York: Getting residents and communities involved

york-keith-aspden

Keith Aspden at Heslington Sportsfield which benefitted from Ward Committee funding

I’m back in York after a very enjoyable conference in Brighton. From a local government perspective, I was pleased to participate in important discussions around education, housing, the impact of Brexit, the environment, devolution and more! I was pleased to speak (together with Cllr Keith House, Leader of Eastleigh Borough Council) at an ALDC training session about how Liberal Democrats can make best use of Area and Ward Committees. I’ve written up my notes from the meeting about York’s Ward Committees below, which I hope might be useful food for thought for other Councillors and campaigners.

What are Ward Committees?

In York, each ward is given a budget to spend on local projects and offer grants to community groups. Meetings are chaired by local councillors who work with residents and ward teams to decide collectively where money is spent.

Our 2015 Manifesto

Key campaigning themes for us in the run-up to the 2015 local elections were the Labour Council being out-of-touch with residents, taking all decisions centrally, and ignoring communities in the suburbs and villages around York. Ward Committees had suffered significantly under Labour – as a result of their cuts, wards had a total budget of just £75,000 across the city.

Our manifesto promised to change this and ‘re-establish proper Ward Committees as a way to put power and budgets back in the hands of local residents’.

Our new system

In May 2015 we were delighted to gain four Councillors against the grim national backdrop. We formed a joint administration with the Conservatives on the basis of a ’12-point plan’ that was full of Liberal Democrat priorities. One of our first tasks was to fulfil our manifesto promise and re-introduce Ward Committees. And this is exactly what we have done! Our new system sees nearly £1million in funding devolved to our 21 Ward Committees around York.

Over the last 12 months, Ward Committee meetings have been happening across York, either as standalone sessions or as part of bigger events like summer fairs. As well as helping to decide where funding is spent, they are also an opportunity for residents to quiz councillors, local police teams, and have their say on a range of issues.

Funding

Our near £1million ‘pot’ for Ward Committees is made up of different elements:

  • £250,000 devolved Highways Fund
  • £150,000 for Ward Grants
  • £450,000 Pride in York Environment Fund
  • £75,000 Community Care Fund

This means that in 2015/16, each three-member ward in York received around £45,000 in funding and our single-member wards around £15,000.

Projects and Coverage

Across the city, ward budgets have been used to fund road, cycle and footpath schemes, streetlights, notice boards, disabled-friendly facilities as well as litter and salt bins. Grants have been given to groups managing community gardens, youth clubs and Timebanks, helping the council meet our financial challenges. Meanwhile, events such as ‘strawberry teas’, family fun days and excursions for elderly residents have all been organised through ward funding.

We should always make sure that we tell residents and the local media about the new system we have set-up and the local projects our wards have funded.  Luckily ward schemes are often the sort of stories the local press want: local, non-political, and with human and community interest.

The future and thoughts from conference…

We are continually reviewing the system including setting up a cross-party scrutiny group. Meanwhile, through training and teamwork we are making sure that all Lib Dem councillors are making the most of their Ward Committees. We have a Group away day coming up soon where we’ll be looking at how we spread best practice and encourage innovative thinking around Ward Committee budgets.

It was also very interesting to hear Keith House speak about the area decision-making model in Eastleigh, which includes the devolution of planning and licensing powers. Our ongoing review of the new system will make sure to look at different models around the country to pick up ideas on where we can keep making improvements.

We are also looking to expand Ward Committees as we continue to put power back in the hands of local residents – which is just where it should be!

* Keith Aspden has been the Councillor for Fulford Ward in York since 2003 and for Fulford and Heslington Ward since 2015. Since 2019 he is the Leader of City of York Council, and the Liberal Democrat Deputy Chair of the LGA Fire Services Management Committee.

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