Tuesday, 16 August 2022

I adore Henley but can’t believe I’m the Mayor

I adore Henley but can’t believe I’m the Mayor

LITTLE over a year ago, Henley’s new Mayor wasn’t even confident about winning a seat on the town council.

Glen Lambert, who was voted into the top job by fellow councillors at last month’s mayor-making, says he was so stunned to win the
by-election in Henley South ward last May that he had to sit down when the result was declared.

The 42-year-old, who lives in Greys Road with his wife Anna and children Syd, 17, and Julia, 11, was standing for Henley Residents Group against Conservative Yasmina Siadatan, a former winner of The Apprentice.

He polled 1,167 votes compared with his rival’s 691 but despite this result and then a year serving as a councillor, he was equally surprised when his ruling party put him forward to be mayor.

“It was so unexpected,” he says. “I had considered the possibility at some point in the 2020s but never thought the opportunity would present itself so quickly. However, I get on very well with everyone in HRG and hopefully that helped.”

He hadn’t put himself forward because he felt he was not experienced enough and encouraged several colleagues to stand but none wanted to. He was also told that HRG wanted to focus on younger councillors following the popularity of his predecessor Kellie Hinton, who is 32.

“My first thoughts were that it was nice to be thought of as ‘young’ at 42,” he says.

Councillor Lambert is a software programmer for the Castle Trust in Basingstoke, which is allowing him to work remotely from the Mayor’s parlour at Henley town hall on two days a week, so he can balance his work commitments with civic engagements.

He says:  “It’s always difficult juggling it with a full-time job and I’m lucky that work have been very understanding, though I’m keen not to take advantage of their goodwill.

“I think that’s why you generally get older councillors because either they have a more flexible diary or they’re retired without too many other commitments.

“You have to attend all the meetings, read all the committee papers and minutes and attend civic engagements, which is quite demanding and I think standing for public office is the last thing on many people’s minds when they’ve got children and a job.”

Cllr Lambert moved to Henley from Staines in 2007 as he and his wife wanted to settle somewhere pleasant and fell in love with the town on their first visit.

He first stood for election in 2015 when HRG had just lost control of the council after two of their councillors, including the then Mayor Martin Akehurst, defected to the Conservatives and three others — all former mayors — quit to serve as independents.

Cllr Lambert says: “I’d been thinking on and off about getting involved in politics as we’d been here for some time and knew we would never move away so it made sense.

“I was looking for an ‘in’ when I heard about HRG’s problems so I decided I could help them get back on track, which they have done, although I’m not suggesting that’s entirely down to me!”

He lost his first election by four votes but was not discouraged and his victory last year, along with that of new Deputy Mayor Ken Arlett, gave HRG the same number of seats on the council.

HRG then seized control when Conservative councillor Lorraine Hillier abstained from voting for her party’s mayor-elect Will Hamilton, clearing the way for Cllr Hinton to become Mayor.

Cllr Hillier became her deputy and now sits as an Independent Conservative.

Councillor Lambert admits he was “very nervous” during campaigning in last year’s by-election.

He recalls: “Yasmina is a celebrity and I imagined she had a lot of fans.

“However, during the count it quickly became apparent that I had a lot of support. Watching the count really messes with your head because you’ll see a long streak of votes in your favour and get your hopes up but then your opponent gets an even longer one. It’s a horrible rollercoaster where you keep thinking you’ve won, then lost, then won and so on.

“Also, being a by-election, it felt more personal because it was a two-horse race and I’m not used to being the centre of attention and haven’t craved it either — yet here I am now as Mayor!

“When it became clear that I was definitely winning, I was pleased but so shocked that I had to sit down.”

Cllr Lambert says his first year as a councillor has been a learning experience. He explains: “Initially it was quite a struggle to get involved as I’d come in halfway through the council’s term of office and there were many projects already in motion that everyone else knew a lot more about.

“However, those have progressed and, of course, a lot of new things have come up so I feel a good deal more involved than I did then.”

Cllr Lambert grew up in Ascot with his parents, Terry and Alison, and sister Lee-Anne, who now lives in Oxford. His parents divorced when he was 10 and he lived with his father, who retired and moved to Cornwall in 1994 after suffering a heart attack at the age of 47.

Mr Lambert snr is now 70 and living in an annexe at his son’s house as he suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Although he still enjoys a reasonable amount of independence, he needs the company of others and guidance with household issues.

Cllr Lambert briefly attended college to study computer engineering and micro-electronics but didn’t enjoy the course so he took a job as an IT and network support worker for Focus Central London, a training and enterprise council based in Tottenham Court Road.

He had always had an interest in computing and owned a Commodore 64 as a child. He would program games in his spare time as well as creating artwork and animations using Deluxe Paint, an industry-leading graphics programme of the time.

His enthusiasm has rubbed off on Syd, who was shortlisted for the BAFTA Young Game Designers Award in 2016 and took part in a 3D printing project that was shown to a Commons select committee in 2015.

Cllr Lambert’s career took off when he was asked to create an intranet, a type of internal website, for Focus. He had built websites in his spare time.

He met his wife at Focus, where she was a training administrator, and they were married in Windsor in 2004.

Three years later, the couple were planning their move to Henley when his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only weeks to live. Before her death, the owners of the house they were buying allowed the family to eat lunch there so she could see the home where her grandchildren would grow up.

The children both attended Valley Road Primary School and Julia is now in year 7 at Gillotts School while Syd, who also went to Gillotts, is now in the sixth form at Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School in Marlow.

Outside work, Councillor Lambert is a keen hiker and is also a regular customer at Lovibonds Brewery, off Greys Road car park. Last year, he took part in a 20-mile off-road cycling challenge for Pursuing Independent Paths, a charity which the brewery supports.

He opposes plans by the building’s owner to convert it into flats, which would jeopardise its retail area and tasting room.

Cllr Lambert says: “We loved Henley from the start. I remember we visited for the first time on a Sunday and had to queue for 45 minutes on Remenham Hill, which we couldn’t believe took so long.

“However, it didn’t put us off because we absolutely loved the town and figured we could make it work with the traffic by timing our journeys.

“We wanted a home where everything is walkable and Henley fitted the bill because you’re got everything on the doorstep — shops, doctors, schools, footpaths, the countryside and a safe, welcoming and beautiful environment.

“It was everything we wanted and more so once we had arrived there was no looking back.

“We might not be Henley born and bred but we plan to stay because we’ve had a wonderful time here and it’s where our children grew up.

“Anna is now working in graphic design as she’s very good artistically whereas I’ve got more of a problem-solving approach. We make a good team and plug the gaps in each others’ skills very nicely.”

One of his priorities as Mayor will be to launch a replacement for the Bluebells day care service for dementia sufferers, which met several times a week at the Christ Church Centre in Reading Road before its funding was cut by Oxfordshire County Council and it closed in March.

Bluebells’ users could socialise and enjoy games and activities while being supervised by paid, qualified staff and their carers got a short respite break to relax or tackle other tasks.

Cllr Lambert has been speaking with former staff and visitors and has drawn up a plan for a similar scheme. He says he can’t give details yet because certain aspects have to be approved by the council but he believes it would be financially viable.

He says: “Bluebells would have been my mayoral charity had it not folded and we desperately need to bring it back. Because of my dad’s experiences, I appreciate how much sufferers need structure, regular changes of scenery and interaction with other people to maintain a good quality of life.

“There’s definitely a will to restore what was lost and although it won’t be the same from the outset we can at least start something to build on. It would be a terrific achievement to see it functioning again before the end of my mayoral term.

“Dad is okay for now and able to look after himself but he needs people close at hand because every few days he’ll encounter a problem he can’t solve by himself. He also needs a certain level of reassurance just from knowing that other people are nearby.

“The biggest problems come up when he is stressed and anxious — back in Cornwall, he became too afraid to go outside much of the time. He doesn’t need full-time care but that time will inevitably come so I have a very strong personal connection to this cause.”

Cllr Lambert also wants to encourage small businesses to come to Henley by finding a site where small units could be built and leased at reduced rents.

He says: “Henley should be the kind of place where people want to start a business and my view is that a shop shouldn’t be sitting empty for weeks.

“These units could be similar to the YMCA flats as you’d have certain criteria for being eligible and people would stay for a limited time before hopefully moving somewhere bigger.

“It would make such a difference if we could give small businesses that ‘leg up’ but the question is where we’d build them.”

He believes Henley is more likely to thrive if people take a positive attitude and says there are many reasons to be optimistic.

Cllr Lambert explains: “I’ve spoken about this to a number of people, including businesses and other councillors, and it’s clear that there’s no single reason why some units aren’t re-occupied as quickly as we’d like.

“However, I do think people sometimes ‘talk down’ Henley without realising it even though there’s so much to be positive about. The town centre is absolutely lovely and has the perfect layout for shopping as everything is focused on Falaise Square and Market Place.

“It’s brilliant that it’s pedestrianised — I have no memories of the town before that happened but when I see old photos of lines of traffic in Market Place, I imagine the congestion must have been bad. Marlow, for example, has huge amounts of traffic whereas we’re much quieter and more people-friendly.”

He said the town centre could be further improved by creating shared highways, in which the pavements and roads have the same surface but are marked out in different colours.

His other priorities include planting more trees and shrubs in the town centre to tackle air pollution and liaising with Sue Ryder over its plans to sell its hospice in Nettlebed and move services to a “community hub”.

He also wants to tackle the sometimes bitter arguments between the two parties which have dogged town council meetings.

The Mayor says: “I have a few ideas about keeping order but when I open my first full council meeting I will be giving a short speech on how things are going to run this year.

“The one thing a Mayor can do, as chairman of the council, is to lead the meeting.

“You can stand up to reset the discussion when you feel it’s appropriate and I will use that to keep both sides calm, which is what I like.”

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