Sudbury’s Colin takes the chair as public face of the county council
Colin Spence’s grandmother was beside herself with pride when, aged 15, he got a job as a junior clerk with Sudbury Borough Council.
You can’t help wondering how she might have felt to learn of his new position.
Last month, after 40 years dedicated service as a member of three different authorities, Colin was elected chairman of Suffolk County Council.
He will be the public face of the council – attending hundreds of functions, events, and ceremonies – until the end of May next year.
Chairing meetings of all 75 councillors is, of course, another key part of the role.
So is promoting and acting as an ambassador for the county, and championing its interests wherever he can.
Colin’s career, spanning both sides of the council fence as member and employee, began as a school-leaver in 1964.
Few people know their way through the channels of local government as intimately as he does.
At one point he chaired Babergh District Council for three years while working in a senior role for Suffolk social services.
He was born in Sudbury, at his grandparents’ home. The house was later pulled down to make way for the town’s new fire station.
Life came full circle for him when the station was refurbished while he was county portfolio holder for public protection.
“I did the opening ceremony in 2011 on September 1, which is my birthday,” he says.
He went to North Street junior school in Sudbury, and the town’s Secondary Modern, leaving at 15 with no qualifications.
“In those days the careers people found you interviews and I was offered three options to look at.
“One was in Frankham’s carpet shop, one was in an office, and the other was with the old Sudbury Borough Council, so I went for that one.
“I remember my grandma was over the moon when I got the job, because at that time councils were held in very high esteem.”
He stayed with the council for two years then, still only 17, got a job with Inner London Education Authority.
Meanwhile he met wife-to-be Jeanette at Sudbury Baptist Church. They married in 1970 and set up home in Little Waldingfield before eventually moving to Sudbury.
He gave up commuting to London to work for Clare Rural District and St Edmundsbury Councils, then joined Suffolk education department.
In 1981 he moved to social services, promoted first to senior admin officer at Sudbury, then a principal officer role at Shire Hall in Bury.
But even as a teenage rookie clerk, in the days of Aldermen Richard Burn and Ray Playford, he had wondered about becoming a councillor too.
“I’d always been interested in the way politics works,” he says. “When I started out I was working alongside some of the councillors, and thought I’d like to see if I could make a contribution.”
Ten years later he was selected as Conservative candidate for Babergh District Council for Waldingfield.
“There were about 20 people sitting in half-circle in the village hall asking me questions. It was nerve-racking, but they chose me.
“When I got elected I was only 26, and was conscious I was so much younger than the other councillors. I felt a bit intimidated, but I thought, I’ve got to make myself speak.”
He never looked back, and stayed with Babergh until four years after being elected to the county council in 2005. He also did two terms on Sudbury Town Council.
In 1998 he gave up his job with social services due to health reasons. “It was a challenging time, as our son Martin was about to go to university,” he recalled. “But I’ve never regretted my decision because it gave me the opportunity to do more council work.”
Martin got a first at Oxford and is now associate professor of history at Cornerstone University, Michigan.
Colin and Jeanette make regular trips to see him, his wife Molly, and their children Caleb, 3, and Eleanor, one.
Visits are usually limited to two weeks due to the demands of the county council on which Colin represents Sudbury East and Waldingfield Division.
His county roles have included chairing Suffolk Police Authority, lead for councillor training, and strengthening links with the voluntary and community sector.
He spends 60 hours or more on council work most weeks, and sees trying to sort out people’s problems as one of his most important jobs.
“The worst thing of all would be ignoring the people who put you there. If you have to say no, you try to do it without upsetting them ... not always possible.
“But if you are caring and interested they can see that. I have always tried to be fair and reasonable with people because they need to be cared for. Sometimes people come to you and they are absolutely desperate.”
Cuts to grants have made councillors’ tasks much harder. “You are constantly having to make impossible decisions,” he says.
As chairman he has to stand aside from the political cut and thrust. “I have to be above all that, he says. “The role is demanding, but different.”
Colin has chosen two charities to benefit from his Chairman’s Fund. One is Fresh Start new beginnings, a theraputic and care service for young children who have been sexually abused.
The other is Lost Chord, which provides trained musicians to work with people with dementia.
Music is one of his great loves. He used to sing in the London-based All Souls Choir.
He and Jeanette both enjoy the garden at their Sudbury home. “She weeds, I supervise, and we share the lawn,” he says.
Jeanette works for Sensing Change as a rehabilitation officer helping people with vision loss, a job she has done for 48 years.
She believes Colin’s qualities make him ideally suited to a role in public life. “He has a strong Christian ethos, and a reputation for being honest, fair, just and principled,” she says.
Colin adds: “It’s a real honour to be asked to be chairman. I never expected it to happen to me.”