions particularly on capital expenditure priorities and levels. They will hope, for example, that electors don’t notice that they intend to spend £20 million on a “business club” at the Guildhall. That’s money that would be better  invested in repairing local roads.

Labour’s alternative budget will not be moved by its Leader, Janet Looker. Instead Cllr Neil Barnes – who is set to quit the Council in May anyway – has taken up the poisoned chalice. Despite the Council owing record amounts of money and facing the prospect that over 20% of tax revenue will be used to service debts (interest) charges in future, Labour want to borrow even more, Nearly £7 million more in fact. They say that they will spend it on road repairs and energy efficiency programmes. Expenditure on both is already substantially increased under the Coalition proposals.

Labour want to increase Council Tax by 4.49% – the highest increase possible under current central government regulations.

They would use the extra tax revenue to pay the interest charges on extra borrowing, reduce response times on fly tipping, improved street sweeping, bus subsidies, trees, youth services and several other minor schemes.

Labour show no sense of irony in their proposals, several of which seek to reverse cuts made when they were in power between 2011 and 2015. Most notable is the sudden interest in road repairs which they cut by 25% leading inevitably to the decline in standards which we see today. .

The Greens provide an entertaining approach to fiscal prudence. They at least recognise the implications of increasing debt. They might reduce it. Unfortunately they choose to do so by abandoning improvements planned to reduce congestion on the outer ring road. They substitute an array of cycling and pedestrian schemes apparently oblivious to the fact that they have no control over the regional funding stream which would pay for most of the outer ring road scheme.

The Greens are also going for the maximum Council Tax increase of 4.49%.

They would spend the extra cash on paying interest on their borrowing. Small amounts are allocated to welfare payments, an additional  “mental health champion”, bus subsidies, a report on the introduction of “trams”, extended green waste collections, gardeners, park security, new play equipment,   8 additional admin staff, a re-use shop “near waste recycling centres”, lower Respark charges and a “free” City centre shuttle bus.

They want to increase parking charges at car parks by 10% and would hike evening visitor parking charges by 50% (!).

In the end they find that they are spending more than they are raising so they propose to raid the Councils reserves to the tune of £358,000.

We doubt that either of the amendments will be passed. In effect they are simply a platform which allows opposition parties to claim at the elections  that they would invest more in high profile public services than their opponents.

Such claims have always found their way into election manifestos. Party’s depend on the fact that electors will not look back very far to see what budget amendments had been moved in previous years. If they did then the level of inconsistency – and opportunism – would become more apparent.

There are some good ideas in the proposals from all the parties.

The present system doesn’t allow for a cross fertilisation  of ideas.

A return to the committee system – where all parties can input into the budget build process in a transparent way – might help but it remains to be seen whether that proposal finds its way into any of the election manifestos this year.

York Council claims over 50% of complaints answered within 5 days

…we don’t think so!

The Council has published its latest financial and performance update. It reveals that it could overspend this year’s budget by as much as £1.5 million. The expectation is that the Council will outturn on target.

A major source of complaint is paradoxically complaint handing. The Council claims to have answered “50% of complaints within 5 working days”.

Maybe!

….but we have a current instance of a complaint registered on 27th December 2018 which hasn’t even been acknowledged yet. The Council needs to improve its exception reporting systems and inject some fresh drive into its customer relationship processes.

Another key concern is the impact that the Council is having on delayed discharges (bed blocking) at the hospital. “The total number of days that patients resident in York have been delayed, for all reasons, during the last twelve months for which statistics have been published (November 17 – October 18) was 10,655 which equates to, on average, 29 beds each day occupied because of DToC across the health and social care system. From August to October 2018, this figure was 2,967 days which equates to 32 beds each day”. The Council says that the closure of two large nursing homes in the city has impacted on the ability of Adult Social Care to place patients quickly, as well as considerable pressures in both the residential and homecare markets.

The future of the Greenworks section of Yorkcraft has also never been properly explained. The Council is reducing the budget by a further £160,000 for adult social care workers, in supported employment, during the next financial year. So the future looks bleak for some of the workers who are a familiar sight as they deliver newsletters to various parts of the City.

Following the decision by the Council to suspend its housing modernisation programme the number of Council homes not meeting the decency standard has soared to 546.

It was zero two years ago

Call for increase in neighbourhood police profile in York

The next York Council meeting will discuss four motions put forward by the political groups represented on the authority.

  • Liberal Democrat Ashley Mason is asking for more funding for neighbourhood policing. He will get a lot of support for his proposal with PCSO patrols now distinctly thin on the ground in much of the City. 41% of respondents to a recent survey thought that policing in the City was “poor”.

Many highlighted issues with drugs and moped gangs as increasing areas of concern.

The York Council has no direct powers over policing policy (that rests with the Harrogate based Police and Crime Commissioner) but it can be more active in using its powers of scrutiny.

The motion also opposes any reduction in Fire cover. The service has recently been taken over by the PCC.

  • A Labour Councillor wants to close the outbound traffic lane which currently runs under Micklegate Bar. The actual amount of traffic using this route is already regulated with “green” periods at the adjacent traffic lights already relatively short. However, the main criticism of this proposal is that it is being made without any consultation with local businesses or residents. Local road junctions are already congested at peak times so the consequences could be significant. The plan comes from the Lendal bridge closure school of transport planning. Proposals like these need to be considered as part of the next update to the Local Transport Plan. (NB. The Council video, outlining plans to improve the railway station frontage, portray an, almost miraculously, traffic free inner ring road in this part of the City!)
  • The Conservative Councillors have gone to the trouble of restating that they are in favour of free green bin emptying. Many residents would settle, currently, for just having their present green bin emptied.
  • ……& finally, the Green party has come out against, what they term as, “food poverty”. It will probably be difficult to find anyone who thinks hunger is a good thing. The Greens disingenuously suggest that Council officials should write a report saying how the issue can be resolved. Sadly, this is another problem where most of the levers are well outside the control of a local Council.

Council meetings these days are sterile and predictable affairs with all sides posturing and the real issues, that affect street level public service standards, rarely being highlighted.

This can party be traced back to a decision by the last Council which withdrew the option for Councillors to submit written questions (and get a written response).

A limited amount of time is reserved for verbal questions, but these rarely uncover any new facts.

Answers to verbal questions are not recorded in the meeting minutes. The minutes are, in any event, published several weeks – or months – later.

By then the issue has usually moved on.

Guildhall redevelopment deal collapses

Interserve (ICL) taken off contract as costs escalate

York Guildhall

The York Council’s, accident prone, plan to redevelop the Guildhall as a business centre has collapsed.

They have been unable to agree a final cost target with preferred contractor ICL.

ICL were awarded the contract last year, with the overall expenditure on the controversial plan then put at over £12 million.

The Council were criticised for putting so much taxpayers money at risk on what was a speculative venture.

A report published today says that

“In accordance with the contract ICL advised their tender submission would be delayed and made an initial stage 2 tender submission on 16 February 2018. Unfortunately this was significantly in excess of the current project budget and contained a number of outstanding cost items which did not provide sufficient proof that the submission evidenced value for money”

Guildhall project layout plans

The Guildhall has been largely unused since the Council moved its operation to West Offices in 2013. Initially it had been expected that a private sector partnership would lead the redevelopment of the site which is in a Conservation area and which includes two important Listed buildings (Guildhall and Council Chamber).

It is unclear what will now happen although there are growing concerns that the empty buildings will continue to deteriorate with taxpayers facing an increasing annual maintenance burden.

The Council has already spent over £1 million on the aborted project.

York Council fraud levels revealed

The Councils auditors are cracking down on Council Tax discounts with 11 cases currently under investigation following a “data matching exercise”.  These concern bogus “single person discount” claims.

A report reveals that the auditors had received 58 referrals for potential Council Tax/Non Domestic Rates fraud.

“There are currently 30 ongoing investigations into Council Tax and non domestic rates fraud.

The council has prosecuted two people for council tax fraud this year including the longest running single person discount fraud ever detected at the authority – 17 years.

In addition, 3 people have been cautioned for council tax fraud offences and 5 people have received warnings”.

The fraud team have completed 26 investigations into potential Council Tax Support fraud to date. The team has produced over £13k in savings thus far. There are currently 32 cases under investigation. To date one person has been cautioned and 10 people were issued formal warnings following investigations in this area.

Other areas of concern are

  • social care where there are 16 investigations in progress.
  • 14 cases of housing fraud – making false claims to secure accommodation – are underway.
  • The financial assistance scheme where 19 cases are being investigated
  • Parking and blue badge misuse. In 2017/18 the council prosecuted two people, cautioned 12 people and issued 30 warnings for disabled badge or parking permit misuse
  • Education – making false statements to gain entry to a school – 2 cases.

The report will be discussed at a meeting taking place on Wednesday

York “cold case” perpetrator finally named

Mr Redacted blamed for all Councils woes

Audit committee report April 2018

The long running saga, which started 4 years ago when the Council let consultancy contracts without going through a proper procurement process, is finally reaching its climax.

A report to a meeting next week gives an independent view of who did what and when at an audit committee meeting which discussed the issue a year ago.

Ironically that meeting descended into chaos when most members voted to discuss an internal audit report in public.  This caused a “walk out” by the Labour party committee chair.

The internal report was later leaked to the media causing more turmoil. The implicated “leakers” of the document (who denied the accusation) were later suspended from the Council’s Executive by the then Council Leader.  Hehimself was ejected from office a few weeks ago.

Apart from that, it has been a peaceful and harmonious 18 months at the York Council.

The report into the Audit meeting is heavily redacted. We can see no reason why the names of Councillors and officials should not be revealed WHERE THEY HAVE AGREED TO WAIVE ANY RIGHTS THAT THEY MAY HAVE TO ANONONIMITY.

After all, the meeting was web cast and is already in the public domain

It seems that the Council have not learned many lessons about transparency and accountability

York is one of the best places to live in the country

York is one of the best places to live in the country – a liveable city – according to a new national report.

The Happy City Thriving Places Index measures the ‘drivers of wellbeing’ in 150 areas in the country, including health, income, education, economy, place, recycling and emissions. These drivers are also reflected in the One Planet York framework, which is supported by partners across the city.

York’s scored particularly well for education and learning (fourth highest in the country); participation – based on volunteering levels and voter turnout – (third highest nationally); health and low levels of risky behaviours (second highest nationally) and high levels of employment.

Overall the city was rated in the top 16 per cent of most ‘liveable’ places in the UK.

The report comes as City of York Council publishes ‘A Year in York’, celebrating some of the work that the council, residents, businesses and partners have done over the past 12 months to help make the city one of the best places in the UK to live, work and visit.

 

The council is calling on residents and partners to showcase some of the great partnership working that’s going on across the city by sharing images on social media with the title #togetheryork.

A year in York is available by clicking here

Quandary for programme organisers at York Rose Theatre

Yesterdays York Council meeting has piled pressure on the Artistic Director, of York’s soon to be unveiled Rose Theatre, to change the published cycle of Shakespearean plays.

A virtuoso audition at last nights York Council meeting, by former Tory Council Leader David Carr, could see Julius Caesar added to the theatre bill.

Caesar famously abolished the democratic traditions of Rome’s senate before declaring himself  “Dictator”. Many of Caesars opponents mysteriously disappeared in the process.

It was left to Brutus and other conspirators to end the regime when they stabbed Caesar in the back (and front, and pretty much everywhere else).

Carr is likely to be at a loose end this summer as he has quit the Tory party so may be persuaded to take on the lead role. Who would take the role of Brutus is still to be revealed. Conservative members will be forming an orderly queue.

In the meantime it is to be hoped that York Councillors will quickly get together to agree a new management arrangement. There have been 5 Council Leaders during the last 4 years with another getting within 2 minutes of appointment last night before the daggers were drawn again.

LibDem Councillor Andrew Waller, who was also the York Council Leader between 2008 and 2011, will be the acting Leader for the next week or so.

By now Councillors should have worked out that a more inclusive way of doing business is required in a balanced  authority were no party holds more than 28% of the seats.

It is probably too late to reintroduce the “committee system” before next years all out elections.

However, an agreement to form an all party Executive, to guide the City through what is likely to be a difficult year, could be the best way forward.

But that would require all Groups to behave in a constructive way and for the “gladius” to be sheathed for a while at least