Interview with Helen Simpson, Mayor of Hungerford, and Claire Barnes, Hungerford’s Town Clerk, January 2021

2020 and early 2021 has obviously been a uniquely difficult time for everyone, including local councils. Events have proved that these have been vital in dealing with many aspects of the response, ranging from helping explain and implement national regulations to supporting local volunteer groups. Penny Post had a chat with Hungerford’s Mayor Helen Simpson and Town Clerk Claire Barnes to ask a few questions about how the Council, and the town as a whole, has coped with and responded to Covid-19.

What have been the main challenges Hungerford Town Council (HTC) has faced during the pandemic?

To say that this has required changes for HTC (and for everyone else) would be an understatement.

Like all councils, we’ve had to shift to working online and from home, so we’ve needed to ensure both staff and Councillors could function with the technology required to run council work remotely. This has become our new normal.

Understanding and complying with the ever-changing rules and restrictions has been another key factor. We’ve done our best to keep the main facilities and amenities open where this was permitted.

Just as important has been communication (more so now than ever) and public reassurance. We’ve tried to help businesses and residents throughout the year, from signposting financial support via funding streams to informing residents of available help and assistance.

We have worked with voluntary groups such as the Self Isolation team to provide community support, applied for community grants and helped with contacts for volunteers. Several Town Councillors volunteered to help residents as part of this group.

What are the main things that HTC has learned from this?

Priorities can change in an instant. The many new regulations often required very quick actions so we’ve learned the importance of the Council being agile and pragmatic. Having a good relationship with the town’s organisations and media groups and, through our three very supportive district councillors, with West Berkshire Council has really helped with this.

We’ve also learnt something we both know already – how completely amazing our town is. It’s a supremely resourceful, flexible, caring and friendly place. Sometimes difficult times can bring out the worst in people: not so in Hungerford. Volunteers rallied, businesses adjusted, food banks were stocked to capacity. Being able to keep our residents safe, informed and supported through the pandemic, even though we haven’t been able to see each other, is testament to the dedication of staff, volunteers and residents.

Do you think that any of these changes may prove to be positive, for example as regards the way business is done or people engage with each other?

The office has used the opportunity to work on the town’s emergency plan. We are now much more up-to date with key community members, many of whom have agreed to be involved after the pandemic. Engagement with the community through press and social media has grown – this has enabled HTC to be available to the public and to reach a wider audience.

How well do feel Hungerford as a community has responded to the pandemic?

Hungerford has been incredible in this time of need. Working closely with and supporting Hungerford’s Self-isolation team, HTC has seen the town respond to all the community’s needs. Our heart-felt thanks to all the many of you who volunteered. Businesses, schools, voluntary groups, the surgery and the pharmacy have all rallied to serve the town’s needs. We wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. What an amazing community Hungerford is!

What are the main things that HTC has accomplished, aside from its response to Covid, in this period?

Most of HTC’s activities, where these remained relevant, have kept going. Aside from our day-to-day work, here are some of the main projects we’ve been involved with…

  • HTC has seen the War Memorial site in Bridge Street completely transformed following the successful members’ bid application for funding from our District Councillors.
  • Work has continued on upgrading the town’s street lights to running on LEDs – an unglamorous activity, perhaps, but important both for the climate emergency and as a pre-condition for our handing them over to West Berkshire Council, so saving HTC costs in the future.
  • The project of improving the area around the railway station – and of getting more parking spaces now that Oakes Bros temporary car park has been closed – certainly falls into the category of “long-term project” but HTC has been pressing forward with this when circumstances have allowed.
  • HTC has updated its IT systems and launched a new website which fully complies with new government regulations about accessibility.
  • HTC will soon start work at the Croft Field Activity Centre, working towards bringing this facility to be better equipped and more assessable for disabled users of the building.
  • We have two new Councillors on the HTC team and have vacancies for more.
  • HTC, once again, provided the Christmas lights and created a community video: Hungerford’s community feedback was incredible and really helped to bring us all back together (even if it was in a virtual way).

At some point life will return to some kind of normality. What do you feel are the main ways that this will be different in the future (as regards Hungerford in particular, or more widely)?

It’s probably too early to say – obviously the community, and not HTC, will determine the outcome.

We strongly believe the town will feel closer and united. Some businesses may remain working remotely, in part at least – some might have gained more customers that way, for instance with takeaway or click-and-collect services. More people may continue to work from home. A different work/life balance has been found by many during the last year and this may continue.

Whatever the challenges, we feel that Hungerford is very well placed to meet them. We would urge all residents to support all aspects of community life in the town. There’s not too much that needs to change.

What are the main things that you’d like to accomplish in 2021 and beyond (which might include some unfinished business from 2020)?

The Croft Field Activity Centre will be a major project for Hungerford this year. The neighbourhood development plan will also require our focus and collaborative working. Hopefully HTC can fill the councillor vacancies – please get in touch if you’d like to join the team. We’ve also been working on a strategy document which will outline our goals and priorities in the future – we’ll be publishing the draft of this soon and would love to hear your views. Perhaps most of all, we hope that we might actually get to see each other again…


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Penny Post


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Covering: Newbury, Thatcham, Hungerford, Marlborough, Wantage, Lambourn, Compton, Swindon & Theale