Council meeting moves to Citadel as spending plans consultation starts

Council debates may be inspired by Citadel moto

York’s next full Council meeting will be held at the Citadel later this month (26 October) rather than in its usual home of York’s Guildhall.

The temporary venue – formerly the home of York’s Salvation Army and now owned by York City Church – will be used for full meetings of the Council for up to two years while the Guildhall is closed for construction work.

The Guildhall has been used for meetings since the 15th Century and the current council chamber dates back to 1891.

Members of the public are welcome to attend the full council meeting at the Citadel at 6.30pm on Thursday 26 October.

Have your say on York’s spending plans

The results of the 2018 citywide budget consultation will help set the council’s financial priorities for the forthcoming year.

Despite already achieving savings of over £100m in the last decade through a combination of efficiency savings and reviewing the services it provides, the authority needs to make further savings of £6.1m in 2018/19 and £4.2m in 2019/20 to meet its budget.

Against this tough financial backdrop, demand for services continues to rise; mainly due to demographic changes and more people living longer. At the same time the financial support received from central government has been reduced.

The central government grant accounted for 40 per cent of the council’s income in 2012/13 but fell to just seven per cent last year.  By 2020, York will receive no government grant. That means the services the council provides will have to be funded from a share of business rates, from the council tax and through any fees and costs it charges.

Council leaders hope that the responses to the questionnaire will help guide future spending decisions, particularly whether the authority should ‘balance its books’ by:

  • Reducing the number of services it provides, or stop providing them altogether.
  • Finding ways of providing services more efficiently by working differently.
  • Charging more for services.
  • Increasing the amount of council tax.

People can put forward their views:

  • Online at
  • By completing the survey in the council’s publication Our City [which is being distributed over the course of the next two weeks].
  • By popping along to one of four drop-in sessions, at Huntington Library on Wednesday 1 November; Archbishop Holgate’s School on Thursday 2 November; Acomb Explore Library on Tuesday 7 November or West Offices on Wednesday 8 November, all between 4.30pm and 6.30pm.


Council Leader under pressure to publish secret report

Councillors from all parties have written to the York Council Leader (David Carr) asking him to reveal the contents of a secret report compiled by the Local Government Association (LGA).

The report looked into the behaviour of some York Councillors and officials at a stormy meeting of the Audit and Governance Committee which took place on 22nd February.

The report is thought to criticise the way that Council officials handled the meeting when it was considering a report on the appointment of consultants by the previous Labour administration.

An internal report had revealed that around £174,000 had been spent when appointing consultants outside the Councils procurement regulations i.e competitive tenders for the work had not been obtained.

Councillors voted to discuss the issue in public, prompting the then chair of the committee to walk out followed by another Labour Councillor.

Subsequently an investigation into the meeting was conducted by the LGA. The expectation was that the further report would have been presented to the last meeting of the Audit committee but the Council Leader intervened to prevent its publication.

Cllr Carr has so far refused to publish the report, despite promising members at a full council meeting in July that he would.

In the letter the councillors say:

“As members of City of York Council and its Audit and Governance Committee, we are writing openly to you to express our concerns over the lack of openness and transparency with the above report.

We would like you to confirm that:

  1. The report will be published for the Audit and Governance Committee as soon as possible, if necessary with the full version seen in private session and a redacted copy being public.
  2. You re-affirm your commitment to working in an open and transparent manner, whilst protecting the rights of members and officers by not prejudicing the outcome of any report.

We hope that you as Leader and City of York Council will learn from past events at Audit and Governance and push forward towards greater openness instead of just trying to fulfil minimum expectations with Members and the public. When writing public reports, we should carefully balance the legitimate public interest in disclosure against data protection concerns, working with redacted or summarised reports with private annexes rather than excluding whole reports as confidential.”

It is highly unusual for members of all the political  Groups represented on the Council to jointly produce such a letter.

It places further pressure on a Council Leader who has been increasingly isolated since he took unilateral action to sack two leading LibDem Councillors from the coalition Executive at the beginning of September.

The Council’s Standards Board has since made little progress in dealing with the allegations – also understood to be related to the procurement report – against the two Councillors.

Some sources within the Council are now saying that – unless progress on the reports is made quickly – an ultimatum is likely to be issued.

Either Cllr Carr goes or the coalition collapses.


Each York Council meeting webcast costs £1620

Details of the cost of webcasting York’s full Council and Executive committee meetings have been revealed.

During the last 4 years a total of £99,000 has been paid to contractors “Pilot Theatre”.

The details were revealed in a response to an FOI request. The request was made by the Conservative candidate in the June local by election in the Hull Road Ward.

One commentator has said “a permanent webcasting solution could be put in place at a fraction of that price

The main concern seems to be the absence of an open tendering process for the service, although the Council says that this has been complicated by its planned short term move to the Citadel Hall in Gillygate (while building works at the Guildhall take place)

The exchange doesn’t ask how much the in house broadcasting of small committee meetings costs, nor is information provided about the number of people who actually view the web casts.

In most cases, viewer numbers are thought to be measured in dozens rather than hundreds (including a chunk from outside the UK who are practising their language skills!).

The Tories may have a point. One of the promises of the new York TV station was that it would provide free access to material of this sort, so perhaps there are cheaper ways of doing things?



York Council’s secrecy culture rapped by Ombudsman

The Local Government Ombudsman has criticised the York Council for failing to publish background documents.

In the watchdogs annual performance letter it says,

“Last year we stressed that serving such notices should only be done exceptionally to avoid giving the appearance of a lack of transparency by the Council. It is, therefore, very disappointing to see this practice has continued this year.

Your Council has issued two section 32(3) confidentiality notices that we considered were not appropriate but the Council, when asked, did not comment on why they had done so. I would urge your Council to address this issue as a matter of urgency as it affects our ability to properly investigate complaints against it.

These instances lead me to have serious concerns about the Council’s commitment to positively address complaints made against it in an open and transparent manner”.

 In total the Ombudsman received 56 complaints about the York Council

Eight cases of maladministration, by the Council, were found last year.

So how good are customer services at the York Council?

A report to a council committee meeting next week praises the progress made in improving customer reception facilities. 94% of users says they are satisfied with the contact centre, an improvement on previous years.

The time taken to answer telephone calls (they had 244,277 last year) has improved while the number of residents visiting the West Offices offices has fallen from 141,556 to 112,893. Visitors wait on average for 7.2 minutes.

Business visitor numbers have also reduced.

The Council say this change is due to more people using “on line” and “auto payment” systems. These systems are cheaper for the authority to operate and should be available 24/7.

But the experience of those using “on line” services is very mixed.

The report says, “From October 2016 residents have been encouraged to complete certain transactions online. As an example – since November – 2,454 street light and street cleansing issues were reported with 1,315 (55%) of these now being logged by residents online”.

However, these are pretty much the only issues that you can report “on line” with an expectation that you will actually get a response.

The roll out of issue reporting on other services has stalled.

For the third year in a row the Council has been unable to say how long it takes to deal with electronic communications nor does the report say what customer satisfaction levels are with this contact channel.

Sooner or later the Council will have to come clean on why some of its web based customer contact systems are such a shambles.

“Red Alert” as York Council confirms customer management system in trouble

Just a few days after we revealed that the Councils IT systems were at best “flaky”, there has been official confirmation of the scale of the problems

A report to the Council’s Audit Committee includes a “Red Warning” about the new digital system (CRM) on its risk register.

The project ran into serious trouble earlier in the year when a “contractual issue” ruled out “going live” on many customer management features.

Now the position has worsened with no progress on resolving the issue being reported. The Council is pinning its hopes on an “independent review” of the outstanding issues but no timescales have been agreed,

The IT change is hugely expensive for taxpayers. It is a project first mooted in 2011 but since then progress has been agonisingly slow. As a result the Council has been criticised for not buying proven “off the shelf” solutions; instead they preferred to “go it alone”.

The Executive member with responsibility for the project (Chris Steward) quit in January, leaving Council Leader David Carr to pick up the pieces.

It seems that he has had little more success in moving the project forward.

Budget consultation


York Council  (click to access)

The York Council is asking residents whether they would like to see Council Tax increased by 1.99%, charges increased or fewer services provided

In its “on line” survey, the Council then asks whether an additional  1%, 2% or 3% increase in tax – to fund social care (elderly and disabled services) – would be acceptable?

There is then a list of services which residents are asked to prioritise. Usually residents say that they want all the services to be sustained. However, there may be a move to invest more in street cleaning, crime prevention and road maintenance this year.

There is room for a comments section but no mention of the high levels of debt charges (interest payments) being born by taxpayers nor any option to cut back on capital programmes like the Guildhall development or the new Monks Cross swimming pool..

The Council’s final budget will be set in February, so leading Councillors will already have decided what the budget strategy is.

Launching a “consultation” a couple of days before Christmas will seem to be an afterthought to many residents.

Police – click to access

The Police and Crime Commissioners survey takes a similar line. A short explanatory leaflet is available but it says little about crime levels (which are increasing in parts of York)

Residents are offered the choice of a tax freeze, a 1.99% increase and – subject to a formal referendum – an increase above 2%.

No spending options are offered and there is no opportunity to highlight areas of concern on policing.

So pretty much going through the motions of public consultation it seems

NB. The results of the last PCC survey – on policing plans – which was undertaken in the autumn, have yet to be published

York homelessness services win gold standard award

 City of York Council’s services for preventing and managing homelessness are in the country’s top three and have been given the gold service standard.


The award was confirmed by the national governing body this week and York is the third local authority in England to ever win it.

The National Practitioner Support Service (NPSS) – funded by the Department of Communities and Local Government – has confirmed that the council has achieved the standard required. The Gold Standard can only be achieved by demonstrating that the service has a focus on early intervention and prevention of homelessness at its core.

Trees before people? Pendulum needs to swing back

Additional trees have been planted on Chesney's Field

Additional trees have been planted on Chesney’s Field

It is perhaps a good time for the York Council to be considering its tree management policies. 

Good progress has been made in many areas with the tree cover in the City having gradually increased in recent years.

The Council has so far fought shy of establishing a new (rural) area of woodland but hopefully that may come with the publication of the new draft Local Plan.

In Westfield volunteers have resourced a wide range of schemes including recently a parade of new trees alongside the footpath link across Chesney’s Field

However, the other side of the coin is that some inappropriately planted trees have now reached a height and depth which represents a nuisance of many residents. What has happened is that some trees, which were appropriate specimens for a rural location, have been left to grow unchecked in an urban setting causing misery to nearby residents.

In some cases, trees block out neighbour’s light, in some cases tree debris falls onto gardens and the highway, in other street lighting and warden assistance wires are blocked. In one or two cases the tree overgrows the highway causing a potential collision risks for high-sided vehicles.

Tree blocking out street lights

Tree blocking out street lights

Tree Cedarwood Close

Tree blocking highway

That isn’t good enough and the York Council now needs to start proactively managing these trees. In many cases it will mean pruning branches. In some cases, it may mean felling the tree and replacing it with a suitable species.

The Councils recently published proposed new policy could actually exacerbate these issues.  It says that the Council will not prune, cut roots or remove trees for the following reasons:

  • ·         Encroachment into or over a neighbouring property (since the property owner already has a common law right to prune back to their boundary)
  • ·         To prevent roots entering private drains that are already broken or damaged
  • ·         To increase natural light or change the view into or out of a private property
Trees planted to close to paths cause trips

Trees planted too close to paths cause trips

  • ·         To reduce or remove the perceived nuisance issues caused by birds, insects, falling debris, leafs (sic), blossom and fruit, or pollen
  •  To make way for new highway cross-overs (drives) or front garden parking
  • ·         To address interference with solar collection, satellite dishes, TV reception or telephone cables
  • ·         A tree being perceived to be too large or tall
  • ·         A perceived risk that a tree could cause damage in the future
  • ·         Disturbance to pavements, kerbs, garden paths and walls. (In these cases engineering solutions will be sought in the first instance ensuing that the tree can be maintained)
  • ·         Neighbour disputes due to perceived nuisance from a tree

If adopted that would pretty much rule out proactive management of any tree in the urban area!

Residents generally regard the York Councils response to problems with overgrown trees and bushes as unhelpful, sometimes bordering on the obstructive

Our view would be that residents should have a right of appeal to a democratically elected body. There is already an appropriate one in place – the Ward Committee. Any resident who is unhappy with the ruling of the City’s arboricultural staff on a tree issue should be able to ask the Ward Committee to overturn the ruling.

Bus shelter overgrown

Bus shelter overgrown

We would also expect Ward Committees to allocate part of their delegated budget to fund the provision of additional trees as well as controlling the impact that overgrown trees and bushes have on a neighbourhood.

The Council will first discuss its tree policies on 13th June  A final decision will be taken by an Executive member on 24th June.

NB. All the trees in question are all in the “public realm”. There are 30,000 public trees within the City.  The Council manages trees adjacent to the highway, in housing estates and open spaces, including parks, gardens, amenity spaces, sports grounds, nature reserves, closed churchyards and woodlands.  The Council also assists schools in the management of their trees

Peer review of York Council published

The York Council has been very coy about its response to the recent “Peer Review”.

Peer review letter click to read

Peer review letter click to read

These reviews take place periodically. There have been three in York during the last 3 years although the 2014 review has not been published on the Council’s web site. All are predictable in both tone and content. Gangs of footloose Councillors and officials roam the country offering other Councils (peers) the benefit of their wisdom. Reports always offer some encouragement then fall back on a series of well-worn phrases set to reflect whatever the current central establishment view of local government might be.

We’d all be rich if we had £5 for every review which criticises “salami slicing” of budgets. Actually trying to get economies in all aspects of the Councils services is a perfectly legitimate approach. The alternative is either stopping an activity altogether &/or massive outsourcing (as seen in places like Barnet)

The team of inspectors must have had a field day following the virtual collapse of the Councils administration in 2014.

The grandees in their letter to the Council clearly skirt round the lack of experience in the leadership of the Council (even worse since the report was written in March with the new Tory Leader having only 12 months’ service under his belt & a new Chief Executive only just arriving).  The crisis in confidence in the Council owes a lot to a secretive approach which continues under the new administration.

Performance management -actually measuring progress – has been poor while the customer interface has fallen away against a background of over ambitious promises by the IT chiefs. The inspectors are right to say that the Council should have taken bold decisions early in its term of office to deal with controversial issues. Yet the Guildhall project, the ever growing community stadium “add ons” and the risky – from a taxpayers viewpoint – approach to York Central, are all missed opportunities….. & that without the inevitable conflicts which will arise when the new draft Local Plan is published next week.

None of the recommendations are surprising. The “experts” suggest;

Council response click to access

Council response click to access

  • Making visible and public demonstrations of joint leadership
  • Create Strategic Leadership Team meetings between the Executive and SMT on at least a monthly basis
  • Provide better clarity of the roles and responsibilities of members and officers
  • Get on with the senior management review: create officer stability, followed by SMT team building
  • Don’t lose the opportunity of being a new administration to make the difficult decisions now, and be bold in those decisions!
  • Focus on action, rather than reaction to immediate issues and events
  • Develop a positive narrative about the council and what you want to achieve
  • Consider capacity for corporate planning and performance management linked to a medium term financial strategy
  • Beyond the social media policy, consider a wider approach to managing vocal minorities, to ensure they do not dominate and distract the council from its business (!)
  • Develop a tactical plan to raise the profile of the council
  • This is the third review within 3 years. We expect you to develop – with a sense of urgency – a clear and visible action plan with deliverables, timescales and individual member and officer accountabilities, ready for adoption during early summer 2016

The Council have come up with a response to the criticisms. It has taken them 3 months to do so (the inspectors visited on 9th March) and they have omitted to involve York residents in building a response.

Residents will expect to see quick and tangible improvements particularly in the areas of transparency and performance management.