Interview with West Berkshire Councillor Graham Pask, April 2023

Graham Pask is (or will be until after his successor is elected on 4 May 2023) the West Berkshire Council ward member for Bucklebury. He’s a well-respected figure on the Council and has held a wide range of portfolios and committee positions. Perhaps more than that, he has actually been a councillor for longer than WBC has been existence. Penny Post caught up with him in April 2023 to ask him a few questions about his life in WBC and beyond and invite him to share some of his thoughts about the challenges the district has faced and is likely to face in the future. First, though, we need to get this “older than West Berkshire Council” business sorted out…

When did you first get elected to WBC?

I was elected for the first time in May 1987

Goodness me: so you’ve been a councillor for longer than WBC has been in existence – it was Newbury District Council then, wasn’t it?

It was indeed! Newbury District was quite different from WBC. The transition from district to unitary authority, which came into being in 1998, was an interesting process which divided the county functions between the six new unitaries.

What are the main jobs that you’ve done (or still do)?

My first job was maintaining electron microscopes at the Botany Department at Oxford University, where I met my wife Hilary. This was a great time in my life but the job was not the long-term career I was looking for. About this time a chance conversation with a pilot led me to become interested in aviation and, at his suggestion, I stumbled on Air Traffic Control. I joined the Civil Aviation Authority in 1973 and started a three-year training scheme the following year travelling the country working at airports and centres until I received my licence in 1977.

I was posted to the Air Traffic Centre at West Drayton (which moved to Swanwick, near Portsmouth, in 2007) and was an operational radar controller all my time there, even after promotion to a management role. Shift working enabled a good work/life balance with my family and councillor role even if my “weekends” and bank holidays weren’t at the same time as everyone else’s. I retired in March 2009 and still miss the buzz of working in such an exciting job.

Two differences I can see between being an air traffic controller and a district councillor is that, with the former, everything has an immediate consequence and takes place at 500mph, whereas with the latter, it doesn’t. Can you see any similarities?

You are absolutely right, Brian: on the face of it they are very different jobs. I think the main link between the two is effective communication; as it is, or should be, in all aspects of life.

What made you want to become a councillor?

We moved to Bucklebury in 1978 to start our family and immediately fell in love with the area. A planning application for a large number of houses was the trigger for me to become involved in local issues and I was asked to stand for Bucklebury Parish Council in 1983. My answer, therefore, is I wanted to play my part in protecting the area in which we live and this led to extending that to the whole district, to help and guide people with issues relating to WBC and support local businesses and parish councils.

How would you define what a district councillor does?

I partly answered this question above. The role of a councillor is to listen, advise, assist and support individuals and local organisations to the best of their ability and to act as an advocate for those in need. It is impossible to know everything but important to know who to ask.

All politicians want to have a “legacy”, or so we’re often told. What achievement as a WBC would you most like to be remembered for?

I hope my legacy is that I have treated people with respect and compassion and that I have made a positive contribution to help those who have asked for my help.

And any regrets?

My family would say they didn’t always see me every evening.

Will you miss being a councillor after May 2023?

I’m sure I will miss the contact with all the people I work with, from my fellow councillors of all parties to our professional officers for their advice and guidance (that was certainly the case when I retired from air traffic control fourteen years ago). I will also miss having a direct input on local issues.

As for some things I will not miss, the quantity of emails received every day which take a while to go through after a holiday and, it seems at times, a diary full of meetings which can go on until late into the evening. My wife, Hilary, will not miss me being out two or three or more times during the week either.

You’ve been a long-time member, and more recently Chair, of the Eastern Area Planning Committee. Tell me a bit about what that involves.

I have been a member of EAPC (and before that the Thatcham Planning Committee) for most of my 36 years, but Chairman of it for the past ten years apart from the time I was Chairman of Council.

As Chairman, my main role has been to ensure the smooth and fair running of the meeting and of the site visits we hold before each meeting: explaining the rules, keeping an eye on the timings of the presentations and ensuring the committee members stay on track during debates. I have a vote, of course – indeed the casting vote if needed although this is rarely required. Planning applications are determined on national and local policies but if an item is called in to committee, it is likely to be more controversial. In such cases we take account of the views of objectors and supporters of the scheme and balance this against professional advice from planning officers.

What other chairships, portfolios or responsibilities have you held at WBC?

My first role was to become chairman of the Environment Committee (under the old committee system). In the mid-1990s I was the leader of the Conservative Group on NDC leading up to when WBC was formed, I then took on the role of spokesman for Children and Young People (C&YP), which at the time covered both education and children’s social services. When our group regained control of the Council I was the portfolio holder for C&YP and, briefly, Adult Social Care. I then became responsible for partnership working which involved working with many of the voluntary groups in West Berkshire and the police through the Strategic Partnership. This led to the establishment of the Health and Wellbeing Board.

Throughout this time I was on the Planning Committee and more recently have chaired Eastern Area Planning for quite a few years. Planning has always been a keen interest of mine although it’s very much an area where you can’t please everybody all the time.

The highlight for any councillor is to be elected as Chairman of Council and I have had that privilege for three years, 2010-11 and 2019-21. This role is so much more than chairing full Council meetings – it involves representing West Berkshire at many events promoting, for example, our many fantastic voluntary organisations and attending their events as well as many more formal functions such as Remembrance Day services and greeting members of the Royal Family when they visit West Berkshire. Being Chairman of Council meant being able to involve my family especially my wife Hilary, but also my late mother and children/grandchildren at a variety of events.

I have also been part of the Speed Limit Review Committee since 1998, trying to balance sensible speed limits in a realistic way. This way might not always be what residents request as this has to be done in conjunction with the police who are responsible for enforcement. (Lowering a speed limit still won’t prevent a minority of inconsiderate drivers from driving too fast.)

I have also been involved with health scrutiny and am currently Chairman of the Health Scrutiny Panel. I was also a member of the Berkshire Community Health Council and was on the group who influenced the building of our wonderful Community Hospital in the 1990s.

I have a keen interest in our beautiful countryside and have chaired the Snelsmore and Bucklebury Common Advisory committees since being first elected.

Quite a CV. With this experience, you should be well placed to answer this next question: what do you thinks the biggest challenge West Berkshire has faced since you’ve been on the council?

Without doubt the biggest challenge is balancing the budget. For many years the grants we have received from central government have been reducing at a time when the demand for certain services, such as social care, has risen. We have always tried hard to provide a high quality service to our tax payers whilst keeping council tax rises to a minimum – a difficult balancing act.

What do you think is the biggest challenge that West Berkshire faces over the next few years?

The biggest challenge will continue to be balancing the budget as fairly as possible to ensure that our residents receive value for money. Another challenge will be to ensure that keen younger people are able to stand to become councillors. The role does take as much time as someone can give, especially if they have a young family, but a good balance can be achieved.

If you could change one aspect of how local government works, what would this be?

Many aspects of how councils work are governed by legislation, especially the statutory requirements, but I have always tried to ensure that red tape is kept to a minimum and that both officers and councillors respond to enquiries or problems with a lack of bureaucracy to achieve a good and fair result within the law. In answer to your question, I would encourage all councils to be even more proactive and responsive with their engagement with all who contact them and have a single point of contact to help achieve this – something that WBC is pretty good at doing but there are always new opportunities to improve systems.

Imagine, if you can, that I’m Lauren Laverne and that this is Desert Island Discs. What would be the one piece of music that you’d have to have?

I am torn between classic Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and The Planets by Gustav Holst. May I have both, please, to satisfy my diverse tastes?

Since you asked so nicely I think we can accommodate that. And the book?

I am reading a fascinating and wittily written book about the history of British Airways and the role of the College of Air Training written by Stuart Logan, a retired BA captain who lives locally, called The CAT and the Hamsters. I would love to finish it on a peaceful desert island.

And the luxury object?

Other people have been allowed to take their dog so I hope I could have our Weimeraner Lola to keep me sane.

That’s her you hear barking on the beach. Enjoy your desert island, or wherever else your retirement takes you.

Please click here for other Penny Post interviews.

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