Chief Executive’s speech at our Centenary press launch

Chief Executive’s speech at our Centenary press launch

Transcript of the speech given by our Chief Executive, Kirsten Bennett, at the press launch for our Centenary celebrations

To prepare for our Centenary, we have been looking back through our archives and this has given us the chance to see how far we have progressed as an organisation. Our hope for this year is that by using the connections between the past and present, we can look to the future.

We are reminded of what it is like to live in Cambridgeshire today by the recent Quality-of-Life Survey published by Cambridgeshire County Council in October.

You will be glad to know that Cambridgeshire is a good place to live, with 72% people feeling very high levels of happiness and well connected to their local communities; this is in line with the national average.

However, this is less likely to be the case for specific groups with a stark finding that isolation and loneliness in Cambridgeshire is far higher than national average. Residents reported concerns about cost of living, with nearly half reporting cutting back on heating and just over a quarter said they were cutting back on essential food.

It is worth reminding ourselves that two thirds of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough’s population live in what are classed as rural settlements – our market towns and 280 parishes. Rurality and isolation make quality of life concerns far more acute for those that live in these areas especially where there is the absence of support networks, transport options and people are at a distance from access to essential services. We also know that in some areas of the County there are lower than national average wages and higher rents paid for housing.

Our role as advocates for rural communities is just as relevant today. What is evident is that we see a cycle of the same challenges now facing rural residents as we have been supporting over the last 100 years. I will share with you some examples linking our past work to the present to illustrate this.

Starting with rural housing, in the 1920s we were concerned about the condition of people’s cottages and lack of suitable housing for many in rural areas. Our work to sustain communities through building, quality, and affordable housing is ongoing and just as important today. Working together, the Cambridgeshire Rural Affordable Housing Partnership has developed 440 rural affordable homes across 40 rural exception sites; a record we are very proud of. Going forward the Government is keen to scale-up locally led schemes through the ACRE Network and we welcome the recent Defra funding to enable us to increase our enabling work to build more affordable homes that are urgently needed.

As another example, the first village halls were often reading rooms -somewhere for people to go to keep warm with access newspapers/ books and companionship. It occurred to me last winter that these same community spaces were once again opening their doors as ‘warm hubs’ for people to come together for companionship and gain support with health and wellbeing, energy, and financial advice. There have been over 40,000 visitors to these hubs which are now established as year-round provision and this winter we have new hubs opening their doors across 40 communities. Taking that support further, we are about to employ new community link workers – Village Agents – who will support people through listening to their needs and then connecting them with the necessary health or care services, as well as community support networks.

During wartime, the charity supported great community efforts to keep people fed, with us helping establish rabbit and pig clubs and produce collection. Today, working with our volunteers, we continue to keep people fed through the opening and running of food banks, community pantries and local community meals organised from the community hubs.

As a final example of linking the past to the present is charity’s early support of the collaboration of rural industries, encouraging rural craft businesses to work together and finding new markets for their goods. This seemed very forward thinking in the 1920s. Today our economic work continues along similar lines of collaboration between business and communities. We now work with a more diverse range of businesses having invested over £5m from EU-funded LEADER programmes to sustain and create rural jobs. Today, we support models of community-owned business, and these are increasingly needed to provide rural services such as shops and pubs that are being lost from communities.

I do wonder what our founders would consider about our world in rural Cambridgeshire today. Did they imagine we would be doing similar work 100 years later or did they think we would have resolved the rural concerns they identified?

This year gives us the opportunity to learn from the past and present and look forward to the future. This includes working with all our stakeholders to write a new strategy for the organisation to ensure that we can effectively support rural communities into the next decade.

We will undertake a Centenary Rural Survey that will give an up-to-date picture of what living in a rural community looks like in 2024. All parish councils will be sent a copy of the survey, as well as us holding focus groups with a diverse range of people who live in rural communities.

Working in collaboration with local authorities and other partners, we will organise a rural conference in each district locality. Looking to the future, the Rural Services Survey results will be revealed and the voice of rural communities heard. These will enable us to make plans for the solutions and funding support needed for the years ahead.

We are already preparing for Village Halls Week (18-24 March) where we will focus on celebrating 100 years of village halls by holding a Centenary Village Halls Network Conference, where we will look at the future of village hall management.

Rural Housing Week in July we will be an opportunity to showcase the work undertaken through the Cambridgeshire Rural Affordable Housing Partnership.

Our popular Staying Connected online seminars will celebrate by invite guest speakers to spotlight the challenges ahead bringing together learning around best practice, case studies, latest research findings and new innovations.

Our mobile exhibition will be completed by March and will be available to book by communities for display at community events, community hubs, village halls, libraries, and museums.

Lastly, we will be holding a Celebration Summer Party in Ely on 13June, which will be an event where all our supporters, members, staff (old and new) and trustees can come together to celebrate the work of the Rural Community Council.

As you can see, this is just the start of an exciting year ahead and we welcome everyone’s memories and support with not only celebrating but also continuing the success of Cambridgeshire ACRE.

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Adele Furness

Village Agent

Adele joined the Cambridgeshire ACRE team in 2024.

Prior to joining, Adele was involved in many business sectors: medical sales, beauty, military and the postal service.

She is excited to connect with the local communities in Cambridgeshire through her role as a Village Agent and to work closely with our volunteer-led Community Hubs. 

Toby Frith

Digital Marketing Degree Apprentice

Toby joined the team in 2021. As our Digital Marketing Degree Apprentice, his role is to implement our digital marketing strategy  generating interest in our work and helping to build the organisation’s social presence.

From January 2022, Toby will be undertaking a Digital Marketing Degree at Anglia Ruskin University alongside working for Cambridgeshire ACRE.

Jenna Brame

Senior Rural Housing Enabler

Jenna joined the Cambridgeshire ACRE team in 2020. Her role involves leading our rural housing partnership, developing affordable schemes on rural exception sites.

Jenna has a BSc in Geography from University of East Anglia and prior to join the organisation worked as a Graduate Housing Strategy and Enabling Officer at West Suffolk Council. Since joining Cambridgeshire ACRE she has become an accredited Community Led Housing Advisor.

Alison Brown

Head of Business Services

Alison has been Head of Business Services at Cambridgeshire ACRE since 2007. Day-to-day Alison is involved in everything from developing new opportunities for Cambridgeshire ACRE, shaping the direction of existing projects, overseeing the delivery of advice and information to our members and working with our Board.

Prior to joining Cambridgeshire ACRE, Alison worked in the private sector holding roles in executive support and facilities management. Alison has BSc (Hons) in Sociology from University of Southampton. 

Rachael Brown

Senior Community Development Officer

Rachael became part of the Cambridgeshire ACRE team in 2006, initially running a gardening project and then moving to her current role as our Senior Community Development Officer where she leads a number of our environmental projects.

Rachael has a BSc in Horticulture from Bath University and, upon leaving there, put her skills to work in the private sector before becoming a primary school teacher for several years.

Lisa Chambers

Community Development Officer

Lisa became part of the Cambridgeshire ACRE team in 2015 taking on the role of Community Development Officer. Part of her week is spent providing expert support and advice to the County’s community-run buildings with the remainder being spent working as a Village Agent in the South Cambridgeshire area.

Prior to joining Cambridgeshire ACRE, Lisa was the County Councillor and Cabinet Member for Education and Skills at Suffolk County Council. 

Linda Watson

Finance Officer

Linda joined Cambridgeshire ACRE in 2005. Her role as Finance Officer sees her administer all the financial processes of Cambridgeshire ACRE, ensuring up-to-date and accurate financial information is available at all times.

Prior to joining the organisation, Linda spent over 20 years working within the charity and the commercial sector gaining wide-ranging financial administration experience.

Annie Blair

Chairperson and Trustee

Annie became a trustee of Cambridgeshire ACRE in 2017 and took on the Chairperson role shortly afterwards. She has been a volunteer for community and parish organisations in the village of Folksworth and the surrounding area for over 30 years.

Professionally, she had a career in the financial and insurance sectors before changing vocation and training in the educational sector as an arts educator / practitioner working for both Anglian Ruskin University and Peterborough Regional College.

David Gibbs

Trustee

Dave became a trustee of Cambridgeshire ACRE in 2017. In his professional life, he was a community development worker specialising in finance and external funding. Since moving to the Fens, Dave has taken on a number of parish clerk roles, as well as being a trustee of Newton Village Hall.

Terry Jordan

Vice Chairperson and Trustee

Terry became a trustee of Cambridgeshire ACRE in 2011. Terry is currently the Clerk and Responsible Finance Officer for Wisbech Town Council in Fenland and has worked in local government in Cambridgeshire for more than 40 years. 

Terry is also a trustee of CP Learning Trust.

Julie Spence OBE CStJ QPM

President

Cambridgeshire ACRE’s current President is Julie Spence OBE QPM. In 2017, Julie was appointed by Her Late Majesty The Queen as the 37th Lord-Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire, the Sovereign’s representative in the County.

Professionally, Julie trained as a teacher before joining the Police in 1978 and being appointed Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire in 2005. In the Queen’s 80th Birthday Honours, Julie was awarded an OBE for her management of complex and contentious organisational issues and leadership contribution. In 2008 she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Laws by Anglia Ruskin University: then in the 2010 New Year’s Honours list she received the Queens Police Medal (QPM). In September 2010, after a 32 year career, she retired from policing.

Jessica Sellick BA (Hons), MSc, PhD

Trustee

Jessica joined the Board of Cambridgeshire ACRE in February 2022. In her professional life, Jessica works at Rose Regeneration where she undertakes projects on behalf of Government, Local Authorities, charities and community groups across the UK. She is also a senior research fellow at the National Centre for Rural Health and Care (NCRHC).

She is a Chartered Geographer accredited by the Royal Geographical Society; a Fellow of the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce); and a member of the Institute of Economic Development. In her spare time she sits on the board of a housing association that supports older and vulnerable people across Lincolnshire.

Angela Stibbs

Village Agent

Angela joined Cambridgeshire ACRE in 2024. Prior to joining the team, Angela worked as an Estate Agent for over 35 years. 

After leaving her role in property, she then worked as a gardener for five years, enjoying the slower, but still rewarding, pace of work.

Ray Vidler

Treasurer and Trustee

Ray joined the Board of Cambridgeshire ACRE in February 2022. He has been a member of Weston Colville Parish Council, which he currently chairs, since 2008. He is a fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers and holds an MBA.

He has enjoyed living in rural Cambridgeshire for over 35 years and is keen to be able to support an organisation that aims to sustain, support, and develop rural communities.

Prior to retirement, Ray was a general manager responsible for aspects of the operation of a large food company based at Histon, having previously been the site’s chief engineer. During his working life he gained lots of experience of managing large multi-million-pound projects and developed a good understanding of finance and human resource management.

Stephanie Baxter

Trustee

Stephanie joined the Board of Cambridgeshire ACRE in February 2022.

Stephanie is a strategic thinker, utilising housing policy to deliver social justice and poverty alleviation. She is passionate about community led housing and how this can enable local communities to be part of their own solutions. Stephanie has worked in rural local authorities for the past 16 years, with knowledge of planning and housing policy. She is a Trustee with her local foodbank and an active member of her local church.

Sarah Severn CBE

Trustee

Sarah became a trustee of Cambridgeshire ACRE in 2023. In her professional life, Sarah worked at DEFRA, supporting Rt Hon Lord Benyon, the Minister for Rural Affairs. She led on rural policy and the government’s commitment to thriving rural communities.

She has a BA (Hons) from the University of East Anglia in Economic and Social History and Sociology; an MBA (Cranfield) and the APM-accredited Project Leadership Programme (Infrastructure and Projects Authority). Sarah was awarded her CBE in 2013 for services to public protection. 

David Olney

Trustee

David completed an MBA at City University Business School, following an engineering first degree at Loughborough University. He has considerable defence acquisition experience culminating in his role as Chief Operating Officer at the Defence Infrastructure Organisation where he was responsible for delivering proposals on the management of the estate as part of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010.

Subsequently, David had been Managing Director within the Babcock International Group responsible for 4 businesses ranging from media and education to infrastructure both in the UK and Brazil. David is a member of the Institution of Engineering and Technology as well as a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

David is a Non-Executive Director of WaND Consulting and a Trustee of Thedwastre Education Trust.

Kelly Bloss

Village Agent

Prior to joining Cambridgeshire ACRE, Kelly worked as a self-employed photographer, capturing wedding days and working within the studio photography sector. She also worked as a bookkeeper/manager of a local accounting business.

Being a creative individual, Kelly studied Art & Design including Photography at a GNVQ level, securing her first job as a portrait photographer working in a studio at just 19 years old. 

Karen MacKelvie

Natural Heritage and Communities Officer

Karen studied Environmental Biology at St Andrews University and holds a diploma in Therapy at Warwick University. She lived and worked on Shetland soils for 25 years before moving to North London to work as a Nature Recovery Ranger. 

Her internationally-acclaimed ‘Nature Prescriptions’ project (RSPB Scotland) is an example of the innovative way she enjoys working. Karen looks forward to inviting people back into deeper connection with the wonderful wildlife of the Fens. 

Lucille Bingham

Village Agent

Lucille joined Cambridgeshire ACRE in 2024, as part of the team of Village Agents, covering the Fenland area. 

Prior to joining Cambridgeshire ACRE, Lucille managed her local village Post Office for over 17 years, a role she was passionate about. She has also been heavily involved with a village hall committee, organising many social events, as well as continued fundraising for charities. 

Rachel Mason

Community Wellbeing Manager

Rachel joined the Cambridgeshire ACRE team in 2024 and leads the development of our community wellbeing work. She manages the organisation’s team of Village Agents who support individuals with their health wellbeing needs.

Rachel has an extensive background in the charity sector, with over 20 years’ experience of developing advocacy and involvement services in Cambridgeshire and of managing people. More recently, she was national Practice Lead responsible for the continuous improvement and quality of advocacy practice for nearly 400 advocates. Rachel is a BA (Hons) Psychology graduate from University of Bedfordshire.

Tate Oulton

Natural Heritage and Communities Officer

A laboratory research scientist by training, Tate worked for over seven years in the field of infectious disease and immunology before setting his sights on a career in conservation. Eight months spent as a full-time volunteer officer with the Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire provided an immersive and highly varied introduction to life as an ecological conservationist, where he developed skills in conducting biological surveys, research and monitoring of habitats, land management, and practical conservation methods among others.

Tate has a particular interest in regenerative agriculture, and the role farms have to play in response to the climate crisis and environmental degradation. He is highly involved with a local farm cluster aiming to promote and encourage more sustainable and wildlife friendly practices on agricultural land.

Kirsten Bennett

Chief Executive

Kirsten joined Cambridgeshire ACRE in 2000 and then quickly assumed the role of Chief Executive from 2001. She oversees the work of the charity and puts in place our plans and strategies for the future. Day-to-day, Kirsten develops our relationships with new partners, explores new opportunities and oversees all aspects of the charity’s work.

Before working at Cambridgeshire ACRE, Kirsten attended Writtle Agricultural College gaining a BSc in Agriculture and then completed a Masters in Countryside Recreation Management at Sheffield Hallam University.