The 1811 census year was also the year the "Brightwell Inclosure Act" was passed. Under the Act the hundreds of strips of land throughout the parish which formed the ancient 3-field farming system were replaced by the large fields with surrounding hedges that we see today. Reading the documents of that time the impression is gained that Brightwell was a well ordered, close knit and caring community of people, almost all involved in one way or another in agriculture, who took enclosure, the "inclosure", without protest. By comparison Sotwell was very poorly documented in 1811.
Some 200 years ago Brightwell parishioners chose their officers from among their number to oversee all parish affairs. There was little or no control by an outside authority: no District Council, no County Council, no Regional Assembly and virtually no Government control. Parishes had always run their own affairs and anyway at that time, the central government was far too concerned by the threat posed by Napoleon. On the rare occasions when a Government edict needed to be sent to the population, it often came by way of the Bishop and thence the Rector who, after Sunday service, would read it out for the benefit of those who could not read. The edict would then be nailed to St Agatha’s North door.
Provided a parishioner had the minimum property to qualify him, or her, to vote and to stand for office, they might expect to hold the four main parish posts during their life-time. Annually, Brightwell elected two Church-wardens, a Constable, an Overseer of the Poor and a Surveyor of the Highways. Surrounding parishes, and probably Brightwell, also had a pinder to supervise the village pound and an ale taster. Upon election the holders of the major posts would no doubt find a copy of Paul’s "The Compleat Parish Officer" and remind themselves of their duties and the relevant statutes.
The Constable’s job did not vary much from that of a present day village constable except that he had to keep an eye open for under-weight loaves and below volume tankards of ale. He would also have to collect any Brightwell parishioner charged with being ‘A rogue and a vagabond’ from an adjacent parish. The difference from today’s constable lay in the administration of justice. A minor misdemeanour could lead to a spell in the stocks, which are thought to be situated - but not confirmed - opposite the Red Lion. A villain paying a fine would know that half would go to the Constable and half to the poor of the parish. The Surveyor of the Highways saw that all parishioners spent 3 or 4 days each year keeping the pathways, green meres and roads in order. Between them the Church Wardens and the Overseer of the Poor looked after the sick and impoverished of the parish. They were also responsible for collecting the rates required to maintain their service to the poor. In the centre of all this, and seeing fair play, stood the Rector, who by 1811 had been incumbent for almost 40 years.
It was not until Queen Victoria’s reign that the relentless centripetal movement of responsibility away from the parish towards Westminster began. Now in 2007 virtually every facet of our lives seems to be regulated from outside the parish by: the numerous Acts passed by Parliament, a number of the Directives agreed by the European Union and by a few of the Conventions ratified by the United Nations. The power we have to determine our own affairs as a parish has dwindled enormously since 1811, but a coming Local Government White Paper, "Strong and Prosperous Communities", may change the balance slightly by offering parish councils more power.
Every four years the Brightwell-cum-Sotwell Parish Council is elected by those parishioners over 18 who have registered to vote. The next election for the officers of this lowest tier of UK government will be in May this year. The first task of the nine new councillors will be to select their chairman for the coming 2 years. Each councillor takes part in the monthly meetings, he or she can be a member of one of the two sub-committees and there are a number of other duties to be shared. To acquaint themselves with their duties, new parish councillors can study Paul Claydon’s "Parish Councillors Guide" and can attend courses organised by the District Council.
Determining the amount of the Council Tax that comes to the parish (about £25,000 in 2007, representing some 2% of the average tax bill) and how to spend it are among the major tasks of the Council. Grass cutting on the Rec. and in Kings Meadow, insurance, the Clerk’s salary and donations to village bodies are usually the main items of expenditure, but there are a number of others. For large projects, such as the Jubilee Pavilion, grants may be obtained from SODC and similar sources. And of course the Council Tax also pays for the services provided by the District Council (8%), the County Council (80%) and the Thames Valley Police Force (10%) These include the collection of waste, planning, education and highway maintenance. Of course we also pay a large amount of tax directly and indirectly to central government and we pay separately for electricity, gas, water, telephone radio and television. We may not be governed by the parish but enjoy a wide variety of goods and services in 2007 with few if any being produced within the parish. What a contrast to 1811 when the parish was like an island, being virtually self sufficient, with only the rich paying taxes.
Leon Cobb and John Rodda