Charles - the public face of Suffolk

He served in the Grenadier Guards, was called to the Bar, stood for Parliament and owned the hotel in the West Indies where Princess Diana spent one of her last holidays.

He served in the Grenadier Guards, was called to the Bar, stood for Parliament and owned the hotel in the West Indies where Princess Diana spent one of her last holidays. Political Editor Graham Dines meets Charles Michell, the new Chairman of Suffolk county council.

CHARLES Michell is unashamedly technophobic. He doesn't like computers, email, or mobile phones.

But he's going to use this aversion to modern communications to his advantage during his year as Chairman of Suffolk county council - he's going to meet face-to-face as many people as he can.

“I love talking to people and you can't do that sitting at a keyboard at home in Eye or in the council offices,” says Mr Michell. “I find people copy me in to other e-mails - I don't want to know what everyone else is doing or let them know what I'm up to.

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“New technology has gone mad, and as for living in a paperless society, it's all nonsense, I can't read reports on a computer screen, I have to print them off.”

Charles Michell, 67 last month, is definitely one of the old school, a councillor who has a genuine love of the community in which he lives. He was elected to the county council in 1997 but as a result of boundary changes last year, he “sadly” no longer represents the town of Eye, where he has lived since 1967 and which is one of the oldest and proudest boroughs in East Anglia.

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“Eye was just a quarter of my former division but when the changes were introduced, I decided not to lay claim to the ward which embraces Eye. Even though my division is still called Hartismere, I represent Palgrave, Rickinghall, Botesdale, and Redgrave.”

Mr Michell and his wife Sara > have “cornered the market” up on the Suffolk-Norfolk border. Charles is also the Mid Suffolk district councillor for Palgrave while Sara > is district councillor for Rickinghall. He was chairman of Mid Suffolk for two years, 2003-05, and Mayor of Eye in 2001 while his wife is deputy leader of the district authority.

Born in Hampshire, Mr Michell moved with his parents to Berkshire to live with his grandparents when he was just one after their home was requisitioned by the military during the Second World War.

“We moved to Suffolk in 1946 to what is now an old people's home between Hoxne and Stradbroke. My father, who was a property developer, was 55 when I was born and he wanted to enjoy the quiet isolation of East Anglia and also to new start in life. I remember it was one of the last really bad winters, with deep snow. But it was glorious - Redgrave Lake was frozen solid for weeks, and people were driving their cars onto the surface.”

Educated at Eton College, Mr Michell did not go to university, instead doing two years national service from 1956 in the Grenadier Guards. “They were great years and I would have liked to have done a further 12 months, but that wasn't possible. I would have had to enlist for a longer period,” he recalls.

On his discharge, he did two years as a copy writer in advertising in London, then joined the family property investment company and founded an associated estate agency in Islington.

“After selling the agency, I joined Lincoln's Inn at an advanced age, took the Bar examinations and was called to the Bar in 1978. Such a scenario could not happen today - it would be an impossible route into the law.

“I practised general common law and criminal law for 15 years on the South Eastern Circuit in courts from Kings Lynn to the south coast.”

During this time, he stood for Parliament for the Conservatives in 1983 in the solid Labour supporting mineworkers' constituency of Wansbeck in Northumberland, polling 10,563 votes and finishing third behind Labour and the Liberal-Alliance candidates. “They weren't too keen on Margaret Thatcher up there, despite the Falklands War victory,” he says rather ruefully.

In 1962, he went out to St Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla, with a friend whose cousin was the administrator of the Caribbean colony. “Nevis is a wonderful, magical place, a Robinson Crusoe island and I invested in it, bought some land and with a couple of partners and built a hotel.”

Almost as an aside, he says: “We attracted Princess Diana there in one of her last holidays before she was killed.” Three years ago, he sold his interest in the property.

When he retired from the law, Mr Michell immersed himself in the civic affairs of Eye, joining the district council and becoming chairman of Mid Suffolk Citizens' Advice Bureau for four years,

He was chairman of the trustees of Eye Theatre, the tiny 85-seater playhouse which achieved national recognition and where actors were proud to appear for no money just so that they could put it on their list of credits.

But to his regret, the theatre is now dark, gradually falling on hard times and unable to attract even the small audience needed to keep it going.

Now Charles Michell - who says rather modestly that he is “not really a politician” - becomes the public face of Suffolk in the coming year, not merely chairing council meetings but going out and about representing the authority at hundreds of official functions and receptions.

One thing's for certain - he won't be taking a tap top computer with him to keep in touch. And he'd rather receive his invitation to functions by post rather than e-mail.

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