So what do these projects even mean?

Apparently the York Council is going ahead with a plan to bid for nearly £2 million of public funding, despite being told that the area does not qualify for the “Community Renewal Fund”.

York wasn’t on the list of 100 towns and City’s given priority for use of the fund.

Nevertheless, the Council has gone ahead and drawn up a list of schemes that might have benefited. “Partners” were asked to put forward their proposals.

Nine projects were subsequently selected.

There has been no public consultation on the proposals. This has now been exacerbated by a failure (in the Council report to a meeting next week) to provide any explanation of what the projects are intended to achieve.

The single line descriptions are a totally opaque.

We’re pretty sure though, that the “Bosch startup harbour programme” has little to do with ships and water!

York Council criticised for annual meeting arrangements

The City’s Honorary Aldermen were told yesterday that they would be unable to attend the York Councils annual meeting which takes place today.

Attendance numbers are being restricted with only one place unavailable for the media plus a nominal “member of the public”.

The Councils ceremonial annual meeting would normally attract an attendance of around 200 people.

The Council claims that the decision to limit attendance is in line with COVID regulations.

NB. A sports event held at the Community Stadium last weekend attracted around 1000 spectators.

Council’s consultation confusion

It seems that the York Council is pursuing a policy of overkill with many and various public consultations currently underway.

There is already some scepticism among residents about whether it is even worth responding to the Council’s questions. A recent survey found that the majority of respondents didn’t want to see any major change to traffic signal arrangements at the St Leonard Place/Bootham junction. The views were largely ignored when a decision on changes was shelved until the autumn.

Meanwhile, the ill timed (but well intentioned) Groves experimental traffic scheme is still in operation and attracting comments. It was implemented at the height of the pandemic when streets were virtually free of traffic. It is likely to be 6 months before a “new normal” is established and the true impact of the road closures becomes apparent. In the meantime ambulances and other emergency vehicles are forced use an unnecessarily longer route.

The Council is now trying to promote it’s ” My City Centre” survey.

With the York City centre beginning to get back to normal a cautious approach to change is needed.

It says the questions are aimed at shaping “a people-focused, business-friendly city centre where people love to spend time, live and work“. You can complete the survey visit My City Centre York.

There is more than a sneaking suspicion that the questions simply replicate the Castle Gateway approach which started in 2018. There a seemingly endless stream of questions were apparently aimed at wearing down non conformist opposition.

The best test of the voracity of any survey is whether it offers the status quo as an option!

The Council has had little option but to start consultation again on its Local Plan.

Planning inspectors have asked for the six-week consultation period before examining the plan at public hearing sessions later this year.

The consultation will ask for comments on additional evidence and modifications submitted since the ‘Phase 1 hearings in 2019’, including the recent submission of the Green Belt Topic Paper Addendum (2021).

To have your say, visit Local Plan Consultation. The consultation will end at midnight on Wednesday 7 July 2021.

Consultation on “York’s Community Woodland” finished yesterday. It ran for over 6 weeks without managing to answer key questions about how much each of the options would cost and where the funding would come from. https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/YorkWoodland

Another consultation which closed on 11th May relates to changes to recycling arrangements. The proposed 3 weekly collection system attracted one of the highest response rates ever seen. Whether the Council decides to go ahead with the changes, despite the concerns raised, may be the defining moment for the present Council. A decision is due on 24th June.

Other current consultation ca be found by clicking this link

Recycling – public have their say

The Council says that it has received over 7,000 responses and 22,000 comments during the recent recycling consultation

It faces a major dilemma now as it tries to reconcile its wish to reduce the costs of the waste collection service with residents aspirations.

Waste collection has consistently rated as the top public service when residents have been asked to rank the services provided by the Council.

Councillors know that the existing refuse collection service gets good approval ratings in the surveys that they conduct.

The key question – so far unanswered – is “if it ain’t broke, why fix it”?

The Councils media release reads “City of York Council would like to thank all residents who provided their feedback during the recycling changes consultation

The consultation has seen one of the largest responses to-date, with over 7,000 submissions and over 22,000 comments.

The 6-week consultation ended Tuesday (11 May) and will now be taken to an Executive meeting on 20 June, after collating the responses.

In addition to the online survey, the council commissioned a series of independently run focus groups to ensure as many residents’ view could be reflected in the final findings.

The focus groups encompassed views from residents across the city, including residents living in terraced properties, and were staggered over a period of time to ensure key themes emerging from the online consultation were able to be explored further.

The proposals come at a time when the focus on improving our environment has never been more important. The council wants to explore how it can collect recycling in a way that minimises our impact on the environment, improves the service on offer for residents and maximises our opportunity to recycle.

Recycling waste is cheaper than collecting items in black bins (household waste) and therefore residents can help the council save money whilst protecting the environment. The proposals also include the order of new waste and recycling fleet”.

York Council clarifies short term policy on face-to-face meetings

National guidance on council meetings updated

Pressure is growing on the York Council to make its position clear on when a return to public decision making using an all party committee system will be considered. A similar proposal in Sheffield received majority public support in a referendum last week.

The Liberal Democrat manifesto at the last local elections promised to introduce such a system and local Green Party Councillors – who form part of the ruling coalition in York – also say they favour a the modern committee system option.

Although the Labour and Tory groups apparently favour retaining the “winner takes all” Executive system, they are currently in a minority on the York Council.

So what is stopping the leadership from getting moving on the issue?

Separately the Council has announced which meetings will be “in person” over the coming couple of months. All party “scrutiny” meetings will still be held virtually (via zoom) which is a shame given that they are the only real debating forums for many issues.

Some of the more obscure Executive decision meetings attract little public interest though so perhaps the Council is right to try to conduct them “on-line”. Such meetings often last for less than 10 minutes.

City of York Council say that they are putting in place plans to accommodate the national ruling on the future of council meetings.

Following the ruling of the high court, from Friday 7 May, all council decision making meetings will be held in person, with some non-decision making meetings continuing virtually.  Whilst the guidance means meetings will need to be held in person, the council will be putting in place measures to ensure meetings are conducted in a covid safe environment, including allowing for appropriate social distancing.

Over May and June, the following meetings will be take place in person:
•    Annual Council: 27 May, 11am
•    Executive: 20 May, 5.30pm
•    Planning Committee: 17 June (provisional), 4.30pm
•    Area Planning Sub-Committee: 13 May, 4.30pm; 26 May, 4.30pm; 10 June, 4.30pm
•    Licensing Committee: 8 June (provisional), 5.30pm

The below meetings will continue virtually to consider making recommendations before any decision is made.

Executive Member Decision Sessions:
•    Finance and Performance – 14 June, 10am
•    Health and Adult Social Care – 16 June, 10am
•    Housing and Safer Neighbourhoods – 17 June (provisional), 10am 

Scrutiny:
•    Economy and Place – 25 May, 7pm
•    Customer and Corporate – 14 June, 5.30pm

This format will be in place for May and June, and will be reviewed from July onwards, following further guidance on the roadmap after 21st June.

Public participation in relevant meetings will be allowed in person, and by phone for those wishing to dial-in. In addition to the relevant councillors and officers, meetings will have a space for public speakers to attend, and a cleaner will be present to wipe down any surfaces they come into contact with between each speaker. The safety of members of the public, along with officers and councillors, is of paramount importance.

Those wishing to speak at public meetings will need to register their interest a minimum of 2 working days in advance, this can be done online here. If you would like to attend a meeting in person, along with registering to speak, it is recommended that you should take a symptom-free covid test in the 24 hours before the meeting. If your result is positive you should immediately self-isolate and follow the process for confirming your results.

Councillor Keith Aspden, Leader of the Council, said:

With national guidance changing, council meetings will continue to be delivered in a safe way, as to provide local residents, businesses and organisations the opportunity to engage in the Council’s decision making process.

“We would still encourage anyone looking to share their thoughts at public meetings to follow the usual procedure to register and have their say.”

Sharon Stoltz, Director of Public Health, said:

As we move through the steps of the roadmap to recovery more elements of life will ‘return to normal’. It is still essential that we all remember that covid is still very much a part of our lives, and we must continue to follow hands, face, space and fresh air to help stop the spread. I would strongly encourage everyone to regularly take part in symptom-free testing, especially as more people will be leaving their household much more often.

The council will share further information about the plans for future meetings, including the planned Full Council meeting taking place in May, soon.

Worse things happened in..

The media seems to be stoking up a campaign against York Council Leader Keith Aspden. Comments from both Tory and Labour activists have gained prominent publicity.

All are based on the premise that allegation of bullying, made by the Council s last Chief Executive, are true.

In reality, no evidence was submitted which would have justified the Councils auditors (Masers) repeating the claims in their recent “Public Interest Report”.

The PIR is due to be considered at a public Council meeting on 4th May. 

Those who know Keith Aspden will confirm that he is not a “bully”. He can be assertive, and is persistent, but that is what you would expect, and hope for, from a Council Leader.

He may be criticised for being too politically introverted. Avoiding conflict – and surrounding oneself with sycophants – is a mistake that many leaders make.

But it does not make them incompetent.

So what about the glass houses brigade?

It was the Tories who appointed the last Council Chief Executive. They have a vested interest in defending their champion and averting attention from the costly shambles that arose in 2018. Any criticisms are likely to be judged against the background of graft and cronyism which is currently undermining the credibility of the national government.

It is a government that has also singularly failed to implement its policy which would have seen a ceiling put on severance payments in the public sector.

Labour are no better.FOI response Redundancies table 2 When they were last in control of the Council (2011-2015), they handed out £8.2 million in payoffs to 546 “redundant” staff.  Click for details More significantly they were responsible for 41 “compromise agreements”. These are legal means which prevent former employees from publicly pursuing – or commenting on – the terms under which they left the Council. Anyone following the inquiries into the way that Unions like the GMB conduct their equalities policies will be less than impressed by the strictures of the left.

So Keith Aspden should carry on with the good work he and his colleagues have done during what has been a very difficult year because of the Coronavirus pandemic.

But there must be changes.

It seems from the Masers report, that officer advice to the decision makers was wanting in several respects. It may be that a third-party intervention is needed so that new more transparent processes, and the public scrutiny that goes with them, can be introduced..

The Council needs to abandon its closed doors decision making processes. Yes, protect the privacy of individuals, but find a way of at least allowing real time scrutiny of any discretionary decisions.

And we live in a time where the use of social media is commonplace.

The Leader of the Council does not have a Twitter account. It, together with Facebook and individual web sites,* are now more important than ever as a means of communication.

Some soul searching is required. 

*NB. Keith Aspden abandoned his web site in October 2020 telling his followers that regular updates could be found on a centralised LibDem site . Only one item (library re-openings) has been posted there during the last 3 months.

There is a similar lack of communication from Councillors representing most other wards in York

Easier to be transparent! Auditors criticise York Council

Its over a year since the York Councils last Chief Executive – Mary Weastell – retired. It was thought to be the end of what had been an awkward relationship.

An auditor’s report from Mazers, issued yesterday, criticises the process used to approve the terms of the early retirement.

We said over a year ago that details of settlements (anonymised to protect the privacy of individuals) should be published.

That still does not happen in York.

What happened after the May 2019 elections is the subject to varied interpretations.

However, very soon after the poll Mary Weastall went absent on sick leave.

It appears that negotiations about her future then extended over a 12 month period.

There were (unsubstantiated) allegations of bullying while the Council said that it wanted to reduce ongoing costs by doing away with the post of Chief Executive.

In turn this attracted what is known as a public interest report from the Councils external auditors. In essence taxpayers had claimed that an estimated £400,000 (actual £377,115) pay off given to the departing Chief Executive was excessive.  Most of the money went on pension contributions.

The auditors are critical of Keith Aspden for not declaring a personal interest at the (private) meeting which determined the payment to be made to the former Chief Executive. They confirm that this was not a pecuniary interest as Councillors have access to public liability insurance cover.

(Mazers fall short of their own standards when quoting from a 2017, supposedly independent investigators report, which subsequently turned out to be far from “independent”. It was considered at a public meeting – at Cllr Aspden’s request – on 3rd January 2019. They also omit to mention that the bogus investigation cost taxpayers over £100,000 and Cllr Aspden £20,000 himself)

The auditors confirm that the former Chief Executive was kept on full pay throughout her sick leave absence. Her contract provided only for 6 months on full pay followed by 6 months on half pay. The difference amounts to £18,165.

The auditors also say that of the £377,115  “exit package” only £286,452 was statutory. The Council had a choice about whether to pay the remaining £90,663 which was labelled as “redundancy” and “ex gratia”.

The auditors recommend,

  1. The Council should adopt and apply appropriate standards for business case preparation in relation to exit and pension discretions to improve information supporting decisions.
  2. Decision notes should be maintained that document the factors that explain the case for the use of public funds under the scheme of delegation such as where payments exceed contractual entitlements.
  3. The Council should review the design of its governance policies and procedures to manage conflicts of interest (including self-interest threats). This should include updating the Council’s constitution and scheme of delegation.
  4. The Council should ensure all Members fully understand the requirements of the Code of Conduct in relation to declaration of interests.
  5. The Council should review its policies and procedures to reflect Government guidance in the use of non-disclosure agreements.

The Council has said that it accepts the recommendations and will act to changes its procedures.

We will see.

Council snubbed by government in York Central funding deal

Illustrative York Central Masterplan approved in 2019

The council’s “continued role” in unlocking a new generation of jobs, homes and cultural facilities in the York Central site will be considered by the Executive next Thursday, 22 April.

Funding to complete infrastructure works at the York central site (located behind the railway station) is being made direct to the landowners – led by Homes England – by the government.

It means that the Council’s role will be peripheral despite many millions having already been invested in the project. That may be good news for taxpayers who have seen projects like the Community Stadium and Guildhall refurbishment delayed and go over budget in recent years.

Now contract supervision and liability will rest mainly with Homes England.

Transparency isn’t a strong point for any of the “partners” involved in the York Central project (or the current York Council for that matter). We doubt if engagement will improve under the new governance arrangements.

The Council does remain the planning authority although that role could be undermined as they pursue “Enterprise Zone” status for the project. Planning rules are lax in such areas.

Council report April 2021

The Council is still set to spend nearly £50 million on the project and is dependent on the additional business rate income from Enterprise Zone new businesses to repay its borrowing.

The report being considered next week skates over the risks of this approach,. Those risks appear to have increased since the pandemic with office based developments likely to be less attractive for a while at least.

There are a number of significant planning issues still to be resolved.

These include the (bizarre) suggestion for making the Leeman Road tunnel one way, the absence of an attractive pedestrian/cycle access from the Wilton Rise area and continuing doubts about severing the existing Leeman Road footpath link near the Railway Museum

Last summer Labour Councillors even tried to ditch the project.

The Council has issued the following statement,

“Despite the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, the council has worked with York Central partners Network Rail, Homes England and National Railway Museum to maintain momentum and progress on the 42 hectare York Central site.

After partners finalised the £155 million funding, secured planning permission and started work on the infrastructure to unlock the site, which will deliver up to 2,500 homes and space for up to 6,500 jobs.

Executive will be asked to approve changes to the way the project will be delivered and managed.

This includes the main grant holder, Homes England, taking on the delivery of the bridges, footways, cycleways, roads and other infrastructure to open up the site.

The council will also receive £3.86 million from the government grant to cover the costs incurred advancing the infrastructure project”.

We’ll meet again

click to read

The government has told councils to start meeting again from May.

Interim regulations permitted local authorities to hold remote meetings using facilities such as “zoom”. Now they will have to get together in a room with efforts being made to accommodate members of the public.

Unfortunately work on York’s Guildhall is far from complete so meetings may reconvene at the Citadel building in Gillygate.

The York Council was one of the pioneers a decade ago in live streaming meetings so the recent introduction of on line access was less of an innovation than it was for some authorities.

The on-line format has been criticised for producing a sterile atmosphere with the cut and trust of debate missing from the decision making process.

Emergency powers delegated some decisions to officials. Unfortunately there was no requirement to publish details of up coming officers decisions. The first that residents heard of some plans was when a decision notice was issued some days later.

That is something that needs to change.

The government is consulting on how the option of “on line” decision making can be made available in the future.

Certainly many Executive member decision sessions – which last for a few minutes and produce little or no engagement from residents – might usefully be held without the need for unnecessary travel (subject to the usual requirement to allow public representations to be made).

The first meeting in public may be the Council’s AGM at which a new Lord Mayor will be elected.

The meeting is scheduled to take place on 27th May.

Auditors criticise York Council

Usually the arrival of the annual auditors report at a York Council meeting produces little excitement (or even mild interest).

Things may be a little different at a governance meeting which is scheduled to take place on 31st March.

While the Councils auditors Mazers give a generally positive view of the Council’s financial arrangements, they do take a pop at the process used to compensate the Councils last Chief Executive when she left the authority, quite suddenly, in 2019.

click image to access the full report

The Council has issued the following comments;

City of York Council has published its 2019/20 final accounts, which will be considered by the Council’s Audit and Governance Committee later this month.

The council’s accounts are subject to external audit by Mazars LLP, who previously highlighted four outstanding areas at the Audit and Governance Committee meeting in November 2020 that required final approval:

  • The heritage assets valuation where information has now been provided by York Museums Trust but was delayed due to the impact of Covid-19. Mazars have made a control recommendation in respect of the arrangements to review, challenge and document the output of valuation experts.
  • The council’s pension fund administrators, North Yorkshire Pension Fund, are unable to confirm pension figures in the accounts. This issue is not specific to City of York Council and affects all local authority members of the pension fund. Mazars have discussed future arrangements with the council to put arrangements in place for a full valuation in 2020/21.
  • Additional information regarding remuneration packages from the council is currently being worked through by Mazars. Mazars concluded that the sums involved do not present a risk of material misstatement.  Additional information regarding remuneration packages is ongoing and will be published when completed.
  • The audit of the ‘Whole of Government Accounts (WGA)’ return has yet to be completed due to a delays in receiving guidance from the National Audit Office.

Mazars LLP have now completed the majority of this work and provided the council with an updated Audit Completion report, together with a final version of the Accounts published in advance of the next meeting of Audit and Governance for information. 

Mazars identified there are no matters arising on the management override of controls or from work on revenue recognition.  Mazars have not identified any material errors or uncertainties in the financial statements or highlighted any indication of material estimation error in respect of defined benefit liability valuation. 

Responding the publication of final accounts, Debbie Mitchell, Chief Finance Officer, said:

Despite the impact of the pandemic, the Council was still able to complete and deliver draft accounts to the external auditor by the end of June 2020, a full month ahead of the statutory deadline. 

“Following detailed assessment of four areas identified by the auditors as requiring further work, Mazars have not identified any material errors in the financial statements and have indicated that the accounts give a true and fair view of the financial position of the council and that they have been properly prepared.

“Further work is taking place to provide additional information regarding remuneration packages and when this work is completed, it will be published and shared with the Audit and Governance Committee.  This does mean that the final audit certificate cannot yet be issued.  However, the auditor has made clear that this objection does not have a material impact on the financial statements. 

“We welcome the feedback from the external auditor and fully recognise that there are areas for improvement. We look forward working with Mazars to develop an appropriate action plan once this outstanding matter is published.”