Standing up for the little man
CHRIS Watts remembers exactly what started him off as a campaigner, and it was nothing to do with trains.
“In December of 2009 when the free wi-fi for all was announced in Swindon, as an IT consultant I had a brief look at it and had some questions. I couldn’t understand how it was going to work.
“It was really my first engagement with the council. I went to a Scrutiny meeting with 17 questions that I thought were important.”
As Chris recalls the meeting, his questions were met not by straight answers but rather accusations that he was some sort of stooge, but the experience flipped a switch in him and made him want to delve further not only into that issue but others, too. “It made me more interested,” he said.
Chris is originally from Derry in Northern Ireland, and is the son of a building inspector and a seamstress. He has an older brother. At the beginning of 1969, the family lived in Rossville Flats, a Bogside tower block which would play a pivotal role in Bloody Sunday and was demolished in 2008.
“My father was English ex-Army,” said Chris. “My mother was from an Irish Catholic background, and living in the middle of Derry at that time was difficult. In 1969 Dad realised it was getting to the point where it was a powder keg, and we were not in the best position to get through this.
“He came to the UK looking for work and he was over here when the balloon and the barricades went up. In those days you couldn’t just pop down to easyJet and get everybody out, so he drove strraight back up, piled us in with whatever could be fitted in a van and away we went.
“The great thing about Swindon was that it was an expansion town. Within a week or so you’d be offered a job, and as soon as a job was offered you went back to the council and the housing was sorted. Within a month my father had a job and we were housed.”
Schooling was also a revelation. “It was a completely different world where your background, religion or nationality had no bearing whatsoever. It couldn’t have been a more ideal situation.
“I think our family is very grateful that Swindon welcomed us with open arms, as it has done with many other communities.”
Schooling at the old St Josephs was followed by Swindon College in Regent Circus, where Chris studied electronics and electronic engineering. He then began a career as an IT consultant, setting up his own business a dozen years ago.
These days he divides his time between that and working as a union rep for the GMB. He joined the Labour Party in 2010, standing unsuccessfully for election in the Eastcott ward in the local elections of 2011 and last year. He plans to stand again in 2014. His experiences during the wi-fi debate in 2009 gave him a taste for community activism, and he went on to play a major role in last year’s successful campaign to persuade council tenants against transferring control of their homes to a housing association.
Fair Fares for Swindon was set up in 2010 to campaign against fares and service standards Chris sees not only as unjust but also damaging to the local economy. An early achievement for the group was organising a delegation of councillors – of all parties – and business leaders to demand that mainline electrification should include Swindon instead of stopping at Didcot.
Whitehall listened, and Chris hopes Whitehall will eventually make the railway companies listen.
“The Government do have a say in regulating fares and what the private sector can charge.”
Chris also has a strong belief in the power of grassroots campaigners to make a difference, a belief reinforced by last year’s council housing transfer poll.
“That was hard work because you were fighting an administration with hundreds of thousands of pounds and access to council staff and officers to try to put their side of the message across.
“We had a small budget but we had feet on the ground and the numbers, and the people they were talking to heard.
“The result was that we had a resounding victory, with council tenants wanting to remain council tenants.”