Public service can take many forms, as I found out one day last week when I visited Epping Forest District Council. I was a little early for my first appointment in Waltham Abbey so stopped off at St Thomas’s, Upshire, a delightful Arts and Crafts church of 1901–2 that I haven’t visited for many years. It was paid for by Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, who was High Sheriff in 1905–6 (yet another of my predecessors it’s hard to live up to). As it happened, the church was open, because a Community Payback team were working in the churchyard, as they often do here. It’s enforced public service, to be sure, otherwise known as unpaid work, part of a community sentence, but public service nonetheless; and as well as being a punishment it benefits the church and the wider community, taking the pressure off their own volunteers and saving them the expense of hiring contractors to do the job. Nor must we forget the public service of the churchwarden who was there to open up the church, direct operations, and provide refreshments throughout the day.
In Waltham Abbey, next to the new leisure centre, I saw another form of public service in operation: the District Council had organised a Community Clean Up Day, as their contribution to Keep Britain Tidy’s Great British Spring Clean. There’s an area of open grassland there between two housing estates, and dotted round the edge were the bright yellow gilets of litter-pickers; and as it was a warm sunny day, in the school holidays, lots of children were joining in with the adults. It was a good scene, with Council employees on hand to provide the necessary equipment, tackle any hazardous items that were found, and take away the rubbish afterwards.
Later in the day I visited the Jobcentre Plus at Loughton, where the regular Department of Work and Pensions staff work together with staff from the District Council to provide a service that goes way beyond what one would expect of a job centre – especially if, like me, your recent experience of such places is based on the Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake. They do that bit extra to get people back into work or simply back on to their feet by, for example, making sure they have suitable clothes for a job interview, which seems to me to be a very good use of taxpayer’s money.
Back at home, there was a letter from the Under-Sheriff’s office with a cheque for £500 for me to send to a security guard as a reward for tackling a man who was armed with a machete and was attempting to rob a Tesco Express in Clacton. As reported in the press, the man was jailed for six years at Chelmsford Crown Court last month and the judge nominated the security guard for a High Sheriff’s Court Award in recognition of his bravery and public spiritedness. As well as receiving the cheque, he will be invited to a ceremony early next year at the Crown Court, together with other recipients of Court Awards and their families, so that we can thank them in person for what is another form of public service.