At a meeting in the Town Hall on September 6, Wiltshire councillors on the Marlborough Area Board will be voting on whether to make a grant to a local organisation most people will have never heard of. And that’s how the ‘parish forum’ likes it.
The Marlborough area parish forum is a very lower case organisation. It has no logo, no website and a chairman who is determined to chair no more than four of its meetings. In the words of the song, it’s a ‘loose affiliation’ of the chairmen of the area’s eighteen rural parishes. They work behind the scenes as facilitators and advisers.
The forum was started this year by James Keith (Broad Hinton & Winterbourne Bassett and current chairman) with Mary Spender (Fyfield & West Overton) and the assistance of Jemima Milton (Wiltshire Councillor for West Selkley - covering a swathe of villages.)
As the Marlborough and Village Community Area Partnership (MAVCAP) faded away, James thought a fairly informal organisation which would meet just four times a year and do most of its business by email, could help parish councils. All but two parish councils attend the meetings – but all parishes are on the forum’s email circuit and receive minutes and papers.
(Marlborough council which sits as both a town and a parish council, was asked to join but declined, and this was accepted as appropriate for the time being.)
The forum has three main aims: to hold the area board to account and add parish input; to share knowledge, experience and resources among the parishes; and help resolve issues which affect more than one parish.
On the first aim James Keith told Marlborough News Online: “Something we want to bring about is to give the parishes a stronger voice in the Marlborough area board.”
Examples of the second aim have been the sharing of details of the legal hoops and processes one council has been through to provide new allotments in their village and the compilation of a central register of parish assets, services and issues solved so that each knows where to look for help.
An example of the third aim is finding solutions to the common ‘running sore’ of speeding drivers and traffic flow in villages. Through the forum parish councils with experience of successful traffic initiatives are already sharing details on this topic.
The forum can help with specific issues. The proposed Great Stones Way linking Avebury and Stonehenge will cross through Avebury and East Kennet parishes and the forum is helping bring together expertise to advise on the likely problems. But it will do nothing to bind any parish council.
Councillor Milton told Marlborough News Online that “The Marlborough area board is hugely supportive of the new parish forum.” And she points out that it is not only about parishes working together and sharing knowledge and good practice: “The forum also helps the area board to consult with the parishes as it offers an excellent conduit for cascading information and gaining opinions.”
James Keith says that the coalition government’s localism legislation – now before a House of Lords committee – gave “a sort of green light for us to get [the forum] going.” Greater devolution down the chain of government will put more responsibilities onto parish councils and increase the need for their voices to be heard clearly by town and county councils.
“I hope,” says Keith, “the actual provisions within the [localism] bill will in time prove to support the spirit of the bill and not be used to prevent a bottom-up system.”
One longer term challenge for the forum is how to increase the electorate’s interest in parish council affairs. A recent parish council election in Avebury saw a turn-out of just over twenty per cent (almost exactly the same, incidentally, as the recent ward by-election for Devizes Town Council.)
James Keith admits this is a problem. But he says that when important issues arise then the public will get involved.
While it is hard to get people worked up about a consultation for a long-term local development plan, the priority the government is going to give to pushing through housing projects may well get people in the villages out of their homes and pubs and into the polling stations.
A reminder of Mop Fairs gone by was visited on Marlborough at the weekend, with the arrival of the largest original touring vintage fairground in the world.
Carter's Steam Fair features pre-1960's equipment, transport, sideshows and rides – and its appearance at The Common on Saturday and Sunday created an atmosphere that makes it obvious why older residents get misty-eyed about the Mop Fair of days gone by.
The Mop's pounding Euro-dance and gravity-defying rides were replaced by steam-driven attractions, set to a soundtrack of pipe organs and rock 'n' roll.
Attractions included a helter skelter, complete with rush mats, and a merry-go-round. Thrill seekers were invited to ride the Divebomber (pictured) and put their stomachs in the hands of centrifugal force.
Some rides, of course, haven't changed since the 1960s – dodgems are still dodgems, and hook-a-duck is still hook-a-duck, but one thing that wasn't vintage about the fair was the ticket prices – with rides costing anything up to £3.50
With the decision last year by Wiltshire Council not to fund speed cameras, the issue of traffic speeding through the county’s villages has become more serious. Wiltshire council have started talks with the police and others to bring back mobile speed camera units.
Dick Tonge, Wiltshire Council’s cabinet member for highways and transport, told Marlborough News Online: “We are putting together a business proposal, but this must be cost neutral for the council taxpayers of Wiltshire.” There is no target date and “there is a long way to go.”
Marlborough News Online will be taking a look at how some of the area’s villages are trying to cope with and to deter speeding traffic. First, we went out on patrol with Baydon’s Community Speed Watch volunteers:
Baydon sits in Wiltshire’s far north east corner. And it sits astride the Ermin Way – a Roman road that entices drivers to travel faster than they should through the village. The Ermin Way divides Baydon – on one side are most of the houses, on the other are the village school and the recently opened children’s play area.
It has been found that the drivers most likely to be breaking the village’s 30 MPH limit are those travelling through the village from the east – from Newbury and Lambourn. However, drivers have been found to be breaking the 30 MPH speed limit entering Baydon on all three approach roads.
Mark Austen (on the right in this photo), who heads the Community Speed Watch (CSW) volunteer group, is especially concerned about traffic driving at speed past the entrance to the play area. The entrance to the play area is at the edge of village just a few yards after the gates, rumble strips and the new and larger 30 MPH signs put in place by the Parish Council’s traffic calming working group.
Baydon has for some years had a sign that responds to your speed with a warning; as you near the school, they’ve had flashing lights at the beginning and end of the school day; and they did not have enough pedestrians crossing Ermin Street throughout the day to warrant a pedestrian crossing. What else could they do?
A group of Baydon residents decided to apply to set up a CSW – a police sponsored scheme. To make sure Baydon qualified the police did an audit of speeds along Ermin Street – one of those impact pads across the road attached to a recording box (also known as a Metrocount.)
This audit in May 2010 showed 78 per cent of vehicles crossing the pad were speeding – about two thousand a day. Of these nearly half were doing 36 MPH or more – and that’s the speed at which police will prosecute. If Mr Tonge wanted an income flow, he could have had over one thousand speeding fines on an average day.
In response to those figures Baydon put up white gates and rumble strips on the road to impress on drivers that they were entering a village. Then, after training, Baydon CSW started operation at the end of February 2011. They have eighteen volunteers and currently are fortunate to have sole use of a speed checking device.
These devices – sometimes rather recklessly known as ‘speed guns’ – cost £2,000 each and need annual servicing and re-calibration. They have a range of seven hundred metres and can record the speed of an advancing and a departing vehicle. The speed shows up in the eye piece and shows on the external display panel until the next vehicle is checked.
The volunteers do get a certain amount of disapproving looks and shouts, and the occasional rude hand or finger signal. Some motorists think they are having a photo taken and complain loudly. But when told the devices only record speed they tend not to mind being checked.
It is not at all like collecting engine numbers on a station platform. On a damp and rather chilly July morning, I watched a team of three volunteers recording speeds on Baydon’s Ermin Street from 7.30-8.30. (Pictured left to right: John Cockcroft, Mark Austen and Alison Bocock.) When a vehicle is registered as speeding, that is travelling at or above 36 MPH, the volunteers have to note its registration number, make and model, colour, direction of travel and time.
The all important question? What happens to those logged as speeding? First time they get a letter from the police. Second time they get a much sterner letter. And the third time they attract the direct attention of the police. But a prosecution cannot be based on data collected by the volunteers.
And be warned: CSW information is kept centrally at Wiltshire police headquarters. So your ‘third time’ could have been logged by any one of the forty-seven active CSW schemes across the county.
And, of course, there’s the important deterrent effect of the CSW signs and the random appearance of the CSW teams.
The morning I watched one of Baydon’s teams at work, 114 vehicles passed us and twelve were logged at or over 36 MPH. One Friday evening session (5.30-6.30 pm) earlier this month logged forty-four speeders in an hour – the fastest was travelling at 51 MPH and two at 50 MPH. They were coming into Baydon from the Lambourn/Newbury direction and driving right past the children’s play area. The top speed recorded so far is 58 MPH.
The police have strict rules for the way CSW’s operate. Teams must be visible to traffic and can only use roadside places approved by the police. The police have to be warned well before a monitoring session takes place. And volunteers are told to walk away if a motorist gets angry with them.
When Baydon’s population of about 560 people was consulted for the parish plan, the speed of traffic was deemed to be by far the most serious problem facing the village. The volunteers of the CSW believe they are making a real difference and hope their statistics will encourage Wiltshire Council and the police to do more to make their village safe from passing traffic.