Need for clarity from Council Executive members

The Council’s scrutiny committees will begin to receive reports this month from the new Executive councillors.

The expectation will be that a line will be drawn in the sand and a new suite of measurable outcomes will be published.

Street sweeping poor

At the moment residents must rely on Open Data pages to try to check on progress.  They represent a confusing array of stats with some key service areas barely covered.

The public will want to know what the trends are in volumes? Are the demands on the Council’s resources increasing or are they stable?

 Whether it be numbers of schoolchildren or elderly people requiring support, these are key figures. 

Blocked gullies

The volume of waste being presented is an example of  important information, as are jobless and job vacancy numbers.  Complaint and issue numbers provide a clue to residents’ concerns.

“How many?” “how often?” “where?” are all legitimate questions

Going beyond these how is the Council responding?

  • What are the customer satisfaction numbers?
  • How quickly does the Council respond?
  • How effective is the response?
  • What are the root causes of repeat problems and how has the Council responded?
No weed control

Two reports to a scrutiny meeting next week offer little insight. They include no numbers.

The Executive member scorecards for the first quarter (April – June) haven’t even been published yet.

An outturn report to a full executive meeting on 29th August prompted no debate.

Paths obstructed

Taken with the obvious decline in street public service standards that have been evident during the summer months, this simply isn’t good enough.

It doesn’t matter which party is in control of the Council a “can do” attitude coupled with good, honest communications is essential.

Residents expect better.

More trees and wild flowers

How not to do it

The new York Council has rightly decided to plant more trees and expand the areas devoted to wildflowers with good propagation features.

More trees will help , in a modest way, to offset the losses both locally and internationally which have occurred over recent years.

The plight of bees robbed of propagating flowers in urban environments, because of increased hard surfacing and use of herbicides, is well documented.

The Council does however need to understand that such a policy is not a cheap alternative . The authority will need to plant the right species of trees to match the needs of specific locations. Too many well intended “plant a tree in 83” type schemes resulted in the wrong type of tree being planted in the wrong location.

This is particularly true in the case of highway trees (those in verges) where lack of regular maintenance has meant that many have grown the point that they interfere with passing vehicles, overhead plant or neighbouring properties. The only pruning that they get is from high sided vehicles which sooner or later impact on branches often sending them crashing down onto the highway.

High winds can have a similar effect.

The problem can be traced to an inadequate maintenance budget. This was given a modest boost in the Council most recent review.

Before planting more trees – there are plenty of spaces where new mini forests could be created in and around the City – the Council should first sort out its existing stock

On Balfour Street a (self seeded?) tree has been allowed to spread to the point where it is absorbing the adjacent railings and destroying the public footpath. It has been reported on several occasions with out a response from the Council. An obvious case for the local ward committee to use its delegated budget to tidy up the area.

For some people wildflowers are synonymous with pervasive weed growth. We have seen the neglect of highways over the summer although some lobbyists have argued that the weed growth will at least be “good for nature”.

We doubt that, with damage to paths and drains likely to pose an expensive hazard.

But there are locations where the Council could proactively plant low maintenance flowers which would greatly increase propagation opportunities.

The authority will need a proactive programme which will need to include a commitment to the long term maintenance of any planted areas.

This area next to the Leeman Road cycle track is actually paved. Neglect means that is has gradually become overgrown. If it serves no landscaping purpose, then the paving could be removed and a good propagating, low maintenance, plant such as lavender, could be substituted.

Timetable to address York public service woes needed

Anyone expecting the York Council’s Executive to take decisive action, to address declining public service standards at their meeting yesterday, will have been disappointed.

Despite a plea from Independent Councillor Mark Warters that a team be set up to deal with outstanding complaints, the Councils leadership remained tight lipped.

Cllr Warters was echoing a similar call from a growing number of Liberal Democrat supporters in the City

Many residents may conclude that there is something seriously wrong at West Offices.

Not only is there no timetable for addressing outstanding issues, but communications with residents are poor while many local Councillors (not all) fail to roll their sleeves up and tackle issues directly in their wards.

The York Council is no longer a “can do” organisation. It’s become a “maybe things will get better next year” type authority.

That won’t do. Its the kind of complacent attitude that has prompted a rise in more extreme political ideologies elsewhere in the country and abroad. It needs to be reversed, and quickly.

Not everything is bad, of course. Some individual Council officials are making limited progress in improving our streets as we show here.

The drainage channel on Foxwood Lane has been cleared
The Field Lane cycle track has been cleared of obstructions
But for every success there is a failure. The footpath on Hull Road remains obstructed despite pedestrians being forced onto the busy highway
and weeds still haven’t been treated even on streets where Councillors actually live!
New issues are emerging each day. This footpath on Field Lane, near the Hull Road junction, is now obstructed.
Not the Councils responsibility, but there has been a build up of litter on the Teal Drive “pocket park”. Reopened 6 weeks ago, it is being well used but it does need routine cleansing (or a litter bin). Reported to JRHT.

Media haven’t got the whole story on weed growth in the City

The Press and other local media outlets are running stories today about excessive weed growth on paths and in drainage channels in the City. The local Tories are criticising the Lib Dem/Green administration for the problems. The published stories give the impression that the Tories have been actively campaigning on the issue.

That is misleading.

Problems with the effectiveness of the weed spraying contract became apparent in May. As the contract was relatively new, and responsible executive members were busy changing roles post the local elections, It seemed fair to allow a few weeks for things to settle down and for the chemical treatments to take effect.

We reported serval dozen problem areas including the longstanding weed problem on the parapets of the Ouse Bridg,e together with a build-up of silt on many traffic islands.

Nothing much seemed to happen. As usual with this sort of report there was no feedback from the Council to those who had highlighted the problems.

Tongue in cheek, in early July we launched a “biggest weed contest”.

There was still no response from Council officials. Councillors were notified but the only response came from Mark Warters who was having problems in his Osbaldwick ward.

6 more weeks passed and we felt we had no option but to make a formal complaint (see below). This was tabled on 15th August. It was copied to the Councils leadership.

An official replied on 21st August blaming the weather for the problems.

The complaint was escalated on 22nd August and we await a further response.

The Council’s leadership did announce yesterday (Wednesday) that they would conduct a review of weed control processes at a meeting which will be held in October. What happens in the interim remains unclear.

We are quite clear that a blitz on weeds and overgrown hedges, using mechanical removal methods, is needed urgently.

One other aspect that needs to be clarified is the responsibility for keeping former trunk roads like the A59 clear. Highways England confirmed that it was down to local authorities to deal with these highways. Yet the Council’s current weed control contract seems to exclude these roads (they have certainly not been sprayed).

We have submitted a Freedom of Information request in an attempt to clarify the situation.

Ironically a review of performance indicators, being considered by the Councils Executive later today, pointedly puts no focus on the appearance of the City’s streets.

While the Tories are being opportunistic in highlighting the current weed problems, they might have a point if a Council, committed at the recent election to raising street level public service standards, failed to address quickly and effectively significant failures when they have been identified.

More talks about UBER

York’s licensing committee will again consider the vexed question of UBER private hire vehicles operating in York when they meet next week.

A decision on what, if any, action should be taken is due to be taken by the Councils Executive on 26th September.

The Council has now published a formal legal opinion on whether UBER vehicles, registered with other local authorities can legally accept bookings in York. The council’s position is that, provided the three licences required in relation to a private hire vehicle (operator, driver and vehicle) have all been issued by the same authority, then the private hire vehicle can undertake journeys anywhere in England and Wales. This opinion can be read by clicking here

 An alternative opinion was provided via the local trade association

The meeting report reveals that national legislation is planned which will aim to clear up the confusion about what private hire vehicles can and can’t do and where.

In the meantime, officials are recommending that there is no change to the Councils existing policies.

We have sympathy for both sides in this argument. The local trade may be partly motivated by protectionism. But passenger safety is of paramount importance and standards do appear to vary across the region.

This seems to us like a suitable case on which the West Yorkshire Combined Authority (which includes York) could take a lead.

On the other hand, in a modern world, being able to summon a private hire vehicle using a smartphone app seems like a “no brainer”. If the App tells you what the vehicle will be, when it will arrive, who will be driving it and how much the journey will cost, then all to the good.

The York licencing department does need to crack down on unlawful pick-ups and prevent private hire vehicles (from all companies) from “lurking” near taxi ranks and in busy areas.

That would be the best use of resources and Council officials time.

Shared ownership in York

A report to a meeting taking place this week reveals that in quarter 1 (April – June 2019) “within the Shared Ownership Scheme, the Council has acquired one property and sold equity shares in three properties”.

The York Council is investing heavily in promoting shared ownership homes in the City

The target is to purchase 23 properties by the end of 2019/20 and sell the same amount.

“Capital receipts from the equity sales are to be reinvested into the shared ownership programme, as such the budget is to be increased by £289k at quarter 1 and the same amount is to be re-profiled to 2020/21 for future purchases”.

The report comes a few days after it was revealed that the Council has completed only 10 shared ownership deals in the 3 years leading up to April 2019

This week’s report fails to identify any open market purchase of properties which could be added to the Council Housing pool.

Weed control contract details revealed

A local Councillor has obtained details of the weed control contract that the York Council has with a Harrogate company.

Many complaints have been lodged about the poor appearance of streets in and around York this summer.

Weed control contract 2019

The contract includes a list of all the streets that should be treated Click here to download. It also specifies the quality standards that should be achieved.

Although it  is a long list, it appears that local Councillors weren’t given any chance to check that it was complete before the contract was tendered early in the spring.

While some weeds have been cleared from the gutters near the A59 junction with Station Road, the nearby underpass has not been treated

The contractor is required to treat car parking areas, back lanes, the City Walls and underpasses on the A1237. Paths should be treated up to the adjacent boundary wall.

One potential area of concern is responsibilities on trunk roads with the A59 a particular issue.

A copy of the contract can be downloaded by clicking here.

Residents have resorted to applying weed killer themselves to one traffic island. They will monitor how quickly the weeds are killed. Elsewhere on Station Road, Poppleton, and on the traffic islands nearby, there is little evidence of treatment by the Council’s contractors.

We hope that Councillors and residents will check their local neighbourhoods and report any weeds that have not been treated.

Before next summer, there should be a review of routes and working practices on this contract.

The Council should make this, and other street level public service contract specifications, available on their “open data” web site.

Information requests 2000+ a year & increasing at York Council

The number of requests for information sent to the York Council last year hit a record high.

2068 Freedom of Information (FOI) and Environment Information Regulation (EIR) requests were lodged with the Council.

The applications were submitted using several different methods.

Some were simply Emailed to the Councils dedicated FOI email address ( Such requests generated an automatic receipt.

Others used the independent web site “What do they know”. The monitoring of applications made from this site are semi automatic.

The Council also has its own “on line” recording system. This can be used by clicking this link  At the moment this system, unlike “what do they know”, doesn’t provide users with a  copy of their request nor does it produce a receipt even if a contact email address is provided. Users must make a note of a reference number which briefly appears on screen.

 The Council claims that last year it answered 91% of requests for information within the target 20-day turn-round time.

Many of the requests do generate a further review as the Council fails to fully, or even partially, answer the information requests.

We think that if the Council was more open in its processes the cost of dealing with ad hoc requests for information would be greatly reduced.

NB. There has been no response from the  York Council to a request for an explanation of why it ceased updating its FOI response lists last summer.

57 complaints last year received by Ombudsman about the City of York Council

The Local Government Ombudsman was asked to investigate 57 complaints about the York Council last year.

Transport and planning issues attracted the most complaints.

Ombudsman complaints 2018/19

The equivalent figure for the North Yorkshire County Council was 82 complaints in total, with Adult Social Care and Children’s Services being the most criticised.

The figures are included in the annual report of the Ombudsman

Of the York complaints, 21 were further investigated by the Ombudsman.

Of these, 11 were upheld. A full  list can be found here (click)

The Ombudsman says that the Council complied with their recommendations in all 11 cases although there were delays in 3 instances.

The annual letter from the Ombudsman to the York Council can also now be read on their web site (click)

It includes a “public interest” report about the Council’s failure to provide adequate support for a couple with a terminally ill baby.

The report says that social workers did not visit the baby in hospital

The Ombudsman’s findings are normally reported to a Council committee for consideration and possible changes to procedures.

Extract from the Ombudsman’s annual letter 2019 to York Council