Our Founder: Graham Bennett

THe many faces of Graham Bennett

With thanks to Sarum Studio for permission to use this image

Graham Bennett is the sparky individual behind the Lunar21 brand. If you have attended our event you know Graham, as his personality runs through the middle of our vision and values and out the other side. Graham is passionate about Derby and developing the city for its citizens, but tends to keep a low profile unless it’s one of our live events. We finally managed to pin him down and find a little more out about him…

L21:  So, what brought you to Derby?

GB:  Back in 1984 I was working as an in-house Architect for a Housing Association in Salford. During my 5 years there I had learnt a great deal and felt that I was ready for a new challenge. I applied for the post of ‘Principal Architect’ with Walbrook Housing Association, and got the job! Q: What was it about Walbrook that attracted you? A: It was one word in the advert, “Innovative”. Walbrook’s aim was to provide ‘needs-led’ housing, rather than standard housing into which people were expected to fit. Housing and services were provided to meet the needs of people with a variety of disabilities, or needing additional support due to health or homelessness issues, as well as the more main-stream provision for families and older people.

L21: What about social housing inspired you to work here?

GB: As a teenager I had holidayed with PHAB (Physically Handicapped and Able Bodied) which mixed people together and showed just what was possible if people could be supported to live independently, rather than left in institutions. I studied Architecture in the early 1970’s, and saw the advent of the 1972 Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act with its design guidance. I wanted to take that into my working practice, which I was able to do through housing associations. Walbrook’s approach was at the very front of good practice, and enriched the lives of so many people, largely due to the commitment and energy of the then Chief Executive, Janet Hammond and their team of Occupational Therapists. We were able to publish detailed design guidance based on our experience, for use by OT’s and architects elsewhere, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Trust.

L21: How long were you with Walbrook?

GB 20 years in total – a long time – during which I had three different jobs: firstly from 1985 as Principal Architect running the in-house practice; secondly from 1992 as Development Director securing funding and commissioning the design and construction of housing; and thirdly, after a massive change to the way housing associations were funded, from 2002 as Business Development Director, creating and establishing the Business Development function so as to generate much needed revenues.

L21: Was Derby new to you then?

GB: Very much so. I’d been brought up in the south-west of England. The secondary school I attended in Exeter had brought us on an Industrial Tour when I was in the sixth form, and I think we got as far as Leicester, visiting factories and going down a working coalmine, crawling to the coalface. Quite different to what I had been used to. But in my teens I had no idea I’d end up living in the heart of the Midlands for so long.

L21: So it was work  that brought you to Derby. With your teenage experience with PHAB, did you get involved in any other voluntary activities?

GB: Three years after starting work in Derby we became foster carers, working with children, families, and social workers. Meanwhile my employment also brought me into contact with a number of other voluntary organisations (as well as businesses and local authorities), and in 1998 I was invited to join the Board of YMCA Derbyshire. This led to me serving on the board of Engage East Midlands (the region’s voluntary sector infrastructure body), becoming its Chair in 2001, when I also became Chair of the East Midlands Regional Assembly. Through this I later became Vice Chair of the Stakeholder Group of the English Regions Network, liaising with central government on behalf of the regions. Looking back on it now, it’s quite astonishing how well the business, voluntary and community sectors were able to work with the national, regional, and local governments, so that voices could be heard.

L21: And your time with Walbrook ended in 2005. What next?

GB: Yes, by the time I left, Walbrook had more than 3,500 residential tenancies, and was providing community based services to more than 15,000 customers. After 20 years and 3 jobs I wanted to work as an independent management consultant, which I did until I retired. To fit with this change, I resigned from the regional roles, and found myself invited by Russell Rigby to join the Derby City Growth Strategy Board – subsequently becoming Chair of the City Growth Executive of Derby City Partnership. All of this generated two more strands. Firstly, the LightSpeed Derby project, created to bring the benefits of super-fast broadband to the city, Championing/Chairing it from 2008 so that, by 2016 (when I stood down) Derby was the UK city with the 3rd greatest penetration of super-fast broadband, with world class connectivity being made available for SME’s and start-ups through Derby City Council’s ‘Connect Derby’ initiatives, and the DCMS voucher scheme benefiting hundreds of SMEs. Secondly, Lunar21, created to help us think differently about the future, and Derby’s place in it. I’m now continuing as the Founder and Champion of the Lunar21 project as a volunteer of Derby Museums Trust.

L21: So after more than 30 years in Derby, what are your thoughts?

GB: Derby is a really friendly place, and a city of practical people. They solve problems and then look to solve more, rather than jump up and down and celebrate. It would be great if all the people of Derby could understand just how amazing this place and its people really are! It would also be really good if some of the positive changes that continue to happen, could also benefit those communities which face so many challenges. If we can find a way to achieve that objective, Derby would be an even better place to live, for everyone.

Since 2008 Graham has worked on establishing Lunar21 within Derby, as the city’s independent nonpolitical thinktank.