Focus on Girton Parish Council
If you were to ask the average citizen on the Citi 6 bus "What is a Parish Council, and what does it do?" the chances are that you would be answered with a shake of the head, or at best a questioning look. Some might suggest it has something to do with the parish Church - but Girton Parish Council has nothing to do with St Andrew's Church, or its Parochial Church Council which deals only with church matters. Nevertheless, for over a century it has been at the centre of local affairs in our village, having a significant and growing effect on the quality of daily life in Girton in a surprising number of ways.
Parish Councils are the lowest tier of elected local government in England. They have existed for over a hundred years in the shire counties, beneath the County and District Councils, and (more recently) the unitary authorities. The Local Government Act of 1894 excluded the Church of England from its former role in local administration, transferring powers to new civil authorities called Parish Councils, run by lay representatives and lay officials.
Parish Councils were given responsibility for a number of local functions including allotments, street verges, bus shelters and street furniture, cemeteries, commons, cycle parks, toilets and public baths, lighting, litter bins, parks and recreation grounds, swimming pools, village greens and war memorials - and more! Other levels of government known as principal authorities are obliged to consult Parish Councils on a number of issues, including in particular planning applications. They thus look after residents' local needs, and represent them to higher authorities.
The Girton Parish Council records in the County archives date from the year of the Act. By 1910 the Parish Council is shown as having provided street lighting for the village. As the population grew, its role became more important. Girton does not need a public bathhouse, the allotments are run by an excellent Allotment Society (see Girton Parish News August 2008) and the churchyard by the Church - yet there is still plenty for the Parish Council to do.
A Parish Council is required to have two permanent Officers, usually combined into one: the Parish Clerk, also known as the Proper Officer in view of his/her statutory duties, and a Responsible Financial Officer. The Clerk is not merely a parish secretary but is more like the chief executive officer of a small company with the whole parish as the customer. It is the Clerk's job to apply the policies agreed by the elected councillors and advise the Council on legislation and procedures. Day to day work as a Parish Clerk covers a wide range of activities. Communication with councillors, local residents, users of parish facilities, staff, contractors, officers of other authorities, and visitors to the parish office is a major part of the job. Sorting out problems, providing information, or researching new services for the village is also central to the role.
Managing the facilities on the recreation ground and the Pavilion, and the village's open spaces, also requires building and land management skills. Whilst much of a Clerk's training relates to legal knowledge and awareness of legislation, in practice most people regard maintaining services to keep Girton looking attractive, and having good quality recreation areas, as the most important part of the job in that they help preserve our quality of life.
Parish Councils vary considerably amongst themselves in their nature and activities. Some of the councils in neighbouring villages are fairly passive, but we in Girton are fortunate in having a parish council which over more than a century has been remarkably energetic and innovative in developing amenities for the community. So when we enjoy activities in the Pavilion, admire the tubs of sponsored summer flowers around the village, or see the development of Smithy Green and the Hibbert-Ware garden in the heart of the village or stroll around our Town End Close nature reserve at the bottom of Woody Green, we have the Parish Council to thank.
The Pavilion, built in 2000 thanks to the efforts of the Council in obtaining major funding from the National Lottery as well as other sources, is available to village groups and very well occupied. The multitude of uses to which the Pavilion is put throughout the day includes mother and baby groups, keep fit and Pilates meetings, classes in a wide range of activities from martial arts to ballroom dancing, and even the Cambridge Bridge Club. The Council organises reservations and facilities for these meetings, charging a fee. Grouped around the Pavilion are the tennis courts, the multi-use games area (MUGA), the children's playgrounds, many sports pitches, and the trim trail on the Ten Acre field. When the public open spaces of Wellbrook Way are finally handed over, the Council will be responsible for the best part of 30 acres of recreational space through the village.
The roll of former Chairmen and Clerks shows a distinguished record. The present Clerk, Robert Stone, came to us on 1 October 2008 from a background of management in the Civil Service and the voluntary sector. This provided valuable experience for a varied local role in which no two days are the same. At the same time his wife Natalie became our Financial Officer, bringing experience in accountancy, and skills in the production of financial reports, and monitoring budgets. They joined Linda Miller, a stalwart in the Parish Office atop the Pavilion for many years with a wealth of knowledge of how the village works and in the organisation of sports and social activities. Chris Wilson, our groundsman, brings expertise and high standards to his role of maintaining our sports areas. Norman Lewell as security officer and handyman completes the team. All are part time and committed to providing high quality services for the community. The Parish Office is normally open for assistance and enquiries each weekday morning from 9.30-12.30 but there may be times when the Clerk is unavailable on parish business elsewhere. It is wise to telephone 472181 first if you are making a special visit.
If the Clerk is the lead officer of the Council, its 15 non-partisan and unpaid members of the Parish Council are at the heart of bringing local issues to the fore. They provide the energy and drive to take projects forward, supplying vision and direction, and contributing their wide experience from different walks of life to decision making. They are elected for a four year term; the next round of Parish Council elections is due in 2010. If a vacancy arises, there is the possibility of a by-election if requested by residents, otherwise a member may be co-opted by the Council. At present, three members are co-opted, bringing valued expertise to the Council.
At the first meeting of its year the Council elects a Chairman, currently the proactive Douglas de Lacey (also a District Councillor). Sam Clift is currently Vice-Chairman. The Council meets on the third Wednesday of each month, usually at the St Vincent's Close Community Centre. Villagers are always welcome to these meetings and may address the Council with their concerns. It is the Chairman's firmly held belief that meetings should never last more than an hour and a half - preferably significantly less time - and generally he achieves this. The agenda is always posted around the village the week before the meeting, and the minutes published on the Parish website and on the noticeboard outside the Pavilion, with key points of decisions summarised in the Girton Parish News.
No individual councillor, not even the Chairman, is empowered to take decisions. These are made by the Council or delegated to its committees, which run the sport and recreational facilities, oversee and develop the village's 12 open spaces, and scrutinise and make recommendations to South Cambridgeshire District Council (SCDC) on local planning applications. In addition the Wellbrook Way Committee has been pressing for the completion of the Wellbrook development pending the transfer of the open spaces there from Wimpey to the Council in 2010. Recent success stories include gaining Wimpey's agreement to finish surfacing the roads on the estate, and the promise of the installation of a new children's play area in the near future.
To pay for all its activities the Council has two sources of revenue. Firstly, receipts from sports and social activities raise £25,000 each year. It is a condition of the grant with which the Pavilion was built that running costs should be self-financing, and fees for its use are set accordingly. All other activities are funded from the Precept which is collected by SCDC as part of our Council taxes. For 2008-09 this was £72,910.
From this the Council has to meet all its obligations from utility bills to postage and stationery; from children's play equipment to bus shelters and grass cutting; from managing our nature reserve to fencing and planting. And as central Government piles ever more responsibilities on parishes these costs are bound to increase. Health and Safety legislation and other responsibilities, about which the Council has been overly lax in the past, also come with a price tag.
Over the years generous contributions from the Girton Town Charity have enabled the Council to provide equipment such as the power roller which our groundsman uses to make our sports field one of the best in the area. It is heartening that other items the Council has been able to provide for the village, such as the planters that are so much appreciated, have been provided by the generosity of many local donors.
The Council's focus is not merely on the present. The Village Plan, to which we all (well, most of us) contributed through the remarkably intensive questionnaire, will help the Parish Council influence the next quarter century of future development of the village, preserving its traditions, expanding its perspectives, and reflecting its citizens' hopes for many years to come.
The opportunities and challenges facing the Girton Parish Council can be summed up under four main headings. First, ensuring quality services and value for money. Second, improving two-way communication between villagers and the Council to respond to local needs and make services available to all sections of the community. Third, working in partnership with the other organisations in and out of the village, so that our amenities are improved. Four, as far as possible, preserving Girton's identity in the face of external threats. These include road developments, congestion charges, and new housing developments all around the village.
As we look ahead, Girton's future is uncertain. The developments of Northstowe, NIAB, the University Farm and the widening of the A14 all represent very real concerns for our community. The Parish Council will need to be a wise and vociferous advocate of our needs. For this reason the development of the Village Plan is of incalculable importance, as is the support of all members of our community. The Council needs active members; at present it desperately needs more representation from the south end of the village, particularly from Wellbrook Way. With elections due in about 6 months' time, ask yourself if this is a way you could serve your community. It is vital that we have an election not just to fill the 15 places available but also to represent as many of our community interests as possible with people from different backgrounds, male and female, young and old. All that is needed is to share a common interest in improving life in Girton.
Your Parish needs You!
Girton Parish Council
Girton Recreation Ground
Cambridge CB3 0FH
Telephone: 01223 472181
"Focus on Girton" is a series of occasional articles on the organisations of Girton. The first series ran from September 2005 to April 2007 and concentrated on public service and commercial organisations. This present series covers the community and voluntary organisations of the village. Articles are written independently by members of the editorial team of the Girton Parish News, with the consent and cooperation of the organisation concerned. The selection of organisations featured is entirely at the discretion of the editorial team. The articles do not in themselves represent an endorsement of the aims or activities of organisations. No link exists between the publication of an article and any advertising in the Girton Parish News, whether in the same issue or more generally.