I’d be the first to accept that, when money is tight, a steadfast reliance on local government to do things for you is probably unwise, unless, of course, you have little choice. However, it is a step beyond that to ask lower tiers of government to take on duties that you’re levying a tax for, but keeping the money.
And that’s the case with what is charmingly called Suffolk's Community Self-Help Scheme.
Suffolk County Council, like so many other local authorities, is seeking to make savings, and apparently, has a mere £120,000 per annum available for highways work other than basic maintenance. So, they’re seeking support from Town and Parish Councils to fill the void. The Community Self-Help Scheme is described as a response by the County Council to requests to empower and support town and parish councils across Suffolk to carry out small local maintenance tasks in their communities.
Now set aside the fact that, as a Parish Council, we’d really rather not do that, but they explain that;
The limitations on local authority budgets means that Suffolk County Council prioritises its funding and its focus on maintaining a safe network for all users. As a result, we are not able to undertake the extra works which town and parish councils would like to see being done to maintain and improve the look of their areas.
Now, you’re probably thinking what I’m thinking, that would be things like traffic calming, or something vaguely infrastructure related. But no, they go on to provide a handy list of the range of works that Town and Parish Councils might like to take on;
- Sign cleaning
- Fingerpost cleaning/painting/repair
- Tree pruning/branch removal
- Hedge cutting/pruning
- Siding out of footways, or paths (removing encroaching grass and weeds)
- Grass verge cutting
- Weed killing/weed removal
- Developing verge reserves
It is my understanding that Suffolk County Council will retain legal responsibility for maintaining the road network to a satisfactory standard, a point they emphasise;
Suffolk County Council, as the highway authority, has a duty to uphold and protect the rights of the public to use and enjoy all highways for which it is responsible.
Suffolk County Council, as the highway authority, remains bound by statute (Highways Act 1980) to maintain the highway network in a safe condition. The County Council sets out in its policies the level of service it will provide to discharge its duty to maintain.
So, why should I, or my fellow parish councillors, seek to take up their generous offer? After all, if anything were to go wrong, and volunteers found to have carried out the work in a manner considered inappropriate by Suffolk County Council (who have every incentive to pass the buck), we become liable - Suffolk County Council require the signing of an indemnity should we seek to do any work.
I’m not sure that I see the benefits outweighing the risks to the Parish Council.
Funnily enough, I did once clean a road sign in the Parish, as it was annoying me, but if I had had to fill in a bunch of paperwork, and ensure that the Parish Council had £5,000,000 worth of public liability insurance, I’m not sure I’d have bothered. In truth, I have no idea how much that level of public liability insurance costs, but it’s an additional cost, and duplicates the insurance that Suffolk County Council already hold.
And does anyone really expect that a Parish Council, run by volunteers, can achieve the same economies of scale as a County Council, with its trained professionals and lawyers? Consider me a sceptic.
So, I may sneak out and clean the odd road sign in future. But it may be in the guise of a concerned citizen, rather than as a parish councillor. You can’t be too careful, after all...