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Cheltenham's New Mayor

Michael Hasted meets Councillor Anne Regan. crack

“It’s an absolute whirlwind; my feet haven’t touched the ground. I’ve done so many engagements and all of them have been just brilliant. I have enjoyed everything I’ve done; I’ve met some wonderful people.”

I was talking to Cheltenham’s new mayor, Anne Regan, in the Mayor’s Parlour overlooking the Promenade. Anne’s inauguration had been three or for weeks earlier but the previous day the Civic Service had taken place just round the corner at St. Mary’s Church.

One of the functions of the Mayor is to sponsor and promote local charities so I asked Anne which were close to her heart. “There’s a lot of good voluntary work going on in the town which you only begin to fully realise when you are Mayor. A lot of the voluntary organisations attended my Civil Service yesterday and it was really good to see so many of them there.

“This year I have three local charities that I am helping to promote. I sit on the Parish Council for Leckhampton Warden Hill, which I have done now for 23 years, and within that parish is the Sue Ryder Hospice, so they are on my list. I am also on the board of Dowty House in St. Margaret’s Road which is an exceptionally good care home for the elderly, and that is the second. The third is one that is very close to my heart and involves working with young people in my area. We raised some money and last October I, as deputy mayor, officially opened the Brizen Young People’s Centre. It has all the facilities we need and the Gloucestershire Youth Service team leaders run evenings for youngsters in the southwest of Cheltenham. It’s proving to be really successful”.

I continued by asking Anne what she considered to be the priorities in the town. “In my inauguration speech I outlined the need for the people of Cheltenham to support and use their local businesses and I will certainly be looking at that during my year. In my speech I urged people not to jump in their cars and rush out to the M5 to retail outlets but to see what we have here within this fantastic town of ours. I drew attention to the benefits of Montpellier with its restaurants and boutiques, the Suffolks with the Daffodil and antique shops as well as Bath Road and lots of other places.”

I felt the need to jump on one of my little hobby horses here and mention the lack of decent, useful shops in the High Street. “Yes, I also mentioned the West End which is opening up. There are lots of good ethnic food shops there now which people use. But my message was to use the town as a whole and keep the economy thriving”.

I changed tack slightly and asked her about the process of becoming Mayor. “It’s done on length of service really. I’ve been on the council for thirteen years so I knew I was getting near the top of the list. There were several people above me but it’s difficult for a lot of the men because they are running businesses and travelling abroad, they’re not here to be able to carry out the functions much of the time.” And how much time does that involve? I asked. “It takes the majority of my time.

It is very, very demanding. The Mayor is expected to cover at least 500 engagements a year, that is in the handbook and I know some mayors have done nearer six hundred.” Does the Mayor get to choose those activities? “There are some civic engagements that you are expected to attend but then all the invitations flood in and if I can possibly do them, I will. There are evenings during the year which I know I have to commit to my family and occasionally I have a day off if I am very lucky. But I knew this is how it would be and I am just delighted to be doing it.

“My year as deputy prepared me for it a little but it’s not quite the same as actually doing it. You often have to talk to people, have conversations, when you are not really familiar with the subject – out of you comfort zone, if you like. You have to be able to understand where they are coming from, what they are saying; their issues.”

I suggested that this must take rather a lot of swatting up before an engagement. “My P.A., Jenny, prepares an information sheet for me and she asks the people I am going to talk with what issues they would like to discuss and what points would they like me to be aware of. I also sit at my computer and find out as much as I can from there. I can get an awful lot of information off the internet and if I have to make speech I can just add my own style and views.” Was Anne comfortable making speeches to large, unfamiliar audiences? “It’s something I have just discovered I can do, and I didn’t know that.” she said proudly.

I was interested to learn of Anne’s background, how she got into local politics. “It was quite bizarre in a way.” she explained. “In the 1970s the little girl of a neighbour caught a dreadful eye infection from dog mess. It was quite common in those days and talking to other mothers at the school gates I said I’d set up a public meeting to try and deal with the matter. We had a meeting with Charles Irving, who was our MP and had been mayor and was a wonderful man. Well, the campaign and the public meeting went well and somebody suggested I went to a parish council meeting and tell them about it. As a result of speaking at that meeting I was invited to join the Leckhampton Warden Hill Parish Council. I love parish councils. It really is the grass roots where people can instantly get help. I first became a councillor in 1997. I served for 4 years and then lost my seat. I was re-elected in 2000.”

And before then, what had she done. “Before I had my children I worked at GCHQ. Later I worked part-time at Marks and Spencer and was there for thirty years. I am very proud that I have been asked to cut the ribbon for the new £10m makeover of the store. They have been incredibly supportive of my work with young people and while I was there, the local store and head office gave me about £5000 so we could hire a pod which is a sort of mobile, self-contained youth centre.”

We were coming to the end of our chat so I asked Anne what she considered to be the major challenges facing Cheltenham. “We do get complaints about the night-time economy and its after effects. And I must say, personally, this drinking does worry me a lot. The volume of alcohol that young people consume; it’s not just now, it’s later in life when their bodies are going to be affected and they don’t realise this. However, we now have this street pastor initiative scheme in the town. They are there to give help and guidance to people who may be the worst for wear and they’re doing a grand job.”

We didn’t want to get bogged down in doom and gloom so I asked her what in Cheltenham made her rejoice. “I absolutely love the town. I adore its location in the Cotswolds and the country-side. I love nature and we’re so close to it it’s an absolute delight to live here. I love the architecture, the festivals; it’s a vibrant place to live. We are all very lucky to call this place home.”

To end, I asked Anne to imagine, 50 years down the road, they were writing a history of Cheltenham mayors. I wondered how she would like her entry to read - ‘Anne Regan was the mayor who……..?’ Anne laughed and paused for a moment. “…. enjoyed every minute of her year.” she said finally with a big smile on her face.