Specials to their manor born: Could unpaid parish constables stem petty crime and vandalism in rural areas? Clive Aslet reports

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THE RETURN of the village bobby is the thing that country people would find most reassuring as a deterrent to crime. Last week, in his speech to the Conservative conference at Blackpool, Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, did not promise exactly that, but he did announce the next best thing. The new post of 'parish special constable', to be tested in pilot schemes, will provide the villages that acquire one with a uniformed officer with full police powers, visible at the times when he is most needed.

The success of the scheme will depend upon the public-spiritedness of individuals, since the post will not be salaried. But there are plenty who would be only too willing to help to defend their communities against crime.

The original idea of the parish constable was launched in Country Life in May, as part of the magazine's campaign against rural crime. The campaign also included a county-by-county survey of rural police areas, charting - in the absence of Home Office statistics, which lump urban and rural figures together - the state of crime in country areas.

In some areas the number of incidents has exploded in recent years (though admittedly from a low base). Everywhere crime seemed to be escalating at a faster rate than in the cities, partly because the politically high-profile inner cities have received the lion's share of police resources.

In August the vulnerability of rural communities was highlighted when the village of Rothbury in Northumberland was terrorised by an armed gang. Such episodes - given emphasis by a raid on the Ambridge post office in The Archers - may give the impression that the countryside has become as tough as the Bronx. Fortunately, this is not the case: violent crime is still rare. But nearly everyone is worried about the increase in house burglary, caused partly by improvements in the road network, which allows villains to tour the country with ease.

Thefts from motor vehicles have also increased. In the West Country cars parked at beauty spots are particularly at risk as the owners walk off into the idyllic landscape and leave them unattended for hours. And only recently have people learnt, the hard way, that farm machinery and garden tools must be locked up.

The litany of thefts from one village in Kent included a tea urn from the parish hall, five gates, a farm trough, a vacuum cleaner from the church, a mower from the groundsman's shed at the cricket club and 14 robberies from parked cars. Such incidents may seem petty, but they are exasperating for the people who suffer them.

More heartening was the news from a Derbyshire village that had suffered a rash of vandalism. A policeman who lived there, but who works in a town station, decided to put in an hour or two in uniform each week, and the vandalism stopped. In effect, the new parish constables would be doing exactly the same thing as this policeman.

In most places the full-time village bobby has gone the way of those other authority figures of rural life, the schoolmaster and (where parishes have merged) the vicar. The bobby cannot be replaced in his old form because, though there are more police officers on the payroll than a decade ago, so much time is spent on paperwork and court appearances.

The parish constable will fill the void that the village bobby has left. His powers, training and uniform will be the same as a special constable. Like the specials, he will be tied into the structure of the local police force under the command of the chief constable. But while the specials work as auxiliary officers, wherever they are needed, the parish constable will be restricted to his own parish.

Despite there being no salary, recruitment for the specials is strong - partly because many of the new intake see it as a step towards a job in the oversubscribed and highly remunerated regular police force.

When the Home Secretary announced his intention to adopt the parish constable idea in July, he invited parish councils throughout England and Wales to enter a competition for proposals on how it might work. Those who came up with the best ideas were to host pilot schemes. There were 228 submissions.

The blueprint announced last week is an amalgam of the best ideas. The Home Secretary hopes to have 20 pilot schemes running before the end of the year.

The entry from Lewannick in Cornwall typified the anxieties that a remote community has about crime. The parish council drew attention to the 'understandable reluctance to report suspicious individuals and vehicles, especially as this would involve the police undertaking a journey of 10 miles, probably to discover an innocent explanation'. Improvements to the A30, making it a dual carriageway, had brought a ripple of house burglaries in its wake. But generally, as the council perceptively comments, a low crime rate coexists with an increasing fear of crime.

This fear, sometimes greater than it need be, can have the effect of confining the elderly to their homes. Sir John Woodcock, a former HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary and the chairman of the committee that advised the Home Secretary on his competition, believes that the psychological effect of the parish constable in giving reassurance will be 80 per cent of his value.

The parish constable's training must equip him to deal with any difficulty. Passions can erupt in even the quietest hamlet, and there is no telling what he would have to deal with on his first patrol. But the likelihood is that much of his time will be spent in comparatively unglamorous activities.

Standing outside the pub at closing time could have a sobering effect on the rowdy. Car boot sales, where stolen goods are often sold on, are generally too numerous for the regular police to monitor. No doubt the presence of a parish constable - indistinguishable from a regular policeman - would give the less scrupulous members of the Lovejoy profession pause for thought.

Not all rural communities will be large enough to warrant appointing parish constables. Equally some happy parishes, as the competition revealed, are less fearful of burglary than of dog-fouling and illicit golf played on the recreation ground. For them, the Home Secretary proposes a different tier of authority: the 'parish warden'. A scheme of this kind is already in operation in three villages covered by the West Mercia police force, on the Welsh borders.

Parish wardens would not only enforce by-laws, but jazz up the local Neighbourhood Watch, Farm Watch and Horse Watch schemes, and act as the local contact for the regular police force, who are often too distant to know a village's potential trouble spots and troublemakers. Administered in time, a good ticking-off could prevent a young vandal graduating to car theft or more serious crime.

The writer is editor of 'Country Life'.

(Photograph omitted)