One small village joins 'Big Society'

TUCKED away along a twisting valley road deep in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales, a million miles from the bustling corridors of Westminster, the tiny market town of Hawes in Upper Wensleydale looks an unlikely place to be leading a political revolution.

But this secluded rural outpost, famous mainly for its fine cheese-making and breathtaking vistas, is home to a community project which perfectly encapsulates the "Big Society" vision the Prime Minister has been trying so hard to sell.

It is also an example of the grassroots schemes the Yorkshire Post is asking readers to support through its Communities in Need appeal, having received funding in the past from its local Community Foundation charity.

"We do feel like we're pioneering here," says Trish West, one of the managers of the Upper Wensleydale Community Office. "From the start it's been a one-off. There's nothing like this, certainly not in North Yorkshire."

This particular brand of David Cameron's localised utopia, however, has little to do with the Prime Minister.

It was back in the mid-1990s – when Mr Cameron still worked as a public relations man – that a group of Hawes residents began to voice concerns about the constant ebb of key services away from their rural community.

A committee was formed and surveys sent out asking what was most needed in the area. The result was the establishment of Wensleydale's very own "community office" in the centre of the town, offering a wealth of facilities which residents would otherwise have to travel many miles to access.

"We had a number of very motivated people involved," Mrs West says. "It was recognised early on that what we needed here was a one-stop shop."

Managed and staffed entirely by local people, the project has grown rapidly, moving into smart new premises four years ago. Residents can call in to pay their council tax, report a crime, enquire about rubbish collections, use a computer, purchase bus passes or parking permits, and visit a public library – all under a single roof.

Funding comes via contracts signed with the councils and police to provide such services on their behalf, covering the rent on the building, utilities bills and the three staff salaries.

By pooling overhead costs in this way, the office can provide services which would be unaffordable for any of the authorities to deliver individually.

"Without us, none of this would be here," says Abbie Rhodes, who works at the office part-time as well as running the pet shop across the road.

As if to prove the point, North Yorkshire County Council last month unveiled plans for savage cuts to its library services, with 23 of the council's 42 libraries earmarked for closure.

But Hawes's "community library" has escaped unscathed, being outside the normal tier of council services.

The centre regularly fields calls from other rural groups asking for advice on how to establish similar schemes in their local areas. But Mrs West believes the recent swingeing cuts to local authority budgets threaten the viability of such projects elsewhere.

"For this model to be repeated, it still needs somebody to pay some money out," she says.

"I don't know if there's any money in the council pots now even to support schemes like this."

Three easy ways you can donate

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SEND A CHEQUE: Make cheques payable to the LCF Communities In Need Appeal, and send to: Leeds Community Foundation, 51a St Paul's Street, Leeds LS1 2TE. Please include contact details to enable the Yorkshire Communities Foundation to check if the donation is eligible for Gift Aid.

PAY IN AT THE BANK: Simply walk into any branch of the Yorkshire Bank and make a donation to the LCF Communities in Need appeal. Quote the following details: Account No 11479437, Sort Code 05-00-20.