North Yorkshire community network plans condemned as ‘crackers’

County Hall, Northallerton.

Plans to create about 30 unelected community networks to decide local priorities across England’s largest local authority area following the abolition of district councils from April have been condemned as “crackers” and “an academic exercise”.

Councillors from across the political spectrum have voiced a plethora of concerns about North Yorkshire County Council’s proposals to form forums based around market town areas, in which communities work with business and public sector agencies “to have a louder voice and get things done”.

The authority has pledged its successor unitary council would be committed to keeping services local and give communities a bigger say in services.

Under developing proposals, local priorities will be decided by around 30 community networks, based around market town areas.

Made up of community and business groups, town and parish councils and representatives from other local groups and public services, including local councillors, the council claims community networks will act as local agents for economic and social change.

A meeting of the Tory-run council’s corporate scrutiny committee heard councillors brand the proposed forums as unnecessary, while others have said they would be toothless or poorly attended as they could not make financial decisions.

Conservative councillor for Bishop Monkton Nick Brown said while elected members would be obliged to attend networks in the division to which they were elected, as the proposed 30 networks did not follow division boundaries, they would need to attend networks outside their division too.

He said elected community representatives needed more consideration in the proposals, which he described as “unpractical” and an “academic exercise”.

Coun Brown said: “We have a job to do and we’re not really mentioned. If I’m having to go to meetings in somebody else’s division it seems a nonsense to me.

“It’s bad enough with 16 parish councils in my division, but if you are having to go to further meetings in someone else’s area because it’s a community hub covering the whole of several divisions it’s crackers.”

Hunmanby councillor Donohoe-Moncrieff, an independent member, told the meeting there was a consensus among parish councils in her area that community networks would undermine their role in the community.

She added: “They feel they allow individuals who don’t have or are not honestly representative of the wider community to pursue their own projects.

“One thing that really has annoyed people, and it annoys me as a parish councillor, is that we are expected to do all the work and take responsibility, yet someone can now waltz onto the community network and have more influence than the average parish councillor.”

After the meeting, the authority’s leader, Councillor Carl Les, said he recognised there were a range of concerns being raised about the community network proposals, but they remained “very much a work in progress” and were being shaped by a range of views.

He said the idea was to bring people together to discuss services and priorities in their areas and would not downgrade parish councils’ influence.

Coun Les said: “In that respect I think it’s a worthy ambition to talk to people. In no way are they meant to negate the work or replace parish or town councils, or of the elected member. I appreciate the value of parish councils. I was a parish councillor for well over a decade.

“This is about working in clusters and the network might cover areas that are not covered by a parish council, but by a parish meeting, which only meet as and when they need to.”

He said such community networks had been in place across North Yorkshire for some time, with Community Engagement Forums in Selby district and Area Partnerships in Richmondshire.

Coun Les added: “I have got great hope for these networks.”