Voluntary and community organisations in North Yorkshire have heard how they would be given a stronger voice at the heart of a new single council for the county.
Organisations from across the county joined an online seminar held by North Yorkshire County Council to share its developing proposal for a strong single unitary council for North Yorkshire working in a stronger partnership with local organisations.
The Government requires an end to the current two-tier government in North Yorkshire as a pre-requisite to securing a devolution deal for a York and North Yorkshire combined mayoral authority.
County Council Leader Cllr Carl Les welcomed the groups, saying: “I grew up in a small North Yorkshire village that ran on volunteers – the village hall, Sunday school, the kids’ annual trip to Redcar – and I have been a volunteer all my adult life, so I believe I really get the value of volunteering. We could not run this county without volunteers.”
Those attending heard how giving a voice, influence and authority to communities is central to the county council’s proposal. “Double devolution” would see greater powers and funding devolved to communities and town and parish councils that wanted it; six area constituency committees would enable local councillors to take decisions on local planning and licensing and to hold the authority to account; and the creation of around 25 community networks based on areas served by a market town would bring together councillors, community organisations and other service providers to identify, agree and drive forward local priorities for their area.
County Council Chief Executive Richard Flinton said: “We want to build a system of networks around our market towns and to have exciting agendas built on the social issues that affect those towns and their surrounding areas.
“We are talking about the wellbeing of people, the look and feel of places, the environmental agenda, culture and arts. These are all areas where volunteer organisations have a role and should have a say.
“Voluntary and community groups would come together with business groups, with councillors and parish and town councils. We want to bring people together to get things done at the local level, to be more comprehensive than before, more joined up and more effective.”
This was not a new philosophy, but local government reorganisation and devolution presented opportunities to take it further.
Richard added: “When we first considered how to deal with austerity, one of our key responses was not going to be to cut the voluntary and community sector, it was going to be to invest in it, to unleash the power of local, so we can have more local solutions to how somebody lives a better life at home when they are getting frailer and more vulnerable, local solutions to how we enable services such as youth centres to continue, how we can look at our libraries in an innovative way.
“It was for us the power of the voluntary and community sector working with the council at the local level. That will absolutely be the underlying ethos of a new council for North Yorkshire, which will have its own ambitions, but will have at its heart the need to be local and to harness what the voluntary and community sector can do.”
The Stronger Communities programme is an example of what the County Council does at the moment, operating on a countywide scale while engaging strongly at a local level with voluntary and community groups.
Marie-Ann Jackson, Head of Stronger Communities, told the seminar: “Stronger Communities has been in place for five years and during that time I have had the privilege of working alongside more than 300 communities on a host of projects.
“Recently, I think a lot of the relationships we have been able to build have really come to the fore as we have been supporting people during the pandemic. It has been incredibly humbling to see the response that the community has put in place for the most vulnerable in our communities.”
She said the approach was to work with communities, with the assets they already had, and put in place whatever was needed – sometimes support and advice, other times grants or investment in specialist support – to empower them to realise the ambitions of their communities.
Marie-Ann said: “We estimate that in the region of 30,000 to 35,000 North Yorkshire residents have directly benefited from the investment Stronger Communities has been able to put into those communities.”
David Sharp is Chief Executive of North Yorkshire Youth, which runs the Carlton Lodge Activity Centre, which provides adventurous activities for young people, and a youth development team, which supports young people across the county. North Yorkshire Youth’s work includes a contract with the County Council to run and support youth clubs.
David said: “North Yorkshire County Council has always been a big support to us. We have a good relationship with the officers, meaning we are in a position to help where we are needed.”
He added: “Because our contract with the County Council is countywide, it means we can support everyone rather than it being a postcode lottery of services, which some can access and some can’t.
“That’s why we need one council in North Yorkshire. The population requires something holistic and strong because if you split it, you split the services, from health and adult social care things like Stronger Communities.
“It’s important that we are county-wide because we don’t want a disparity between who can access services and who can’t, that’s wrong for North Yorkshire. A strong brand of North Yorkshire is imperative especially at such a difficult time for the country.”
Tadcaster Volunteer Cars and Services Association works closely with a number of county organisations, such as Stronger Communities, and they are the community support organisation for Tadcaster and a number of surrounding villages.
They offer transport to medical appointments for people in the area who cannot conveniently use public transport, and their reach has gone beyond this during Covid-19.
Katrina Talbot, who has a leading role in the operation of the Association, said: “We’ve always has a lot of support from the County Council. During Covid we had a lot of support, which we were then able to pass on to the villages.”
Katrina said TVCSA support a unitary council because it keeps everything under one roof, and she feels the County Council has already shown it can make it work.
She said: “We work with countywide services like health and adult services. It’s important that these services stay county-wide, because it’s consistent and we know exactly what we are dealing with.
“The County Council already have a better brief for rural areas, with the Dales and Moors coming under their remit. We are quite rural here so that is important.
“North Yorkshire have had holistic views for a long time, anyway. Stronger Communities is a fantastic blueprint, for example – local perspectives coming together with the council perspective. It’s worked very well.”