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Interview: Phil Chappell, emergency manager

11 August 2017

I studied geology, and worked in oil exploration, the chemical industry, and local government, before going into emergency management in the Environment Agency.


I’ve worked with emergency ser­vices, local authorities, and utility com­panies to develop and exercise emergency plans to protect people and the environment from the con­sequences of flooding and water and air pollution.


It’s really hard to tackle air pol­lution without interfering with everything that we depend on as a society. Over the years, we’ve got better at regulating factories and power stations, but not diverse sources, like transport.


After the Buncefield fuel-depot ex­­plosion and fire in December 2005, DEFRA employs me to ensure there’s a national air-quality mon­itor­ing service constantly available to respond to major air-pollution incidents, and provide epid­em­io­logical evidence.


We respond most frequently to major fires at large waste sites. These are way above their legally authorised limits, and present a serious threat to people living near by. High-fire-risk waste sites close to homes, schools, and hospitals keep me awake at night, although my regulatory colleagues are doing all they can to get such sites under control or closed.


I’m happy as a public servant, al­­­though the pay is poor, because, as a Christian, I believe I’m here to love and serve others, and protect the environment.


While we tinker with environ­mental protection, no politician seems prepared to tell its population the truth: that the responsible thing to do is to simply consume less
and seek satisfaction in non-­­materialistic ways. Unfortunately, world economics are predicated on ever-growing and environmentally un­­sustain­able consumerism; so it feels like a losing battle.


I grew up in the mining town of Edlington, in south Yorkshire. My father taught at the local com­prehen­sive school, and my mother was a Post Office telephon­ist, but the fathers of my friends worked down the pit, and their mothers worked in sewing factories in Doncaster. The community was working-class: quite poor, but friendly, pragmatic, down-to-earth. My parents were Roman Catholic, which gave me a solid Christian foundation — and a particularly well-­­informed apprecia­tion of Father Ted.


I saw the heart torn out of my community by the systematic closure of the mining industry for political as well as economic reasons. I was at university during the miners’ strike, and returned home to find my elder sister, her husband, and two kids living in our front room. My brother-in-law had lost his job at the pit, and their house was repossessed.


My commitment to Christian living and social justice grew, seeing neighbours caring for each other, a community policing itself, based on its Christian conscience, and wit­nessing the vindictive dismantling of communities in the indivi­dual­istic financial agenda of the Thatcher era.


In the year 2000, Roger Fry, a retired vicar, visited Uganda. His host was Pastor (now Bishop) Ivan Lugoloobi, who wanted to help children in an area devastated by civil war. Roger got myself and a few other people together to pray for and support the building of the Revival Centre primary school in the village of Matugga. I could see it needed more help; so, in 2005, with the blessing of my wife, Libby, and three children, I took on the leadership role.


To me, love is expressed by the things you do, not only by the words you say.


I got a committee together, talked to community groups, churches, and schools to raise interest, set up a child-sponsorship scheme to gen­erate regular monthly income, en­­couraged fund-raising events, set up a website, and started going out to Uganda to visit Pastor Ivan, the staff, and children. I organised the regular shipping of essential goods to the Revival Centre, arranged for groups of young people and others to visit and volunteer, and hosted Pastor Ivan every year to ensure a personal link with sup­porters and Churches Together in Ilkley here.


We added a secondary school, a clinic for the centre and com­mun­ity, a vocational-skills centre, and two farms to provide income. When there’s no state support in old age or sickness, survival for small farmers depends on a ratio of seven children to two adults.


I formalised the work as a registered charity, Give a Child a Hope. Living without hope is the worst a human spirit endures. To see children move from a poor, powerless, and some­times exploited situation to being safe, valued, loved, fed, and, gaining education and skills to support their families with dignity in the future generates hope. Seeing the sick able to return to work, providing employ­ment for 70 staff and trades­people; giving prisoners some civilised time out working on the farms — all creates hope. Improving drainage for a school helps the community by training en­­gineers, raising prices for the farmers, bringing in more money, which helps sustain the school itself.


Pastor Ivan was young and anxious to grow his church, but he’s ded­icated himself to the children, realising that, if they receive real love through the Centre, that’s much more effective mission.


I was determined not to make it a patronising relationship. We’re equal partners. The community gives us things which are not financially measured, and qualities we seem to have lost. They are used to being told “no”, being messed about by officialdom, used to not having things — they have more patience, and persevere to acquire things.


I was using all my leave to go to Uganda, and doing assemblies and lessons for 8000 pupils in 14 schools here. I had to go part-time at work.


I received an MBE in 2012 for both my day job and service to charity, but I dedicate it to Pastor Ivan and the staff in Uganda who work much harder than me, in very poor con­­ditions, for little earthly reward, to provide hope to their community.


After ten years, the workload be­­came unsustainable for me. My children, Hannah, Rebecca, and Tim, now 25, 23, and 20, needed me more, and my parents were getting older. So, with the advice and support of some wonderful friends, I packaged the work up into roles for ten people, and gradually handed it on. Although it was hard, I had to step down to enable others to make the roles their own. Today, I’m an adviser and a general supporter.


My family are all looking forward to seeing everyone in Matugga in September, after a two-year gap. Our loving relationships with them have a value beyond measure. My children have grown up seeing the contrast between the comfort of their family and their adopted family in Uganda.


My daughter and I are learning Nor­­­wegian again, to visit and converse with my wife’s relatives in Norway. And I run on the moors to get fit again while I still can, and spend time with my little grandson, Christopher.


I love silence, when the rushing and striving of life ceases for a brief moment.


My ever-humble grandmother Katy, who loved and served every­one who crossed her path, is my biggest source of inspiration.


I just want people to love and value one another and adopt some high-level identities that unify rather than divide them. We’re all earth citizens, which gives us a host of common interests.


Deliberate deceit for self-gain, and social injustice, make me angry. The rising culture of unrealistic expecta­tion, popularism, exploitation, and disregarding the powerless — and of self-reward by the powerful — runs counter to Christian values, and needs challenging.


Seeing acts of kindness makes me happy.


Our young people and their op­­timism gives me hope. I truly hope they’re gaining their optimism faster than I am losing mine.


I’d like to spend some time with Dr Sentamu, a Ugandan of huge in­­­tegr­ity expressed in the real world. He’s made a stand for people per­secuted abroad, and also on poverty here, and been listened to. He’s also been very engaged with the Church in Sudan, a place I have precious links to. He doesn’t accept his full salary. I’d love to meet him.


Philip Chappell was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. www.revivalcentrematugga.org.uk

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