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THE BIG INTERVIEW: Better Swindon's main aim is to disband
Chris Barry, 68, chairs Better Swindon, a pressure group seeking improvements in the way Swindon Council is run. Last week its proposal to make public consultations more inclusive and transparent became council policy. Chris is married to Liz and is a father of two and grandfather of six.
BETTER Swindon has an ambition that’s pretty unusual for a community group: it seeks irrelevance.
A fellow member recently asked chairman Chris Barry where he hoped the organisation would be by the end of he year.
Chris replied: “To see one or two changes in the direction of greater openness but ultimately to see ourselves as no longer necessary, so that we can disband ourselves.”
But what is Better Swindon anyway?
“People from differing backgrounds who have had differing experiences with the borough council, but all negative or trying to wade through treacle.
“We don’t want to moan or parody, we want to find areas where there’s room for improvement and try to be an influence for positive change. We’ve just done that with the new consultation policy. That is as a direct result of our writing to the council and having a series of meetings where we sat round the table.
“I think the council people suddenly realised that we were actually trying to be positive about this. We found we were pushing at an open door, which is great.
“Another thing we’re about to start a series of meetings on is the standards committee, sparked off by formal complaints made by one or two of our members who found themselves stonewalled.”
Born and raised in Cambridge, Chris attended university there, studying medicine at Gonville and Caius before completing his training at King’s College Hospital in London.
Studying medicine was a long-held ambition.
“I always wanted to. Interestingly, my father’s parents were Christian Scientists and therefore against medicine.
“I didn’t know until after I’d qualified, whereupon he said that he’d always wanted to do medicine, but because they wouldn’t let him he did modern languages.
“He was very successful at it. He was a teacher, became chief examiner, set the papers for O level, all sorts. I can remember at prep school doing articles for the school magazine, where you wrote by hand. I drew diagrams of the various organs and things.
“Doing my hospital training at King’s, I wanted to be a research neurophysiologist. There was a chap called Penfold who operated on people’s brains while they were conscious – using local anaesthetic, obviously – and would stimulate bits of brain and say, ‘What are you experiencing?’ “He started mapping the brain, and I really wanted to do that, but to do that you had to do surgery, and I saw these guys competing with each other and climbing up the ladder, going to the States to do research, marriages breaking up, and I thought, ‘Blow this, I’m going to do general practice.’ “I’ve never regretted it, because it’s about people.”
After three years of vocational training in Brighton, he headed for the Swindon area as a freshly-minted GP in 1975 and served Wroughton and Chiseldon for the remainder of his career. Full retirement came only 18 months ago.
Chris lived in Chiseldon for much of his career and served for many years on the parish council. His stint included the height of the controversy over the proposed development of Coate.
As well as being a family doctor, he worked as a GP appraiser and in senior roles with the Royal College of GPs.
Another job was the chairmanship of the old Ridgeway Downs Primary Care Group, an organisation he remembers very fondly.
“It was a brilliant time because it was the only time that people actually working at the coalface – to use the hackneyed term – were actually making the strategic decisions. We knew what was going on with the patients, and as a GP you see bits of everything – all interactions of your patients with all aspects of the health service. You’re the spider in the centre of the communications web.
“You know what’s working well and what’s not working well. Managers only know what they’re told.”
In his spare time Chris plays the piano. “I play Beethoven lots of times – he always wins...”
Involvement with what became Better Swindon began with a phone call out of the blue from a member of the then embryonic organisation. Chris was impressed by their desire to move on from complaining and actually improve the way the council worked.
Although he readily acknowledges that progress has been made, Chris remains critical of what he sees as certain entrenched problems with the local authority.
“At its most extreme, some of the councillors seem to take the attitude, and have actually said, ‘We can do what we like.’ They stand for election, they’re elected and they see themselves, I think, as ruling rather than serving.
“That’s the most extreme, but there are some really good councillors who listen to people and try and reflect what they say, and probably the majority are somewhere in between.
“Officer-wise and institution-wise I think there’s a perception that the default position of the council is to reveal as little as possible.
“We see a culture of – up until now – involving the public as little as possible.”
Beyond calling for greater openness and accountability, Chris is adamant that Better Swindon has no ideological axe to grind.
“One of our fundamental principles is that we’re non-party political, and that party politics really has little or no place in local government.
“Time and again since I’ve been involved we’ve seen issues of principle being voted on along party lines.”
And his vision for an ideal council, irrespective of which party happened to be in the majority?
“It would be open. People would feel it was working with them. People should feel able to communicate with the council and with councillors.”
Chris added that his favourite quotation was one from American author Mark Twain: “Everybody hates change but progress is good.”