[prev] …never knew existed. For example, there’s this lovely group called the Fuchsia and Pelargonium Society – would you ever have imagined that they existed? They are wonderful! And that’s what I love about Peterborough; I still find things I didn’t know existed, even now, after all this time. We have a very diverse city. I know that Peterborough’s not a place that stands still. There’s always something going on… we’ve got a Portuguese Festival happening, we had a Latvian Festival the other week and we’ve had an Italian Festival. That is fantastic!’
Prospects for business are bright, with CityFibre bringing high-speed internet, the refurbishment of the city centre making it an attractive place for investment, and new developments such as Great Haddon brining new jobs.
‘I get a real sense in the business community of wanting to take the city further,’ says Gillian. ‘The council needs to be forward-thinking and it needs to get out there and seize opportunities – and we also need businesses to do that. We’ve been improving our schools and building the university, things we’ve not had before are starting to appear. There’s a lot of momentum.
‘But Peterborough still has its inherent challenges such as children’s safety. There are some very deprived communities here and need is increasing. The argument from our administration is that building a strong economic base will bring with it jobs and opportunities for everyone.’
COULD YOU EVER BE TEMPTED AWAY FROM PETERBOROUGH CITY COUNCIL?
“I have been contacted in the past by people offering me a job elsewhere. While I confess I’ve been tempted, my heart’s here and I’d never leave. I care about Peterborough – it’s one of the reasons I’ve been here so long.”
Listening to Gillian talk it’s clear she has bags of positivity. Little seems to get her down. ‘There’s always going to be a solution. I don’t feel defeated by anything. But then sometimes you have to think ‘I can’t succeed’ on that, accept that you just can’t win and move on.
‘I have seen people go under, even fairly positive people. It’s usually the weight of things over a period of time. They don’t recognise it and then they spiral downwards. I’ve also seen people go from competence to incompetence. But you don’t give up on those people, because if they have been competent before you can build them back up again. You just need to invest a bit of time, understand how they’re feeling and work out how to help them. That’s why with businesses you just need to give a bit of support. At the end of the day it’s about confidence and self-belief. People can always come back up again after hitting a low.’
Her family are equally as driven. Gillian’s identical sister is a Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall in Oxford. Their mum strove to create the best opportunities for her daughters, sending them to a grammar school miles from home to give them a good start.
‘We both went to grammar school because my mother fought hard for us to go. Then about ten years ago she told us that only one of us passed our Eleven Plus exams. When she asked my sister and I whether we wanted to know which one of us passed we both said ‘no’. She destroyed the results envelope so that neither of us will ever find out!’
It is hard to imagine Gillian ever slowing down but everyone needs some time out to regroup thoughts. For Gillian family time is precious and there’s no better way to switch off than spending time with her daughter. ‘I’ve got a great daughter. Last year I did a parachute jump with her, which was great fun.’ The freefall was to raise money for charity, something Gillian is passionate about. ‘I’ve always got something to focus on. This year I did a mega swim for the mayor’s charities. At the moment I am training to do a walk with Richard Astle [Director of the Greater Peterborough Partnership] in the Sahara for the charity Shine. I have to build up my strength. So last night, for example, I walked from the town hall all the way around Nene Park and back. Exercise is a great way to clear the mind.
Gillian rarely hits the wall. ‘I’ve got a very positive frame of mind, so I’m lucky in that respect. When I’m feeling a little bit tired and not sparking in the same way I know it’s time for some time out. It doesn’t happen very often. You need resilience because it’s a long-hours job with a lot of complexity Despite being so driven she is anything but a limelight hunter, preferring to encourage others towards a common goal. When other people achieve things I write to all involved because it’s the sum of everyone’s efforts. I love it when somebody does better than I do.
‘For example, with the child exploitation cases it’s grim, but some of the girls have been saved and are moving on. I just admire the tenacity of those social workers who work with these girls, hear their horrendous accounts and support them. That is all success to me. And I love to hear those stories; it’s the human stories that really matter to me.’
So what’s in store for the next ten years? ‘I’m not looking to retire – I’m not that sort of person. I still think there are challenges in Peterborough and I want to stay with those challenges at a time when I think the city’s really growing. If I ever retire I’ll always do something. I would go into the voluntary sector, perhaps working with young people to help them with their CVs and get jobs. Or maybe in a library – somewhere where I could be anonymous. Certainly nothing glorious! It’s telling that this long-serving Chief Executive cannot imagine simply hanging up her coat and doing nothing. There are many years’ of service left in Gillian, and with this positive force heading up the council the future for Peterborough looks set to continue its meteoric rise.