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Podcast script - Thursday, June 04, 2020

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Good Morning Chelveston, Caldecott and Chelston Rise it’s Thursday 4th June and this is Adrian Dale with the daily podcast. And today, I am being really selfish, it’s all about me. But then again I do get up at silly o’clock every day to prepare these briefings, so I guess you’ll have to indulge me for once.

As many of you know, I am often to be found out and about in the Village wearing my rather battered yellow hi-viz clothing. Across the back and front, it is emblazoned with the words “Parish Lengthsman”. I pay for it myself, so I get to decide what’s on it.

Most residents now don’t even give it a second glance, they are used to me being out and about. However, residents from other parishes are often amazed that my role exists. So how did it come about?

The term Lengthsman was coined in the 1700s but the concept goes back to the Tudor era. Originally, it referred to someone who kept a "length" of road neat, tidy and passable in the middle ages.

In the late 1700s the term was applied to the canal system. The lengthsman would look after the banks and the weirs along the “length” for which they were responsible.

During the 1800s, lengthsmen were paid to “walk the length of the parish” to keep its ditches and drains clear. As roads became more important, parish lengthsmen were also responsible for road repairs. Aitch remembers a road menders hunt when he was a kid on the land near the American Memorial in the centre of Chelveston.

During 1900s, however, the job fell into decline as road maintenance became the responsibility of county councils rather than parishes, because much of the work could be mechanised. The role of lengthsman all but disappeared across the country.

However, during the last decade of the 1900s, County Council funding started to decline and the quality and frequency of grass cutting in the Village deteriorated. The verges were only being cut 4 times a year. Residents were up in arms and the Parish Council received many complaints.

I have known our Clerk Mark Hunter for many years, he is by far the best Parish Clerk in the county, and as you know he loves his history. He had always loved the concept of a Parish Lengthsman. I remembered the meetings in the early 2000s where Mark argued that we should employ a lengthsman, to keep the Village tidy. I always argued against him, keen to keep Council tax really low. I always won those arguments.

However In 2001, it was agreed that the grass cutting should be put out to tender, with the Parish Council precept being increased to pay for it. The County Council gave us a small grant to cover what they would have spent, and the Parish took the first steps towards managing our own environment locally. I happened to be the Chairman of the Council that took that decision. We sub-contracted the job to East Northamptonshire Council who were running a consortium with various Parish and Town Councils.

Inevitably, there were teething problems and the occasional poor cut. However, overall residents were happy to pay more Council Tax when they could see exactly where their money went. The first contract had a limited scope but over the years, we increased the extent of the verges that were kept trimmed.

We’ve changed contractor over the years and managed to keep cost increases to less than inflation. However, whilst I was Chairman of the Council the grass cutting contract was the bane of my life. No one was ever happy. Some residents wanted the verges to be allowed to grow as a haven for wild flowers and insects. Others wanted the verges to be scalped to within an inch of their life. To be fair I get the same complaints today.

I used to get very frustrated by the poor quality of workmanship and was often to be found with my own 14 inch mower hand cutting the Higham Road between contractor cuts. I couldn’t stand the poor impression that people must have had of our untidy Village.

I stood down from the Council after 19 years in 2015, to give others a chance to chart the future course for the Village. I thought that would be the end of it. How wrong I was.

Mark always plays a very long game, and always in the interest of the Parish. So in 2017, I was not surprised to receive an invitation to tender for the Village grass cutting contract. I quickly realised that there was a bigger picture, because this was followed by an invitation to tender for the lengthsman contract. With me out of the way as Chairman, Mark was able to put his 17 year old master plan into effect.

Now as I have said many times, I was very fortunate to retire early and have spent the years since 2009 devoted to projects in the Parish. Mark knew I would take the bait. Here was an opportunity for me to make a big difference to the Parish and not be too much out of pocket. I couldn’t resist and I promised a 50% increase to the frequency of cuts for the same as had previously been spent, provided that the Council would purchase the equipment needed. I could only make this promise as I don’t need to pay myself a serious salary.

We had some early disagreements and at one point, I even quit. I am not a normal contractor and work at a loss, so in my view I get to shape the contract as much as the Council. However, we worked it out and here I am in my third year.

I now work on a fixed price for grass cutting. Instead of the 12 cuts each year that I promised, last year, I did 36 cuts. I also walk the lengths of the Parish in Chelveston and Caldecott 5 days a week picking litter. This allows me to check on all the paths and verges, every week day. None of this is in the contract.

That job title across emblazoned across my back does make a huge difference. When I report a problem to the District or County Council, they usually act. I use the FixMyStreet App at least every week to report in. In the last week alone, we’ve had a new bridge installed across a stream, fly tipping cleared, a damaged manhole marked up for repair and a broken set of chevrons agreed for repair on Kimbolton Road.

When contractors from the various utilities appear in the Village I can wander up in my Hi-viz and ask what they are up to in a very confident tone. I always get the answer I want, and can report it back to the Parish Council.

When the County and District Councils come to investigate issues, they now know who to call – yep it’s the bloke in the Red Van. In fact most of them now wave to me if they are driving through the Village. They know this Village always has someone on the case.

I joined the Parish Council after being co-opted in 1996 by Michael Foulger. When I look back on what has been achieved in that time, I can definitely say that I have been able to make a difference to this Village and will continue to do so until I am carried out of the Village in a box.

However, we now have two vacancies on the Council. Applications need to be in by 5pm on the 5th June. This Friday coming. You need to act now if you want to play a part.

Being a Councillor is not for the faint hearted. It is a demanding role with big responsibilities. But you can make a very big long term difference to the place in which we all live.

We have a long and proud history in this Parish and everyone who contributes is remembered in our records, and more importantly in living memory.

I was fortunate enough to be part of the Parish during the most exciting time in its history since the second world war.

I am looking forward to going back into the shadows, in the hope that others with fresh ideas can step forward to lead us for the next 20 years.

So what are you waiting for folks.

Thank you for your indulgence