South Worcestershire College Student Awards Evening

October 22nd 6.30pm
Evesham College Campus, Davies Road, Evesham

WDC and recently appointed principal of South Worcestershire College (SWC) Michael O’Brien, have formed a firm working relationship in a short space of time. I as chairman of WDC am honoured to be asked to give the keynote speech at this important ceremony. Here is what I said:-

South Worcestershire College
Student Awards evening

Can I first of all thank your Principal, Michael Obrien, for the very kind invitation to this special evening in the academic calendar for the College. It is a great pleasure for both Wendy, my consort and me, to be here in my year as Chairman of Wychavon District Council. Additionally, the Evesham campus of the College is in our ward, so we have a real interest in the success and progress, of the expanding South Worcestershire College.

Speaking of which, this is an exciting time for the College, with its symbolic change of name and it’s ambitions for the future. We at Wychavon, as a key strategic local partner, wish you well on your journey.

Michael and I, met for the first time about a month ago and discovered we share a common passion, NARROWBOATS. Narrowboating to Wendy and me is a holiday pleasure. To Michael it’s home, at least Monday to Friday.

Wendy and I have been boating for many years and have travelled all over the country in our  Narrowboat, Lord Toulouse. Note the word narrowboat, not Barge. A barge is something quite different and to the boater, especially the traditional boater, terminology is most important. There are over 2000 miles of British waterways to explore, and it will take us many more years to even get close to seeing them all. However, if you like slow, relaxing, away from the bright lights, gentle, quiet, holidays, with many a pub to pull up outside and history round every corner, I can thoroughly recommend the British canals. If you are looking for a great value home, with minimal upkeep and running costs, or a stop gap, while looking for a house, as in Michael’s case, a boat has to one to consider.

The role of this college, in the vitality of the town and the community in general, is very important. Our educational establishments are often taken for granted but fulfil an important role beyond just teaching and learning. It is preparing young people for employment and rounded skills which will serve them well in life.

We see this very much happening at South Worcestershire College. For example, Wychavon is grateful to Michael, for a very recent innovative joint initiative, on apprentices, which is seeing up to seven new apprentices from the college coming to the council.

I would like to talk to you tonight from two different perspectives.

Firstly, I am here as Wychavon’s ambassador. Wychavon is a leading Council nationally, currently the best council to work for, as judged by the Sunday Times and was council of the year last year. So, what does all that mean in tonight’s context?. Well, from my perspective as an elected member, I want our public services to function well and deliver services that are value for money. Wychavon can only do that with staff who are trained, committed and who have an empathy with the work they do. So, we are fortunate that we have such staff. Training and development is a key component of our philosophy and we probably dedicate more resource to it than similar councils of our size.

I should say that this doesn’t directly affect your council tax!, as we are the 8th lowest in the country!

The council also has a role, in what the government likes to call Community leaders! This is just jargon really, I prefer to think we help and advise the community and lead them in a way that is best for all of us. We have, over the last year, seen very challenging times in the labour market. Locally, unemployment has doubled, in an area where we have always seen very low unemployment, compared to the national picture. That sets the public sector many challenges. One of which, is seeing what we can do to help the local economy. We are very proud of our innovation at Wychavon and I thought I would just mention some examples of what we have done recently:-

In January 2009, we launched the Wychavon Business Support grant.  The scheme, is aimed at start-up businesses taking vacant premises in Wychavon’s town centres.  It offers £750 to either offset against business rates, or as a contribution to start up costs.

Currently, 12 companies have benefitted from this grant and 2 more are in the process of applying. 
In a joint venture with the Evesham Market Towns Partnership and Evesham Town Council, we produced the Evesham investment pack. This pack included facts and figures about Evesham and was sent out to hundreds of companies around the country, in an effort to encourage companies to invest in Evesham and create jobs locally. In total some 3000 packs have been produced and continue to be a valuable source of information, for prospective employers.

 We continue to support business networking groups such as AGENDER, VECTA, and the Berry Hill Forum organising with Business Link. Topical workshops and seminars, help provide businesses with the skills and techniques to survive the recession.

 You might be surprised to learn, that we get involved in assisting growers, in dealings with the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, and being significant contributors to a revised protocol. Not what you might think of as a normal council function. In Wychavon the rural economy is key to our local area, and it is as important to us, and we put as much effort in, as we do the more traditional council functions of housing, planning and parks oh and of course, rubbish collection.

 Wychavon has pioneered some very beneficial projects in recent years. We built, and paid for, a supermarket in Droitwich, on council owned land. Similarly, in Pershore, we built a hospital. Both of these projects are highly valuable to the local communities and the council benefits from long term lease arrangements, which are giving a much higher return financially, than we could expect from conventional investments. This extra income is available for the council to use to benefit the community. Win, win!

 An area very close to my heart, is our events Programme.  Wychavon has, over the last few years, built up an enviable range of attractions. Envied that is, by many other councils. This year our Asparagus Festival, now known and recognised as the British Asparagus Festival,   attracted media coverage worth £500,000, had it been paid for advertising.  The launch alone, included live coverage from the BBC and Sky, on their flagship breakfast programmes. Evesham hosts the biggest fishing contest in the country, attracting almost 50,000 people this year. We have a hot air balloon festival, going from strength to strength. I am pleased to say I started that one 6 years ago. River Festival, Morris Dancing, where do they get all those people called Morris? Over the years Wychavon have supported and tried many ideas, we had 2 Eastern festivals that were very successful and then came the floods and the major restaurants and retailers involved were unable to continue but we are looking at bringing that one back.

 In 2009, we helped promote the first World War 2 gathering at Ashdown Farm. Another very different event, that attracted enthusiasts and the general public from all over the country.

The Plum Festival this year, for the first time, was a one month long celebration culminating in 14,000 people coming to Pershore on Plum Fayre day, August bank holiday Monday . Salt Day in Droitwich, an event that covers most of the town centre, attracted at least 10,000 people. 

All these events raise awareness of our lovely district, bring people into the town centres, and many businesses see their takings increase as a result. Tourism is a vital and expanding part of our economy.   

Wychavon facilitated high profile town Walkabouts, with our MPs, leading business figures and representatives from Advantage West Midlands.  These led directly to the Skillsmart, ‘Location Model’ programme, and Droitwich Spa and Evesham were the first two in the region to benefit.

The program, essentially a survey of our independent shops, their customers and visitors to the town, was undertaken, to see if our retailers could benefit, from test shopping and customer awareness. This has resulted in a glowing report for Evesham, and last week’s Journal, reported proudly Evesham’s 12th  place, out of 90 town centres nationally. 

Secondly a more personal view. Not all of us are good academically. I am certainly not. BUT, we are all good, and have skills, at subject’s and topics we are interested in. In my day, at the end of junior school, pupils took a test, called the 11 plus. The result of this one test determined whether that pupil went on to grammar, or secondary modern school. ‘I was not even bright enough to take the test!’ I went to Heronswood Secondary Modern School, in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire. I did reasonable well, attaining 5 certificate’s of secondary education. My highest grade was ART. Using my hands to be creative, was a skill. When I left school, I got a job in retail. A photographic company, called Wallace Heaton in Bond street, London.

Later Wallace Heaton was taken over by Dixons. I started life in the stockroom. Tidying, cleaning, checking stock, accounting for stock, making the tea. I loved it, and I was good at it. A bit like Grace Brothers, I was only allowed on the shop floor at certain times. However, if one of the salesmen wanted some stock for a customer, I would take off my brown overall, put on my pin striped jacket and take the item to them. I lingered and watched and listened, this is where I learned my trade. I also went back to school, something I said would never do. I studied photography, one night a week, at Edgeware polytechnic. I suddenly discovered I enjoyed learning. I enjoyed being with like minded people and learned from them. During this time I moved to Cardiff but carried on with my studies there. After 3 years it was exam time. 2 Written and 2 practical. Guess what, I passed the practical and failed both the written. A pass was success in all 4 exams, so I had to take the written again and carried on studying for a further 12 months. Second time around, I passed and I am very proud of my City and Guilds in General Photography.

My career progressed, with promotion to other stores around the country. I got married and had children on the way. Up routing the family each time we moved, and I have moved 10 times since I left school, was always a challenge but it helped our family advance. I moved companies 4 times, always on the look out for a new interesting opportunity. In 1990, the company I was working for at the time, interestingly during a recession, was laying off people and the writing was on the wall for me, and many others. Employment opportunities were difficult. Time to have a go on my own. A colleague, who I had known for 20 years and myself set up That Camera Place, here in Evesham, some of you may remember it. You’re mad! Said the bank manager at the time. You want to open a photographic shop, in Evesham? You’re really mad! Still no for worries me, I will have your house if you go bust. A lot of hard work and late nights followed, and we did well. 3 shops and 16 years later, we sold our little empire to mighty Jessops. During that 16 years, I also got involved in local organisations and was invited to join the town council.

I enjoyed the experience and felt I was doing something worthwhile, so stood for election in the town and district councils. I have now been involved for just over 10 years. I had the honour of being Mayor of Evesham in 2004/5 and as you can tell from the bling, it has brought me here to you tonight.

I am very much enjoying the challenge of Chairman, and hopefully my story shows, really enjoying something, and using enjoyment as a skill, can bring just as many rewards, as being the brightest, cleverest, captain of industry.

 Tonight, above anything else is a celebration for the effort, achievement and progress of students, it is your evening. This College provides a great mix of vocational and academic study, some of you have been on very ‘hands on’ courses, courses which, like mine all those years ago, give students a great insight and point a direction for your future.

The proof of the pudding however is here tonight. All the college students have achieved great distinction in their different courses and all you parents and supporters in the audience are right to feel very proud of them

Well done, congratulations to you all. Thank you for listening.

Pictures were a little difficult but here are some of the ‘action’


Photographer Chris Bridgewater takes photo’s of the students as a momento of the evening


Me, Wendy and College Principal Michael O’Brien
Picture courtesy of Chris Bridgewater – CJB Photography – Tel: 01562 884531 –


Michael O’Brien leaves the lectern having introduced me.


they do say my best side, is my backside!


All the students above are worthy award winners. The evening ended with a splendid buffet supplied by college students.


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