Big Interview: Dr Richard Pagett
Dr Richard Pagett is an international development adviser and founder member of Purton Ps and Qs, a pioneering community group that has spent nearly 20 years lobbying on residents’ behalf. He recently announced his retirement from community activism. He lives in Purton with wife Susan, a retired headteacher.
NOT many people have been held captive on an oil rig raided by bandits or hidden from bullets in a near civil war zone, let alone done both.
And the number who’ve not only done both but used the down time to catch up on their duties as English parish councillors? That club almost certainly has a membership of precisely one, and Dr Richard Pagett is it.
As with a lot of people who lead extraordinary lives, the stories have to be coaxed from him and are delivered self-effacingly. The oil rig seizure happened in the early 2000s off Nigeria.
“I was in a room with no windows, but there was a computer and I managed to get online. I can remember running the parish council from the room – I was chairman.”
It took four days for the authorities to restore order and release the captives on the rig. “Because I wasn’t an oil worker I got a ride back in the helicopter with them. I was dropped off in Effurun. It was an interesting place. When the first Gulf War was going on, the most dangerous place in the world was said to be Baghdad, but number two was Effurun. I thought ‘just my luck,’ but it was alright.
“You just walk up to somebody, have a quiet word, wave some US dollars, get a car to take you to an airport and blag your way onto a small plane.”
And the civil strife? That was in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, again in the early 2000s, which was an era of protests by ethnic Albanians and armed civil unrest. The phone lines to England were open.
“There was a firefight outside my apartment window. I had a bullet-proof screen that you pulled down. I remember sheltering under the bed and talking to one of my parish councillors.”
He was trying to persuade her not to resign from a local community organisation. He said: “I remember she asked what the noise was.”
The scientific rigour of his professional life has served him well in Purton Ps and Qs, which was founded in 1994, and during his five years as a parish councillor from 1999. Purton Ps and Qs prides itself on opposing things such as poor planning strategies and coming up with alternatives backed by sound data and logic.
Dr Pagett’s community activism began after he was asked to give a talk to a Women’s Institute branch.
“Somebody said we should have a local environmental group. We had a little meeting and started a little group.”
Early campaigns included one against the spread of landfill. “We had a meeting at the village hall and it was the biggest village meeting in the history of Purton. We had more than 300 people – they were spilling out into the car park.”
The Ps and Qs ethos of giving local people a voice was carried over to his parish council duties. “It’s not a case of challenging everything and being difficult; it’s a case of challenging things that don’t make much sense.
“I’m hoping that it’s well understood now by parish councils everywhere that they need to be more muscular and need to challenge where appropriate.”
Dr Pagett was born in Braintree, Essex, and one of his earliest memories is of the Birmingham orphanage from which he was adopted by a housewife and a sales representative at the age of two.
He said: “I remember the playroom where people came to look and select. I had a brilliant childhood.”
He credits a television show called Zoo Time, presented by Swindonian Desmond Morris, with inspiring him to become both a scientist and passionate about nature. The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, a documentary series following the legendary French oceanographer, led to a love of diving that’s lasted 39 years.
A science degree at the University of London was followed by a PhD there and a post graduate fellowship in Leeds, which involved gathering data about the ocean floor and its chemical and mineral stability. he is the author of a book called Undersea World.
Academic jobs were thin on the ground in the late 1970s, so he embarked on a career as an environmental advisor to governments and other organisations that has taken him to more than 110 countries.
His work has seen him ride in a submarine sold to the Colombian government by East Germany and dodge the secret police in Iran and Libya, among other adventures.
His professional remit covers many complex disciplines, but sustainability and climate change have been especially prominent. Dr Pagett believes available evidence shows that climate change is caused by humans rather than a natural cycle, but regards this debate as far less significant than climate change itself.
Dr Pagett has now decided to withdraw from community activism in order to concentrate on his profession.
“I have a personal target to work in the rest of the countries that I have not worked in before. That’s about 80-something.
“At the moment I’m running at about 10 new countries per year.”
Dr Pagett’s website is RichardPagett.com The Purton Ps and Qs website is www.purtoninfo.org.uk