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Power to the people: Mark Gale’s Cotswold life

17:28 07 May 2014

Mark Gale, chief executive of Gloucestershire Gateway Trust at the On Toast cafe in Matson

Mark Gale, chief executive of Gloucestershire Gateway Trust at the On Toast cafe in Matson

© Thousand Word Media

It’s 15 years since Prince Charles declared Mark Gale the UK Social Entrepreneur of the Year. Mark now runs the charity Gloucestershire Gateway Trust, which, together with the family company Westmorland, is responsible for Gloucester Services, a new £40 million motorway-service area on the outskirts of Gloucester, due to open in June. At the heart of the project is a commitment to supporting the surrounding communities: 300 jobs will be created; the restaurant and farm shop will use local, artisan-made produce; and sales from the site will generate around £10 million over 20 years for residents’ groups and charities.

Mark Gale, chief executive of Gloucestershire Gateway Trust at the On Toast cafe in Matson, Gloucester in front of one of the Gloucester Services boardsMark Gale, chief executive of Gloucestershire Gateway Trust at the On Toast cafe in Matson, Gloucester in front of one of the Gloucester Services boards

“Around 28 million vehicles a year go past the back of Matson, carrying some 50 million people,” Mark says. “At the moment, they come into Gloucestershire one end and leave the other, so nobody in the county gets anything out of it – just pollution, congestion, accidents and a cost to public services. Our thought was: Let’s turn that around and make the motorway a benefit and an asset for local communities.”

Mark and his wife Jacqui, a lecturer, have three grown-up sons: Alex, a law student, and Tom and Dan, who work in the care industry.

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Where do you live and why?

We live in a converted pub in the centre of Cheltenham but, workwise, my heart has always been in the social housing communities of Gloucestershire. There are real concentrations of need, which often lie hidden, unrecognized: in Hesters Way, in the middle of Cheltenham; Podsmead [Gloucester], which is in the top three percent of the most disadvantaged communities in the country; and some parts of Matson and Robinswood [also Gloucester]. What’s also true is that lots talents and skills lie hidden and unrecognised, too, and that’s part of the problem.

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How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?

I moved to Cheltenham from Swindon 37 years ago to do an HND in computer and business studies. I met my wife at college, and we’ve stayed here ever since. I was originally going to be a computer programmer, but I felt that social housing communities have always had a bad deal from whatever government was in power, so I decided I wanted to work towards trying to change the balance.

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What’s your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?

A perfect weekend, for me, is when communities come together. We’ve just had a fantastic event in Matson, where lots of different groups made scarecrows and exhibited them on the green. Another example is All Paths Lead to the Hill, a project we’re supporting on Robinswood Hill with Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust [www.gloucestershirewildlifetrust.co.uk/allpathsleadtothehill]. That might involve the community in conservation work or even some outdoor theatre – last year, we got Dreamshed Theatre to put on Wind in the Willows on Robinswood Hill. So many people have lost their pathways back to the hill – back to the environment – and we’re helping them reconnect, both for their wellbeing and for the wellbeing of wildlife.

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If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?

We like living in Cheltenham but, at some point in the future, we’d quite like to live more rurally, maybe in the Stroud Valleys. If I had real money, though, I probably wouldn’t spend it on big houses but on enriching my life’s experience and on trying to improve the quality of life for the people I connect with.

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Where’s the best pub in the area?

My two favourites are the Royal Oak at Gretton and the Edgemoor Inn at Edge. I don’t drink a lot but they’ve both got beautiful views and they do nice food.

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And the best place to eat?

I love Star Bistro at the National Star College [for young people with disabilities at Ullenwood, Cheltenham]. My wife was working there as a nurse when I first met her, back in the 70s. The job Rob Rees and the team have done at the bistro is fantastic - and it’s great food. Rob has exactly the same attitude we have: seeing people for assets, not for negatives.

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Have you a favourite tearoom?

On Toast Gateway in Matson [www.ontoast-uk.com], a community coop, which is supported by Gloucestershire Gateway Trust. It sells toasties, from £1-3, but we also use it as a place for training, to help ready people for retail and catering jobs at the motorway services. That pre-employment training, which we do in partnership with local colleges and adult education, helps build confidence in people who’ve been out of the labour market a long time or who might not feel comfortable about going through to an interview. We’re also trying to build up a community infrastructure, by setting up a childcare coop. And Gloucester Services has committed to providing staff transport. In all the years I’ve worked on regeneration, the one thing that’s often been missing has been accessible jobs for local people; jobs that offer career paths. The Gloucester Services project not only provides jobs that will make a real, measurable impact; but it’s also about building a relationship between business and community that will provide benefit for generations to come.

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What would you do for a special occasion?

Go out for a meal at the Daffodil [Cheltenham]. Or, in summer, picnic on Painswick Beacon – a bottle of champagne in the sunshine would be very nice.

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What’s the best thing about the Cotswolds?

As much as it’s a challenge, the contrast between the urban and the rural is fantastic. People find it hard to put a price on the environment but, really, it’s incredibly economically valuable: it attracts so many businesses to Gloucestershire.

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... and the worst?

The inequality.

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Which shop could you not live without?

I’m not that fussed about shopping but, for many, it’s the food bank - and that number is increasing to unprecedented levels. In every village and town in the Cotswolds, there are probably families struggling to put food on the table. But we need to remember that people can only go to food banks two or three times every six months or so, and that’s why helping them find jobs is so important.

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What’s the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds?

Areas like Matson and Podsmead, which have values they can teach more affluent communities where nobody knows who their neighbours are. They share a willingness to support each other through difficult times.

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What would be a three-course Cotswold meal?

I’m no cook! I’ve been described as an ‘urban vegetarian’ and that’s why the project with Gloucester Services is such a wonderful thing for me. I’ve discovered so many new producers at our meet-the-buyer events around the region [to supply the service area farm shop and kitchen]. I love Godsells cheese; I love Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust’s Greystone’s Single Gloucester Cheese; and I love the fruit and veg from the Vale of Evesham.

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What’s your favourite view in the Cotswolds?

In terms of a traditional view, it would be from Robinswood Hill. But one of the greatest things is to see the smile on someone’s face when they get a job or we’ve helped them solve a challenge. People come to us threatened with eviction, with their power supplies under threat, desperate for a job, and not always knowing the way through what can be a maze. When you help them find solutions, you lift a burden, and that is success.

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What’s your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?

I like Stanton and I like the Guildhouse, which we’ve used as a retreat over the years - a thinking place; somewhere we’ve had great conversations about how communities can work together. And, of course, it has that link with social enterprise, built, as it was, in the Arts and Crafts tradition by the social reformer Mary Osborn. It’s now looked after by Andrew Mawson, who I worked with years ago, the pioneer behind the Bromley by Bow Centre in East London. I love that urban-rural connection at the heart of it, which is what we’re trying to do as well.

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Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds

Transport;

Affordable housing;

Neighbours.

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What would you never do in the Cotswolds?

I hate fly-tipping. So frustrating.

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Starter homes or executive properties?

This is purely my own personal view but, if we want to avoid building substantially on the greenbelt, we should consider developing land owned by public bodies, such as Gloucestershire Airport. That would provide opportunities to realise assets, which could then be reapplied for community benefit.

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What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?

Matson, Gloucester; Park Estate, Stonehouse; Blackbird Leys, Oxford; Priors Park, Tewkesbury.

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If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?

A nice Single Gloucester Greystone’s cheese and a tub of Winstones ice cream.

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What’s the first piece of advice you’d give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?

Explore; enjoy the festivals; get to know your neighbours.

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And which book should they read?

Your Money Or Your Life – Time For Both by Stroud author Martin Simon (www.freedomfavours.com/Publications.html), which is all about timebanking [exchanging skills, using time as currency]. As it happens, the Cotswolds are the timebanking capital of the UK, led by the Fair Shares charity, which I chair. There are timebanks in Moreton-in-Marsh, Cirencester, Stroud, Gloucester, Cheltenham, Stratford-upon-Avon and Oxford.

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Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?

I love walking around the Dowdeswell Reservoir on the A40 out of Cheltenham. It’s a Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust space and connects onto the Cotswold Way: a lovely place with water, hills and ancient woodland.

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Which event, or activity, best sums up the Cotswolds?

The cheeserolling and the woolsack races; and I really enjoy the Cotswold football derby between Cheltenham and Oxford, though I’ve been told off for talking football too much!

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If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?

I’d like to spend time in the Cabinet office. It’s difficult to understand some political decisions: perhaps to be present at those conversations would help.

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To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?

It would be fantastic to see a Cotswold carers’ memorial – recognition for the tens of thousands who look after vulnerable people, and who do it for love.

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The Cotswolds - aspic or asphalt?

Nothing stays the same forever but we need to find a way to harness community assets in a way that doesn’t have a negative impact on the environment. Just as there are concrete highways like motorways, we can recognise that there are wildlife highways and community highways. We want to contribute to all of those.

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With whom would you most like to have a cider?

I wouldn’t mind having a cider with Laurie Lee: I’m dead chuffed that this year is his centenary, with lots of fantastic things going on in the Stroud Valleys. I’d also love to have shared a cider with Nelson Mandela. But (apart from the fact that I don’t drink a lot), I’d be happy to share a cider with anyone in Gloucestershire. It’s good to be able to learn from others.

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• Gloucestershire Gateway Trust is at 81 Matson Avenue, Gloucester GL4 6LL, 01452 505001; www.gloucestershiregatewaytrust.org.uk

• For more on Westmorland, visit www.westmorland.com

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