The volunteer army fighting Selby’s austerity cuts

Richard Bilton
Image caption Richard Bilton has been tracking the effect of austerity cuts in his local town Selby for months

Selby is a tidy market town sitting in the flat, open countryside south of York.

On market days, stalls cover the square of my local town in front of the old abbey and the car parks are full.

Wander through the tight streets and it's hard to see that anything is different - it looks and feels the same as it always has - but a silent revolution is under way.

Since 2010, national spending on local government has halved and all of our communities are having to make do with less.

In Selby, the police cells and magistrates court have been closed, CCTV and bus services have been cut back, street wardens have been axed and many of the street lights turn off at midnight.

And a voluntary army is at work.

On the outskirts of the town, Terry Heselton manages a team of volunteers who run Barlby library - which would have closed without their efforts.

Image caption Library volunteer Terry Heselton initially feared accusations that they were taking people's jobs

"Most people would prefer it if the council could carry on providing the library service, but in the real world that's simply not going to happen," he says.

Nationally, the number of library volunteers has almost doubled since 2010. It is a new model of civic provision and it brings savings, but Terry says he had doubts.

"Your initial reaction as a group of volunteers is 'we're taking people's jobs, aren't we?' And I'm sure there are some people who still think that, but at the end of the day, I think we now know year-on-year, there's increasing cuts. We're never going to go back to running things the way they used to be."

North Yorkshire County Council funds many of the services in Selby, but its spending power is shrinking by a third.

The council has already saved £116m and it says it has done what it can to protect frontline services, with 60% of the savings found in the back office and more than 100 managers leaving.

Image caption Gary Fielding accepts the cuts have changed services in the town

Gary Fielding has to make the figures work. He says the first cuts were genuine efficiency improvements, but it's got harder.

"You go for the low-hanging fruit, you then grasp for the medium-height fruit and we're now getting the stepladders out and really climbing up that tree," he says.

"We will always provide essential services to the most vulnerable, but change has got to happen - even on frontline services."

Isolated people

Eighty-year-old Jean Collins volunteers in the Age UK Selby District offices in the town centre.

The council used to pay for workers at the charity to visit isolated elderly people in their homes as part of a befriending scheme, but funding has now been redistributed to other Age UK organisations in Yorkshire and other befriending services in the town.

The charity can now only afford to pay for a phone line in the office.

Image caption Selby resident Betty says elderly people like her are not getting the help they need

One person affected by the changes is 87-year-old Betty McIntyre, who lives on her own in the village of Brayton, just outside Selby.

She had a fall last year and has been confined to a chair in her living room for seven months. In one recent call, she told Jean: "I've been crying my eyes out because I've been so upset. All the painkillers - it's not doing me any good."

She understands why the visits have become phone calls but says: "You feel closer to the people who are coming to visit you than [those who talk] on the phone, you get a picture of them."

Betty is worried about how the cuts affect people in her age group and says they can't get the help they need.

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Selby has a Conservative MP, Nigel Adams, and District and County Councils with Tory majorities. Like voters across the country, people here chose a government which promised to balance the books, but that means changes to basic services.

With the closure of the police cells, anyone arrested has to be taken to York - 15 miles away. In time, the station building itself is expected to shut and the police will move into the council building.

There are 161 fewer officers in North Yorkshire than there were in 2010. The local police force has lost about £10m from its £147m annual budget and it too is making more use of volunteers.

In the village of Eggborough, south of Selby, the police station is only open to the public thanks to the unpaid locals who staff the desk.

Image caption Steve Barker has been working with the police for more than 18 months

The volunteers also patrol the countryside looking for crime, wearing police-style uniforms and driving a sponsored car.

"We're just another [pair of] eyes and ears for the police service, because rural crime covers a big, big area and it is a little bit difficult to police it. We're not there to take their role," says Steve Barker, who has volunteered since December 2014.

Their work is overseen by force control and North Yorkshire Police say the volunteers aren't used to replace funded services.

But they are part of a new civic order. Volunteers have always supported communities - but here in Selby they are increasingly at the heart of important services.

It's the same story across the country: life is changing in communities as everyone tries to save money wherever they can.

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