Interview: Francesca Skelton, Lifetime Achievement Award 2017
Meet a 'leading lady' of Milton Keynes
In the year that Milton Keynes celebrates its 50th Anniversary, it seems fitting that the winner of Milton Keynes Business Achievement Awards’ (MKBAA) biggest prize should go to a woman who has truly inspired and represented the happiness and wellbeing of our city.
Moving to MK from Cambridge in 1977, Francesca Skelton had been painted an uninspiring picture of the new town and wasn’t overly optimistic about a future living amongst a maze of roundabouts and building sites. 40 years on, she says she couldn’t be prouder to have raised her family here and to be part of such a thriving, open and welcoming community.
We met up with Francesca to find out more about the highs and lows of Milton Keynes’ life and what it means to be crowned as one of MKBAA’s Lifetime Achievers.
You’ve had a long association with MK, what are your highlights?
Following a post-graduate year at the University of British Columbia in Canada, I landed back in the UK in May 1977 to marry John, who had in the meantime got a job at the OU and moved to MK. On the way from the airport to my new home my husband-to-be was at pains to make sure I lowered my expectations of this early Milton Keynes, but I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by spring daffodils, open spaces and the clean lines of new architecture.
Coming from Cambridge, MK was a totally different place, but for me it was definitely a good different. It was a place of great opportunity and optimism. It was a place to start a family, and after 10 years commuting to London working in publishing, that’s just what we did.
With two children in tow, I decided in 1991 that commuting was no longer the fun it had once been. I was offered a job at Relate MK, and jumped at the chance to work in the MK community and in an area that I felt particularly passionate about.
During my 10 years as manager of Relate, I took an interest in the wider voluntary sector and became a trustee and later Chair of the Milton Keynes Community Foundation. This passion for the community has never left me, and I have since enjoyed being Chair of the Board of Governors of Milton Keynes College, a Patron of MK Gallery and am currently Chair of Milton Keynes Arts and Heritage Alliance (AHA-MK).
In 2007, I was honoured to be invited by the Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire to be a Deputy Lieutenant and, in 2015, I felt privileged to be chosen as the High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes. Representing Her Majesty the Queen in supporting our ceremonial county’s legal structures (judiciary, police, probation and prisons), as well as a strong tradition of support for the voluntary and public sectors, I was proud to represent the county and to showcase my home town of Milton Keynes. I held events at Bletchley Park, the OU and The Church of Christ the Cornerstone and it was a pleasure to introduce people to others also working to build a bright future for our city and its region.
You were once quoted as saying that you are ‘fiercely proud of Milton Keynes’, what makes you most proud?
The enthusiasm of the city, which embraces creativity and new ideas; the new and lasting connections and inspiring conversations. We are a city of strong values, but not strong hierarchy. MK has the space that other towns don’t have, allowing people to find their own place here. During my Shrieval year I was struck by the commitment, energy and engagement of so many people in Milton Keynes who shared their ambitions, challenges and achievements.
You play a huge role within the voluntary and public sectors within MK, how closely do you think Milton Keynes’ businesses and the community are aligned?
There is good loyal support from businesses for the MK Community Foundation. I think there is also a lot of respect for the high quality of charities and the broader voluntary and cultural sector in Milton Keynes. Businesses here see the value in strong connections with the community and seem to have a real handle on the need for corporate social responsibility to be a part of the culture of their business.
I’m very keen to see the development of many more ‘City Makers’ in MK; businesses that are passionate about the city and are dedicated to making a long-term commitment to its continued success and growth.
How important do you think the Milton Keynes Business Achievement Awards are to MK?
The awards are hugely important in celebrating the achievements of a wide variety of organisations. They also help to broaden our understanding of the different sectors that are based here. Listening to the positive work of so many organisations inspires us all to raise our own game, and to continue on our journey with more knowledge in and interest for the other businesses that are working towards shared goals.
The awards ceremony itself is filled with so much goodwill and enthusiasm, creating a really positive atmosphere and inspiring and enriching the business community across Milton Keynes.
How did you feel when you were announced as the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award?
I received the invitation to attend the awards with surprise and pleasure, feeling delighted to be welcomed by the organisers in my new role as Chair of the AHA-MK. It was such a shock, therefore, as I listened attentively to Sir John announcing the Lifetime Achievement Award, to suddenly hear extracts from my life and CV and realise it was me they were talking about! I was delighted and humbled to receive the award from my home city and from my peers.
Reflecting afterwards, I thought how lucky I have been to be involved with value based organisations where it is easy to feel passionate and to commit one’s energy. My current role as Chair of the AHA-MK embodies everything that excites me about MK and enables me to formally ‘champion the rich heritage and the creative future of Milton Keynes’. Thriving culture is key to successful cities, as it benefits the economy, skills, education, recruitment, retention, tourism, integration, wellbeing and mental and physical health.
The work on the bid for the European Capital of Culture 2023 is demonstrating to us just how much we have to be proud of, and how much more we can do – MK was born out of vision, ambition and innovation and we must embrace the future with those same energetic values.