Big investment in York Public Services

Council leadership set to prioritise road repairs, play facilities, housing, energy efficiency and Social Care.

The new Council leadership has announced changes to the budget that it inherited. As expected, extra investment in improvements to street level public services are planned.

There will be extra investment in

More to be spent on road repairs
  • Removing graffiti
  • Additional Litter bins
  • Tree management
  • Crime reduction
  • Waste collection
  • Street environment (cleaning and community projects)
  • Buses
  • Electric vehicle charging point maintenance.

The biggest investment will be £1 million spent on road repairs and a further £1 million on cycling/walking improvements

There will be a £250,000 boost for children’s play facilities.

The Council will invest £1 million in speeding up housing modernisation and a further £1 million on energy efficiency improvements

£22,000 is being taken for the reserves to improve children’s and adult social care standards.

Several of the proposals are less than transparent. We are told, for example, that the Council will “Re-purpose funding from the Leeds City Region Business Rates Pilot to strengthen our approach to inclusive growth, including child poverty, greening the high street and promote lifelong learning

We think that there is unlikely to be rioting in the streets as a result of the Councils decision to discontinue the “digital immersive model” marketing project. There may be public unrest if the Council doesn’t publish its reports in plain English in future.

Also, the Council will fund “connections with communities most impacted by EU exit to better understand their needs, and to take forward the community hubs work initiated”

Four schemes are intended to be self-funding. They relate to foster care, Special Education Needs and Disability pupils, Public Health and mental health.

The proposals will be welcomed by many in the City. It will, however, take more than £1 million to get the City’s roads back into good order. 

£4.25 million of the plan is capital investment, meaning higher debt charges in the future (and less to spend in the revenue budget).

The plans are likely to be criticised for failing to clearly identify the objectives of some of the changes with no detail given of how the success of the projects will be measured.

No KPIs are listed and there is no clear vision of how the City will look in 4 years’ time.

Residents may feel that prompt attention to reducing the costs of some inherited major projects is necessary, especially if demands on taxpayers in future years are to remain under control.

It really shouldn’t cost £35,000 to “ launch a public Citizen’s Assembly on how the Council can best work in an open way

The Council must become a “can do” rather than a “can talk” organisation.

Still it’s a start, and a better one than was managed by the last two Council administrations.

The proposal will be discussed at a meeting taking place on 17th July

A full list of budget proposals can be read by clicking here

Full list of budget changes
Budget changes list continued

A meeting with limited purpose?

The York Council Joint Standards Committee – which is charged with ensuring there is probity in public life – meets for the first time in the new Council session on 17th June.

The, decidedly thin, agenda can be viewed by clicking here. It involves only the appointment of a chair, a vice chair and agreeing future meeting dates.

As well as regulating the activities of City of York Councillors, the 10 strong committee also considers complaints about Parish Councillor conduct. The parishes appoint 3 members to the committee. Two of the three nominations are former City of York Councillors. Both were rejected by the electorate at the recent May 3rd poll. (Stuart Rawlings and Sian Wiseman)

Only one of the Council appointed members has (recent) previous experience of York Council work. Ironically that is former Leader David Carr. Cllr Carr was himself the subject of a complaint over his handling of, what turned out to be, bogus allegations against Cllrs Aspden and Ayre in 2017.

It has taken 2 years and expenditure of over £100,000 to resolve those claims.

Steps were taken to start an independent inquiry into the process used by York Council officials to resolve the Aspden/Ayre case. There has been no recent update on the progress of this investigation. The Councillors themselves suffered a significant financial penalty as they lost earnings and had to pay for their own legal representation (costs thought to be in excess of £10,000).

The expectation had been that the outstanding case would have been resolved by now with the conclusion being reported to this standards committee meeting on 17th June.

The minutes from the committees last meeting, held on 13th February, included the following comment

” Since the committee’s last meeting in November 2018, two long running cases had been concluded and two cases remained ongoing. Details were set out in the table at paragraph 2 of the report. Members noted that one of the ongoing cases was likely to be concluded in February and stressed the importance of concluding the other case, which dated from 2017, before the start of the pre-election purdah period on 26 March 2019“.

The case started in September 2017 but investigated allegations going back as far as 2014.

It now seems that there will be no final closure on the Nigel Ayre case for a few more weeks at least.

The actual investigation into the case is understood to have concluded last year.

Council hurriedly publishes who does what list

The Council has now published several updates to its constitution.

The changes haven’t been through any democratic process so fail the transparency test.

Amongst the documents now on the Council web site “library”” are sections covering


Executive Member responsibilities (click)

Council Committees and Other Bodies

 Scrutiny Review Procedure Rules

Overview and Scrutiny

Some of the Executive member responsibilities will raise eyebrows.

Splitting responsibility for “parks and open spaces” from “sport and leisure” does’t look like joined up thinking. Both are areas where the last Council had major policy failures, so some sort of refresh is needed.

Extract from new York Executive responsibilities as at June 2019

Who does what at the York Council?

The first round of scrutiny committee meetings are taking place at West Offices this month.

Hopes that the agenda for the meetings would clarify roles and responsibilities appear to have been misplaced.

We are told that the, quaintly named, “Economy and Place” scrutiny committee will hear reports from three Executive members

  • Executive Member for Economy and Strategic Planning (July)
  • Executive Member for Transport (July)
  • Executive Member for Environment and Climate Change (Sept)

The latter may be a surprise as the Council meeting held on the 22nd May agreed to set up a new “Climate Change Scrutiny Committee”. It didn’t define the terms of reference of that committee but engagement with the Executive member with climate change responsibilities would have been a banker for most observers.

Any list of responsibilities will be subject to a change in the Councils constitution anyway.

Meanwhile the agenda for the  “Customer and Corporate Services Scrutiny Management Committee” to be held on 10th June will receive reports from  the

  • Executive Member for Policy Strategy and Partnerships (Leader) &
  • Executive Member for Finance and Partnerships

No new job descriptions have yet been published for the Councils 9 Executive members. Most of the job titles are opaque, so it remains unclear where responsibilities now lie.

The new Council has got off to a poor start after becoming embroiled in a controversy about increasing the amount spent on Councillors pay. They could easily have avoided that false start by containing expenditure within the existing agreed budget envelope.

New Councillors might have been expected to be more eager to demonstrate their effectiveness by highlighting, via public and social media, the successes they are having in addressing issues raised by residents. Most will have had a full “postbag” during the recent election campaigns.

Little has been heard from the Councils PR department (apart from the occasional anodyne media release) and even the party political propaganda channels have been muted.

During the last 12 months there has been a wide divergence in the number of decision meetings attended by Executive members in York

NB. Executive Councillors receive a payment of £15,600 a year in addition to their basic salary of £9,198.39

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