Just over a year ago I was appointed to the role of Executive Member for Culture, Leisure and Communities in the new Lib Dem/Green partnership running City of York Council following the May elections of 2019.
I’m hugely proud of the way our team in York rose to the challenge presented by Covid-19. Lib Dems in local government (particularly those fortunate to be leading Councils), love nothing more than tweaking policy, putting values into practice, and pouring through budget papers with highlighters. We are no different in York. Little did we know 12 months ago that this effort was to be critical in stopping residents reach poverty and keeping them safe, with food in the cupboards and prescriptions delivered.
Our priorities for my corner of the Council centred on devolving budgets down to neighbourhoods and investing in community support. As we entered the Covid-19 crisis, these priorities came to be the bedrock of our community response.
In 2019, we announced a £4.5 million ward funding programme, to be spent by local councillors in ways that support their respective communities. Getting cash from the decision makers in the Council’s offices, to residents sat around the community centre table, was a point of principle we fought hard on in the local elections. For a community like mine, this meant our local area would benefit from £251k over the life of the administration. That’s already being spent on funding activities for young people, tackling adult isolation and improving infrastructure; new benches, bus shelters and road resurfacing.
As the Covid-19 crisis hit we focused on fast-tracking this ward funding system – and in just the first 20 days over £23k was given by wards to local charities and community groups delivering the extra support to residents through lockdown.
We had also taken steps to strengthen the Council’s core capacity to help communities. In our 2020 budget, we invested £40k to create an additional community involvement officer and we’d previously used our Brexit grant from Government to fund an additional community involvement officer, specifically for York’s minority communities.
Our Communities team, with its extra personnel, was equipped and ready to leap into action. The team’s role in Covid-19 centred around helping coordinate York’s 4000 registered volunteers (contributing 23,000 hours in total), manage our ten Covid-19 community hubs (delivering food, prescriptions and a lot more besides), contacting the medically shielded and facilitate getting thousands of pounds to charities as mentioned above.
Our approach to trusting and investing in York’s communities, which has been decades in development, has provided local communities with the support they need to tackle the crisis. This system, combined with a mammoth communications effort (five direct mail drops, totalling 480k leaflets and letters), has ensured that local residents have known what help is available and has built the networks to support every neighbour.
Looking to the future, we’re keen to ensure that these systems are retained, learning is locked-in, that the sense of community that has been engendered by the crisis is further nurtured. Looking back, I’m glad (and relieved) we made the choices we did in putting liberal values into practice here in York.
* Darryl Smalley is the Executive Member for Culture, Leisure and Communities on City of York Council.