NEXT spring new parish councils will take the reins in the remaining unparished areas of urban Swindon, writes BARRIE HUDSON.

Stratton St Margaret Parish Council has been around in one form or another for about 450 years. Joe Tray, in his second year as chairman, has been a parish councillor for a dozen years.

Does he have any advice for newly-minted parish councillors when the time comes?

“A lot of the borough councillors are going to be the shadow parish councillors.

“They’ve got to remember that they’re no longer within the little bubble of their wards. They should not be totally focused on their own little wards – as with the borough – but focused on the whole of their community, of the new parish council.

“Unfortunately I think the new names are terrible. We look around Swindon and we’ve got Stratton St Margaret, we’ve got Wroughton, we’ve got Highworth, Blunsdon. ‘North Central’ doesn’t really slip off the tongue!

“Firstly they’ve got to get an identity, They’ve got to have a brand, as such, so that people will know they live in ‘this parish’ whatever it might be.

“You’ve got to make people feel the parish is inclusive. Hopefully when it’s all set up and we start to get elections for new parish councillors we’ll get people who are community activists coming forward.”

Joe is originally from Cirencester. His father worked for an adding machine company and his mother was a nurse. Joe has an older brother.

Education at Cirencester Deer Park School and North Gloucester Technical College was followed by an early career in mechanical engineering, but at 24 he left and joined the fire service.

“It was something I always admired and aspired to. I had an uncle who was a fire officer up in Cleveland, in Middlesbrough.

“I went to see him and that gave me the appetite.

“I’m the type of person that likes to be involved. If I’m driving along and I see a shunt, I’ll get out and help. I like to think I’ve got the ability to stay calm and controlled. I haven’t got the expertise all the time, but my experience in the fire service taught me that calmness and reassurance is just as important as being able to do the wonderful job the paramedics do.”

He would remain for 34 years as a firefighter, and also spent more than 15 as a local Fire Brigades Union official.

Notorious fires he helped to tackle included the one at Windsor Castle in 1992, but some of the lower-profile ones were much more satisfying.

“A little chimney fire, say, in a terraced street. We turn up there and there’s a lady who’s been widowed for 20 years. Her family have grown up in that house and the chimney’s on fire.

“To her, it’s a crisis. We turn up, reassure her, deal with the incident, ask her to go and put the kettle on, leave everything clean, tidy and all back safe.

“She’ll sit down and have a cup of tea with five firefighters and we’ll leave her smiling and so happy.

“That, to me, is a bigger buzz than putting out Windsor Castle.

“I think that’s carried on into my political career, the fact that you could affect people, help people and be involved.”

Joe is hopeful for the new parishes, although it’s a hopefulness tempered by pragmatism.

“Parishes are brilliant. Only this morning I was walking my dog and had a chap come to me and say: ‘I’m so pleased with how Stratton St Margaret looks – I live in Gorse Hill and it’s so much cleaner and tidier in Stratton than it is in Gorse Hill.’

“He asked: ‘Will there be an improvement when the parishes take over?’

“Hopefully there will be, because in bringing it down to a local area you have more control, you have a better ethos – because it’s a smaller area, I suppose.”

In spite of that belief in parishes, Joe is concerned by the fact that a parish system is being imposed instead of arising in response to public demand. “The reason they’re being done is for a financial saving for the borough. That I understand and I know why, but a parish is a lot more than just another arm of Swindon Borough Council.

“A parish is there for the community, certainly here in Stratton St Margaret. Last Friday I was sat out there at the community centre, blowing up balloons, helping children fill out lists to Santa. Father Christmas was there, reindeer were there; we had parish councillors dressed up as elves.

“These new parishes seem to be just destined at the moment to be taking on work that the borough can no longer afford, raising the taxes to pay for that.

“People’s impression of a parish might be soured by that fact – that they’re paying extra money for what return?”

The people, he believes, will be the ultimate arbiters of whether the new parishes succeed.

“A lot of people don’t really realise this is happening, and they won’t know it’s happening, possibly, until a council tax demand falls on their doorstep and all of a sudden they realise that they’ve had a huge increase.

“There are going to be questions. Why is this being increased? What am I getting for this increase?

“That’s why I would advise people to attend parish council meetings. They’re public meetings.

“Listen to what’s being said, what’s happening, and get involved.

“Once you start doing that, you’ll start feeling part of that community, part of that parish.

“That will help the identity grow.”