Robert Cheesman (pictured) has been Chair of The Friends of Lewes for the last 26 years – when he took over from Peter Linklater in 1994 (saying, he remembers, he’d “do it on a temporary basis”!). Born and bred in the town, he has lived here for all but six years of his life (“From 1972 to 1978, I worked in Cumbria…”). He knows this town.
But now he’s stepping down, and The Friends – a civic society, whose basic remit is ‘to keep Lewes special’ – are looking for a successor to take the reins. Who might that someone be? “Maybe a change agent,” says Neil Merchant, who’s leading the search. “Someone who’ll look at what we’re doing, and what we should be doing. How should we be reacting, for instance, to climate change? Or the crisis in social housing?”
Neil and Robert agree The Friends need people who are “familiar with, and sympathetic to, the town”. But also realists. “I want to see Lewes remain special,” says Robert; “I don’t want to see it preserved in aspic.”
Looking back over his long tenure, one of the things he’s happiest about is “the establishment of the South Downs National Park – though my friend, the late Paul Millmore, did a lot of the legwork.” While he’s fine to see brownfield site development within the town – existing buildings redeveloped and repurposed – he’s emphatic the town should not encroach further in any direction into the Downs.
“Our re-established Trees Committee is also doing really well – which I’m pleased about.”
All of these, and many more, are issues that exercise The Friends of Lewes. A retired civil servant, Robert says a lot of his role as Chair has involved networking with local authorities and with developers. “Good design is one thing we want”, he says, “so, for instance, with the Premier Inn, we saw various iterations; eventually, we got a design we could live with. If you go about things professionally, the people you deal with grow to respect you.”
As the remaining committee turn their thoughts to finding his replacement – as well as a new Secretary, to replace Marcus Taylor (also sometime contributor to Viva Lewes) who’s stepping down at the same time – they want to get the message out that they’d welcome new blood: anyone who wishes to join The Friends of Lewes – they currently have about 400 members – but also, if there’s anyone out there who might wish to play an active part in one of these key voluntary roles?
“We really want to be proactively inclusive,” says Neil. “We’re also proposing to limit trustee tenure to eight years. And we’ve come up with job descriptions for both the Chair and Secretary role, for anyone who might be curious.
“Robert and Marcus are stepping down at the AGM in March. We’d like their replacements chosen by January – please, please, anyone local with the energy and interest to do something for the town, get in touch. We’d love to hear from you…”