News Wednesday, January 6th

Herefordshire's Lengthsman Scheme closed after proving 'too popular' to pay for

The county's parish lengthsman scheme is proving so popular it’s had to be shut down – with immediate effect.

Herefordshire Council stresses that the closure - a decision taken at cabinet member level - is temporary pending the outcome of a review of the schemes and concedes that the course of action is “disappointing”.

Without that review, the council said further demand for the scheme will add to increasing pressure on the overall public realm budget.

Closure, then, is considered to be “the most appropriate way of maintaining enthusiasm for the delivery of these services by parishes whilst avoiding an unauthorised budget overspend”.

A phased removal of subsidies to parish councils for the lengthsman and parish paths schemes is assumed within the council’s draft medium term financial strategy, due to be reported to full council next month. The cut would save £300k by 2019/20. 

It currently costs the council £6.9m a year to run the footpath scheme (2015/16 financial year). But the council told Herefordshire Live there'll be budget implications if more parishes apply for inclusion in the schemes – acknowledged as “very successful”.

Temporary closure to new applicants is said to “ensure that the schemes will be delivered within the overall public realm budget”.

Now, no further parishes will be accepted into the schemes and 2016/17 grant levels for individual parishes will stay at 2015/16 levels.

The council could have kept the schemes open to new applicants but said that, where the schemes have been very successful in engaging parish councils and the benefits of participation widely understood, further growth in demand “could not be contained” within the public realm budget.

A lengthsman scheme initiative allows a parish council to undertake enhanced maintenance of the public highway (PH) and public rights of way (PROW).

Parishes and local members see the schemes as a key element of Herefordshire Council’s plan to devolve specific responsibilities to parish authorities. 

This plan has levered significant local financial and “in-kind” contributions from parish councils to support Herefordshire Council in meeting statutory PH and PROW duties.

But that success comes with an increasing demand to provide grants and match funding to parish councils for such schemes.

Given pressures on the council’s overall budget, additional funding is acknowledged as “not available” to meet this increased demand. Nor is the Herefordshire Council willing to divert funds from other statutory and highway safety activities it deems a higher priority.

In shutting the scheme ahead of a review, the council recognises the “valuable” part played by parish councils in relation to maintaining the public realm and PROW network.

Where many parish councils have already set their precept for next financial year, it is proposed that there should be no change to the scheme for those parishes already signed up – with Herefordshire Council continuing to provide grants in line with current year commitments for this and next financial year.

A report will be prepared to outline a way forward for these schemes from the 2017/18 financial year which will allow the identified medium term financial strategy savings to be achieved.

Parish councils are promised “engagement” over the early part of this year so the changes can be absorbed into 2017/18 precepts.2291517777 d3eb16dc60 b

What is the Lengthsman Scheme?

Parish councils apply for cash and can use the delegated budgets to employ a local contractor. The work carried out includes clearing leaves and debris for better drainage, ensuring legibility and visibility of traffic signs, repainting traditional finger and mileposts, plus grass and hedge cutting, fence repairs, and keeping these minor highways clear of litter. 

Participating parishes and towns are paid at an initial rate of £110 per kilometre of road in the area - excluding A roads. After parishes have participated in the scheme for three years, the payments drop to £90 per kilometre. 

Currently there are 81 parishes participating in the scheme.

The Parish Paths Partnership or P3 allows parish councils to take responsibility for maintaining their own path network through a signed partnership agreement between a parish council and Herefordshire Council.

The parish council receives a grant based on the total length of paths within the parish.

To join P3 scheme, the parish must have:

  • At least one parish paths officer
  • A parish clerk or treasurer
  • Public liability insurance cover of at least £3,000,000
  • Parish path officers

Parish path pfficers (PPOs) are volunteers nominated by their parish council, and appointed by Herefordshire Council which pays their expenses.

Any parish wanting to join P3 must have an active PPO “willing and able” to carry out related duties.

The PPO is required to confirm each year that they have walked all the paths in the scheme during the preceding 12 months.

A  PPO is also the direct link from the parish council to Herefordshire Council’s public rights of way service and is responsible for agreeing with the area rights of way warden the work to be carried out under the P3 scheme. 

A PPO in a P3 scheme needs additional assistance and support by at least one other person from the parish council.

Since P3 involves the spending of money from the parish council's account, the parish clerk, or treasurer, must be involved in helping the PPO to complete the annual return and account for expenditure of P3 grant monies.

A sub-committee of the parish council could assist the PPO in their other duties under the scheme.

The parish council has a duty of care to volunteers, contractors and the general public and the parish should confirm for itself that a contractor has public liability insurance before employing them.

Parishes joining the scheme need to have a minimum public liability insurance cover of £3m.

 Tile and top picture by Matthew, FlickR via CC

Second picture: by Edward Simpson, Flick R via CC

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