Some of the casualties of the Chancellor's austerity drive are jobs the council once did as a matter of course. So who's doing them now? MATT CLARK finds out.

HE MIGHT be doing battle with the EU over migrants and unpaid bills these days, but David Cameron's great passion before becoming Prime Minister was the big society.

As is the way with such things we don't hear much about it these days. But that doesn't mean the vision isn't happening, after all volunteers aren't renowned for blowing their own trumpets.

We are, though, so meet some amazing people in York, all of whom are going that extra mile to help their communities. And all they seek in return is a friendly smile.

Of course the big society is nothing new. We used to call it being neighbourly, in the days when everyone knew the people who lived next door, but community spirit is slowly coming back and with council budgets across the country under increasing pressure, there has never been a better time to make change happen ourselves.

There are many great examples of this in York and the new Community Centres Network, which meets monthly acts as a support network, where volunteers can get information and advice from council officers, as well as supporting one another.

“York has a wealth of community venues and hubs that are operated by groups and individuals who generously give up their own time to volunteer," says Cllr Linsay Cunningham-Cross. "The feedback we’ve received so far suggests there is also potential for community centres to work together, by buying in services centrally for example or generating joint publicity to recruit more volunteers.”

People like Anna Bialkowska, who is adamant she gets just as much from the many hours she devotes to working in her local community in the Tang Hall area of York as she puts in.

“I like the idea that if everyone does a bit, no-one has to do a lot," she says. "The reality is that if you’re going to attract people to get involved in projects in their community then it has to be at a level that suits them."

As well as being chair of the Tang Hall Big Local steering group, which, over the next ten years, will spend £1 million in lottery funding on making the area a better place to live, Anna is also a trustee of Edible York and Tang Hall Community Centre, not to mention chair of the Tang Hall Children’s Centre Advisory Panel.

Each week she spends time attending meetings and events, networking on social media and staying on top of her administrative jobs.

At harvest time Anna was also involved in gathering and distributing unwanted fruit from trees around the city as part of Edible York’s Abundance York project.

“I know that people can be nervous about getting involved in community projects or asking for help, but I think it’s up to the people who have the skills to make them feel comfortable.”

In Anna’s case, contacts at City of York Council encouraged her to complete a leadership course provided by York CVS, which helped hone her skills and build the confidence she needed to embark on her roles within the community. Although she admits that her willingness to get involved is a trait that she inherited from her late parents.

“Since I started volunteering it has struck me how wonderful the people are who work for all of the agencies, such as the Citizen’s Advice Bureau and York Mind. The Children’s Centre is fantastic, and at the Community Centre you can access housing services, social workers and even a food bank if you need it.”

Another group of York residents known as Friends of Leeman Park chose to give up their spare time to keep their riverside neighbourhood tidy. David Finch says he came up with the idea after noticing that certain areas were looking a little scruffy.

“Maintenance was taking place but it was that last bit of effort up that was missing," he says. "I thought that a little community involvement could make all the difference."

It did and soon. David, who also volunteers as a snow warden and mentors a teenager in foster care, was spurred on when he attended an event organised by the council.

"Once I got speaking to the right people it became evident that the timing was right to get the group started," says David. "City of York Council was excellent and helped by providing the right equipment, insurance and support to set up a group.

Posters went up and attracted a handful of volunteers. Once others saw what was happening, they too wanted to help.

One of the group’s first tasks was to weed and tidy the edge of the Cinder Path. Since then, they’ve developed a website - - and carried out a survey to gather feedback from local people, as well as encouraging more residents to get involved by speaking at a meeting of Holgate Residents’ Forum.

"A common comment that I hear is that we're doing work that the council should do," says David. "But they are having to make tough decisions and can only provide a basic level of upkeep and maintenance.

"Instead of writing letters to the press or complaining to our councillors, we've just come together and got on with it."

The next job is to paint the wall next to the railway. It used to be daubed with graffiti and with an undercoat in place, it's time for the top coat. You can help out with this mammoth task on the weekend of November 22 and 23. Network rail has supplied the paint, now the team need some willing helpers.

There's 4,000 bulbs to be planted too, so if you can spare some time, turn up at the path next to Scarborough railway bridge, with a trowel or paint brush between 10am and 4pm. There's plenty to be done.

Peter Powell holds a number of volunteering roles; he’s a parish councillor in Nether Poppleton, chairman of the York branch of the Local Councils Association and chairman of the Parish Council Liaison Group, a City of York Council forum that enables representatives of parish councils to get together, raise issues and promote common understanding and cooperation.

Peter also set up a gardening club at Askham Bryan College after completing a course there when he retired 16 years ago.

He remains chairman of the group, which now boasts 280 members. There are regular talks throughout the year, as well as visits to places of horticultural interest and an annual coach trip. Peter also made arrangements for Remembrance Sunday and Nether Poppleton's new War Memorial.

"I have taken on lots of different roles over the years as it keeps me going and keeps me busy," says Peter. "I have a desire to help people. I get a lot out of it."

And his advice to anyone thinking about volunteering?

"If you've got something to offer, even if it's just being a good listener, it could grow into bigger and better things, and being a good listener is certainly a good place to start.

"Many people think communication is about sitting at a computer all day, but it's not, it's about talking to people and listening to them. I am very happy to do that."

Volunteering covers many aspects, Chris Edghill explains. He is clerk and chairman of the Guildhall Planning Panel, which is a group of volunteers who scrutinise all plans for the Guildhall Ward, including most of the city centre.

The panel meets for a couple of hours every three weeks to make comments and recommendations on the latest development plans for the city.

"It is our wish to protect the city centre from unauthorised and bad developments, and we are absolutely passionate about it," says Chris.

"We live in a beautiful city and it’s fantastic to be given the opportunity to assist in keeping it that way."

Chris said if you are considering volunteering, just to give it a go, because it’s important that people get involved in their local community.

"Lots of people have opinions but if you really want to be heard and make a difference to people you need to put yourself forward and get involved," he says. "It's great to know what's going on in the place we live and I get a lot of personal satisfaction out of it."

When Emma Bewlay moved to Chapelfields, she hoped to find local groups to take her young son, while meeting people in the community.

But there weren't any, so in what Emma calls a light bulb moment, she joined forces with friend and fellow mum, Helen Jarvis-Ong to set up a group of their own.

Helen and Emma approached Sanderson House, their local council-run hub, and in July Chapelfields Teenies, Tots and Tinys was born

“All the toys were donated by local people; posters were designed and produced by a friend; we had donations from the council’s Housing team and also from Sanderson House,” says Helen. “We also had a tombola and silent auction to help raise funds.”

Emma and Helen run the weekly group on a voluntary basis, with help from family, friends and neighbours.

“The response has been fantastic,” exclaimed Helen. “We have 40 different families who come and new members every week.”

Every week, there’s also an activity such as messy play, painting, chalking, or seed planting.

• Chapelfields Teenies, Tots and Tinys runs every Friday in term time, 11am-1pm, and costs £1. For further information email

Contact York Family Information Service on 01904 554444 to set up a similar group.