Alan Burnett has been a champion for older people for decades, but events a year ago have heightened his crusade to improve their lot CHRIS OWEN meets him
Nobody who knows him would ever accuse Alan Burnett of being self-centred.
He has been crusading for a better deal for older people for decades – first as a Portsmouth councillor, then as the city’s political leader and also as lord mayor.
He worked as a policy officer for Age Concern in London for seven years and is the long-standing chairman of the Portsmouth Pensioners’ Association.
But nearly a year ago he suddenly had to face up to what thousands of the 60-plus generation have themselves had to confront.
He dislikes talking about himself or his achievements, but his innate modesty slips when he recalls the events of 10 months ago. December 2010, the coldest for a century.
‘Last December was awful. Really awful,’ he said as we sat around his study table in the home he shares with wife Jenny in Sussex Road, Southsea.
‘Jenny discovered she had cancer and had to have a big, eight-hour operation; the central heating packed up; the car packed up, and I had to have a new hip.’
He added quickly: ‘Of course my operation was absolutely nothing to what Jenny went through.’
At a stroke and now into his seventies, he suddenly had deep personal experience of some of the issues he has been campaigning for over all those years – the NHS, free bus travel for pensioners, and not feeling isolated.
‘It’s at times like those that you really value your family and friends. They were wonderful. We couldn’t have got by without them,’ he added as we looked through a gallery of photographs stuck up around his kitchen and which include the couple’s four grandchildren.
Jenny, who is now in remission, pokes her head around the door during our conversation having just returned from a trip to get a sewing machine.
‘It wasn’t a good time, but it appears we’ve come through it now,’ he added. ‘My motto for life now is stay active, keep well and enjoy the precious moments.’
His close involvement with the NHS in the past year has strengthened his commitment to fight much of the proposed NHS reforms.
‘I recognise that the NHS is not perfect, nationally or locally. It needs to be more streamlined, co-ordinated and less hierarchical and more patient-friendly.
‘But I have grave doubts that the government’s costly and disruptive proposals will improve things.
‘I want to avoid the break-up of the NHS that we value so highly and maintain Queen Alexandra Hospital’s core and specialist services and the majority of its skilful and caring staff.’
Back in the 1990s, and as the Labour leader of Portsmouth City Council, Alan became renowned for problem-solving while pounding the streets of Portsmouth. Long-distance running kept him very fit.
Another of those photographs adorning his kitchen shows him with the legendary Ethiopian middle and long-distance and marathon athlete Haile Gebrselassie. It was taken in Ethiopia a couple of years ago while he was visiting a clinic built with money raised by the Portsmouth Pensioners’ Association.
‘Running for me is a thing of the past now,’ he said ruefully. ‘After the hip replacement, that’s all gone. But at least I’ve still got my season ticket for Fratton Park.
‘The care and treatment I had at QA was marvellous. I had a surgeon from one of the services and it made me wonder what on earth will happen to those navy, army and RAF staff under the NHS reforms. It would be a poorer hospital without them.’
The association is now 20 years old and its members are in the process of marking that milestone with the annual festival for the over-60s which ends on October 14.
Alan, as the leader of the council, was instrumental in getting it off the ground.
‘An ex-serviceman called Bill Webster, who was a constituent of mine when I represented Central Southsea, approached me and suggested it because there was an organisation of that kind in his home town of Rochdale.
‘It sounded like a good idea for a key section of society which was poorly represented, so I got the ball rolling,’ said Alan who is now 71.
Portsmouth, like the rest of the country, has an ageing population. There are about 40,000 pensioners in Portsmouth.
‘When you’re young, drawing a pension seems like a lifetime away. But getting older is a fact of life,’ said Alan.
‘You don’t suddenly cease to exist because you’ve stopped work and started using your free bus pass – one of the best things the Labour government did, by the way,’ said Alan, who resigned his lifelong membership of the party over the Iraq war but rejoined last year to vote for Ed Miliband.
‘The last year has made me realise just what older people face – things which I didn’t fully appreciate when I was younger.’