Council post COVID opinion survey launched

Our Big Conversation

The York Council has launched a survey which it claims is aimed at finding out residents views on how well the health crisis has been handled and what should happen next.

Some of the questions are a little “leading” and seem to be aimed at getting a pat on the head for decisions already taken.

There is no opportunity to rate controversial schemes like the Bishopthorpe Road closure, reduced car parking provision or restrictions on car access in The Groves area.

The Council also fails to test opinion on emerging issues like anti social behaviour.

Respondents will look in vain for questions about the Councils democratic accountability since it adopted a “behind closed doors” decision making process.

Nor is there any opportunity to comment on the Councils financial strategy (if indeed it now has such a strategy) .

Economic regeneration seems to begin and end with putting restaurant tables onto open spaces.

Details, of what the Council is describing as a “Big Conversation”, can be found by clicking this link

Unfortunately, as with any survey taken against a rapidly changing background, some of the questions already look a little dated.

£1/4 million York Council expenditure so far on advertising and publicity during COVID crisis

City of York Council website home page – City of York Council

The York Council spent £285,667 on advertising and publicity during the period from the beginning on February to the end of May.

The figures for June are not yet published on the “Open Data” web site.

Of the total expenditure £189,057 was spent during May.

The largest supplier was Platinum Print of Harrogate who lodged bills totalling £137,090 last month.

Royal Mail charged £6982 to deliver Council newsletters.

The Council didn’t advertise on Minster FM, the local commercial radio station. It spent £1,500 in May with “York Mix”. There were also regular payments to The York Press.

The Councils communications strategy has been criticised for being slow to get started, confusingly complex and unnecessarily repetitive.  Some key information about home deliveries was never circulated.

It is likely that, when the COVID crisis is over, an inquiry into what has been spent, why and with what authority will be launched.

York Council navel gazing day

With City eyes focusing on how well the retail economy will perform today, the Council is taking the chance to slip through a restructuring of its management team.

West Offices face major shake up after lock-down ends

The changes are part of the continuing fall out following the premature departure of the Authorities last Chief Executive.

A meeting today will formally adopt a temporary structure. One of the aims is to save over £80,0000 a year in management costs.

It has already made one disastrous decision in appointing a “Director of Governance”. That post has presided over a drift into even great secrecy in decision making with one of the incumbents first initiatives being to stop the publication of answers to Freedom of Information requests.

This followed on from the previous Councils decision not to invite written questions and to publish the answers following Council meetings.

The long term problem of decisions being taken without consultation has been further compounded during the lock-down. The majority of decisions are now being announced on the Councils web site without any prior notification (much less any opportunity for residents to have any input). Background papers are published on the same day that the decision is announced

The proposed interim structure would effectively see the acting Chief Executive – or Chief Operating Operator as the title is being restyled – with 9 direct reports. That is an unworkable structure, which totally misses the opportunity to have a “Head of Paid Service” with mainly strategic & leadership objectives.

There is little option but to continue the existing arrangements until the City has negotiated the health crisis.

Lock-down saw the best and worst of local authority traits. High levels of commitment to public services from junior staff; indecision and, in some cases, invisibility from some managers.

The Council will need to learn the lessons of the last 6 months.

It must then restructure, and recruit, to address identified failings.

York Council investigated 188 fraud cases last year

According to figures published by the City of York Council, it investigated over 188 cases of potential fraud against the authority during the last financial year.

The vast majority of these involved bogus attempts to claim Council Tax reductions. 13 involved attempted social housing frauds.

Of the 188 cases investigated, fraud was confirmed in 109 cases.

The potential loss of income to the authority was £255,185 pa.

The Council employs 13 anti fraud staff at a cost of around £270,000 pa.

One law for……

Perhaps the actions that have attracted the most criticism during lockdown nationally have been those where politicians and senior officials have been seen to break their own rules. Several have been forced to resign although, at least, one has famously not.

Not surprisingly the words and actions of their local counterparts are also now under increasing scrutiny. Tomorrow some schools will reopen while those that have carried on educating the children of Key Workers can expect an influx of additional pupils. Opinions are mixed about the timing of this move and, indeed,  the return of more people to their workplaces.

MPs have returned to Westminster albeit in a “social distancing” respecting way.

So why have the City’s democratic institutions not been revived? Apart from a couple of anaemic virtual Q & A sessions, local leaders seem to have preferred to issue the occasional policy edict.

They have seemed reluctant to submit to scrutiny.

The Councils scrutiny and audit functions – led by opposition Councillors – have been ineffective for many years, with participants trying to score political points while exploring their own self interest obsessions.

Never has there been a greater need for challenge than now when residents have so many real concerns about what has happened and what might happen if a second wave of COVID infections hits the City. Other areas are already making preparations

It seems extraordinary that City bosses can order teachers and children back to the classroom while they themselves hide behind the safety of virtual reality meetings. While the need for full scale Council meetings may be small at the present time, there is an urgent requirement for all decisions to be preceded with  good quality, informed reports. Residents should be able to hear the arguments for and against controversial decisions like the Bishopthorpe Road contraflow cycle lane.

Many paths are now obstructed

Some Council services have actually improved during lockdown.

Street cleaning standards are high and pothole reports are being dealt with more quickly. This, though, has tended to highlight the awful state of many carriageways and paths – in itself the most likely reason (together with path obstructions) why many, who have taken up walking and cycling  in  their leisure times, may now return to their cars.

Some empty council houses have attracted dumping

There has also been an increase in the number of long term empty Council houses with some homes having become dumping grounds. The repair and re-letting service needs to get into gear. They can follow the lead of  those estate agents who have successfully adapted to incorporate social distancing into their processes.

Whether some Councillors actually “get this” is unclear. They recently publish a letter saying that they estimated “that there would be over 700 (coronavirus) deaths in the City by October”.

So far there have been 126 deaths at York hospital, with a similar total in the local community. 

If another 500 deaths are expected, why on earth are we relaxing the lockdown?

Truce signed by York Council Group Leaders

The 5 group leaders on the York Council have sent a letter to the “local media” saying they are working “together constructively” and are leaving “partisan politics to one side” during the COVID crisis.

They say that they estimate that there will be “over 700 deaths in York by October”. (Currently 120 deaths have been reported at the York hospital).

They promise to make their communications “constructive”.

This outbreak of bonhomie is all the more surprising given that it has taken 10 weeks of crisis management before it has actually appeared. Residents may have assumed that everyone was working collaboratively behind the scenes.

 Maybe not it seems.

The decision to parade their credentials before the media – rather than the City as a whole – seems strange.

There has been no criticism of the Councils Key Worker staff. Rather it is the activities of senior managers and Councillors which is being scrutinised.

Communication with residents has been very patchy during the last 3 months.

Pandemic fears, expressed by at least one Councillor (Mark Waters) in February, were brushed aside.

York recorded the first UK cases of coronavirus but the authorities declined to confirm that the victims had recovered.

Although crisis hubs were set up promptly, the Council failed – and still fails – to provide food delivery information that is fair to all traders and is made available in an up to date format that is accessible to everyone.

Newsletters were promised but it took a long time to get them through letterboxes.

The Council Leadership eventually stopped replying to correspondence and a range of requests for information were ignored.

We still don’t know how many COVID tests have proved to be positive at the Poppleton testing centre. Some will worry about whether the “700 deaths” forecast is based on data from that source?

The number of road traffic accidents has not been publicly monitored (thought to have reduced).

Nor have vehicle speeds been checked using the automatic equipment available to the Fire Services

A decision making process of sorts was introduced. It limps along. Papers – although written in advance – are not published to the public before decisions are taken.

We have seen a half-baked contraflow cycle lane introduced on Bishopthorpe Road at a time which coincided with road works on the suggested alternative route. The result was unnecessary congestion which could easily have been avoided if proper advice had been taken.

A similar impulsive decision seems to have been made about reducing the size of the Marygate car park.

Extreme opportunism and posturing seems to have replaced the measured, pragmatic approach which effective  crisis management demands.

So when the Group Leaders have finished with their socially distanced conga, they might like to take some time to offer a transparency commitment to the people of York.

The Conga Line GIFs | Tenor

Looks like chickens are roosting

Still waiting for York Council to explain how recent land and building acquisitions, funded by borrowing, in the commercial sector will hit its bottom line against a background of falling rents.

To read the full article click here

NB. The Councils Facebook Q & A session earlier in the week failed to reveal anymore information about how the Councils supposed £24 million budget “back hole” has been calculated.

Coronavirus York updates; 5th May 2020

Waste tips to reopen. Green bin emptying and bulky waste removal services also to restart

Cllr Paula Widdowson, Executive Member with responsibility for waste services said: “I’m pleased to announce that all of our waste services will resume over the next two weeks.
“Today we have agreed changes which mean:

• Household Waste and Recycling Centres will reopen from 11 May by appointment only to residents and commercial waste customers for essential use.
• Bulky waste collections will restart on 11 May
• Garden waste collections will start on 18 May.

“The decision we took back in April wasn’t one we took lightly, however it was crucial we were able to keep residents and staff safe. I would like to thank residents for their understanding and also our incredible staff who have continued to collect household waste and recycling in these challenging times.

“The wellbeing of residents and our staff has been our number one priority and following resident feedback, we explored options to restart all waste collection services, including garden waste collections. In addition, these services can now be opened safely as staff absences have stabilised and we have developed new ways of working.

“Following my letter to the Secretary of State seeking further support and guidance to resume our services as soon as possible, the government released updated guidance today. The guidance advises that journeys to tips must only be undertaken if your waste or recycling cannot be stored at home safely or disposed of safely by other means.

“The household waste and recycling centres will also have social distancing measures in place in addition to our booking system. We will announce further details of the changes, including the booking system tomorrow.”

Confusion over grants to micro businesses

The City of York Council says it is gearing up to deliver a new government grant scheme aimed at local businesses, small charities, B&Bs and market traders.

It is unclear whether the grants will be in addition to any made under the Council’s own micro business grant scheme launched on 3rd April. The Council has not said how much of the £1 million, that they said they had put aside for those grants, has actually been spent.

York is set to receive around £2.2 million to support small and micro businesses that do not qualify for the existing grants or the self-employed income support. Council staff will work to ensure that the grants are received as rapidly as possible once details of the scheme are announced.

The figure represents the 5% ‘uplift’ promised to councils on the amount received through the coronavirus grants for small businesses and those in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors.

Local authorities have to wait for final details from the government but the scheme aims to help:

  • Small businesses in shared offices or other flexible work spaces
  • Science parks and incubators which do not have their own business rates assessment
  • Regular market traders who do not have their own business rates assessment
  • B&Bs which pay Council Tax instead of business rates
  • Charity properties in receipt of charitable business rates relief which would otherwise have been eligible for Small Business Rates Relief or Rural Rate Relief

It is available to businesses with fewer than 50 employees and facing ongoing fixed building-related costs. Applicants must have been trading since before 11 March, and able to demonstrate that they have suffered a significant fall in income due to the Coronavirus outbreak.

Councillor Andrew Waller, executive member for the economy and strategic planning, said:

These are extremely challenging times for the people who run York’s businesses.

“From day one it’s been our priority to get relief into business’ bank accounts as securely and quickly as possible, with over £105 million distributed in a matter of weeks, nearly 90% of previous grant announcements. We’ll do the same with these grants, and are working with neighbouring councils to make sure that, as resources allow, there is as much consistency as possible.

We hope that the Government will provide regulations to councils quickly so that we can announce details of how to apply early next week.”

Because the scale of the financial award to local authorities has been fixed, but the number of qualifying businesses and charity properties will emerge and vary, the council cannot immediately say how much each grant will be worth.

Full details of the scheme are expected to be announced by the Government later this week. Grants will be distributed by an application process. It is acknowledged that it will take a little time to set up this process to ensure all the correct checks are made.

Almost 90% of previously announced grants have now been processed with City of York ranking 12 out of 314 local authorities for the quickest payments to local businesses. Officers are continuing to work through these, as well as the micro grants.

Recycling centres to reopen?

Speculation is mounting that the government will ask local Councils to reopen civic amenity (recycling) sites where they have been closed. York’s Hazel Court facility has been closed for several weeks now – something which has been a particular issue since green waste bin emptying was also suspended. There are problems with fly tipping in some neighbourhoods.

Several local authorities have kept their amenity sites open and have also continued green waste collections.

Elsewhere some other public services such as street cleaning have generally been improved since the lockdown with hand sweeping being reintroduced on some estates.

We’ve reported several issues for attention

The carcass of a dead badger has been left on the A64 road margin for about a week now. Cleansing responsibilities on trunk roads are shared between local authorities and Highways England but no one has so far sorted out what may become a health issue.
Nearby there is a lot of tree detritus on the A64 cycle path. Makes “social distancing” more difficult. Highways England claims that the York Council is responsible for cleansing this and other similar paths.
We’re still awaiting the first sustained rainfall of this spring. When it comes you can expect hedges to grow quickly. This one near London Bridge on Tadcaster Road is already impeding the path. It has been reportsd to the York Council.
Not just hedges, This tree on Thanet Road is obstructing the cycle path.

NB. We have been told that the York Council will be publishing its highway programme for the current year “in the near future”.

York among quickest to make business grant payments

Figures released today show City of York Council are one of the quickest councils in the country to pay grant funding to local businesses.

The data shows that City of York Council ranks 37th out of 314 local authorities for the percentage completed.

Click here to see full details for all Councils (more…)