Parishes protect our common past

THREE cheers for our parish councils.

They may not get much recognition, but they play a crucial role in protecting open spaces and common land across the Chilterns.

Parish and town councils are the most local level of government in England and they vary massively in size, from tiny villages with only a few hundred voters to larger towns where they may look after everything from street lighting and cemeteries to war memorials and markets.

PARISH PUMP: The Vicar of Dibley cast PICTURE: BBC / Tiger Aspect Productions

If the Vicar of Dibley left a lasting impression of parish council meetings being archaic and bumbling, it’s a little unfortunate because the reality is that these grass-roots councils are responsible for a huge range of important community functions.

Originally created in 1894 and called community councils in Wales and Scotland, they can represent from 200 to more than 30,000 people with budgets ranging from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands of pounds, levied through the council tax.

COMMON GROUND: Southdown Ponds on Harpenden Common by Andrew Keenleyside

Parishes have numerous powers to provide community facilities – from clocks, bus shelters and litter bins to toilets, sports centres and playing fields. But for many local people it’s their role in protecting shared community land that is of most importance, looking after our commons, open spaces and local nature reserves across the Chilterns.

OPEN OUTLOOK: much of Dunstable Downs is managed by the National Trust

From Dunstable Downs to Ivinghoe, Pitstone and Ibstone, some of our most eye-catching Chilterns scenery is common land, from Chesham Bois to Chinnor Hill and Marlow to Chorleywood.

In fact there are 170 different commons within the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and another 88 within 3km of the AONB boundary. 

WELCOME OASIS: Gerrards Cross common, once the haunt of highwaymen

Some, like Stoke Common, managed by the City of London Corporation, may cover 200 acres or more, whereas others may be smaller but much-loved oases of green or wooded land much cherished by dog walkers, runners and picnickers, like Gerrards Cross common, maintained by the local town council.

COMMUNITY ORCHARD: Temple Dell at Farnham Common

Some common land may date back to medieval times, whereas some local initiatives are more recent, including a range of millennium projects across the region – or the community orchard planted in 2011 at Temple Dell and maintained by Farnham Royal Parish Council .

The Warren nature reserve in Wooburn Green is one of around 16 such reserves in Buckinghamshire and looked after by the Wooburn and Bourne End Parish Council.

GO WITH THE FLOW: the River Wye flowing through Wooburn Green

A number of other small reserves, like that at Homefield Wood near Marlow, are managed by the local wildlife trust.

WILDLIFE HAVEN: birds, butterflies and moths find a welcome at Homefield Wood

District councils have a crucial role to play in waste disposal, while county and unitary authorities spearhead tha battle against fly-tipping.

But on many of our open spaces across the region it’s the humble parish council that’s on the front line in protecting our ancient open spaces – and coping with problems like litter, vandalism and anti-social behaviour along the way.