Derbyshire High Sheriff - Tony Walker CBE

PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 May 2020

Derbyshire High Sheriff Tony Walker CBE

Derbyshire High Sheriff Tony Walker CBE

chris timm

Pat Ashworth talks to the former Deputy MD of Toyota Manufacturing UK who was installed as High Sheriff of Derbyshire for 2020/21 on 2nd April

High Sheriff Tony Walker with his wife Helen at their barn conversion home near AshbourneHigh Sheriff Tony Walker with his wife Helen at their barn conversion home near Ashbourne

It has been an unprecedented start to Anthony (Tony) Walker’s year as High Sheriff of Derbyshire. His installation would have been at Ashbourne Methodist Church on 2nd April and instead took place virtually with him at home in Bradley and key people joining from their own locations by group conferencing. But a man who has been at the very top of the motor industry is well equipped to deal with the additional challenges the role presents in trying times like these. ‘We may have to be innovative,’ he says cheerfully, ‘and think through what added value the High Sheriff can offer in the present situation.’

Tony Walker spent 42 years in the car industry, almost half of them at Toyota Manufacturing UK (TMUK) at Burnaston. He was one of the first employees when it opened in 1990 – the fourth British person to be appointed – and, as head of Human Resources, played a fundamental role in the establishment and development of the company.

From 2001, he lived and worked in Brussels for Toyota’s European operation, returning in 2010 to become deputy managing director at Burnaston for a further eight years. He finished his career as managing director of Toyota Motor Europe’s London office until his retirement in 2019, where his responsibilities brought him in regular engagement with cabinet ministers and civil servants over key issues such as Brexit and climate change.

Always interested in people and how they function as human beings, Derbyshire’s new High Sheriff started his career as a graduate trainee in personnel with the Ford Motor Company after leaving the University of Newcastle with a science degree in psychology. He’d done the sciences at Whitgift School in Croydon, where he was brought up, and praises the school for the good educational start it gave him. A Christian foundation, it also established his allegiance to the Methodist Church, something he is still deeply involved in today.

High Sheriff Tony Walker in his study at homeHigh Sheriff Tony Walker in his study at home

Industrial relations in the car industry have a chequered history, but it is acknowledged to have made huge progress since the 1970s and 80s, when wildcat strikes were an almost daily occurrence at the Dagenham and Halewood assembly plants. Tony worked at both in the 1980s. When he talks about the plant and staff at TMUK, it is with pride, because there has never been any industrial action there.

‘The thing that I am proudest about is that Burnaston has never had a single person, a single minute, out on strike, despite the fact that we are still working in a car industry with a production line and physical and repetitive work. It’s huge progress and great credit to Derbyshire people,’ he says, adding with a smile, ‘And Staffordshire… and Nottinghamshire… and other counties, but mainly Derbyshire! Everybody works together and has a positive approach.

‘We genuinely listen to one another and we share information in a frank way, so that we can tackle anything that might arise together; and we share the genuine concerns of people. We call that mutual trust and respect – a balanced approach.’ Ask him how that’s been achieved and he says simply, ‘A bit of humility and thought from everybody. And responding genuinely, and accepting that there are some issues which we might not like but which we can’t change.

‘Everybody comes to work wanting to do a good job and everybody wants to have meaningful working lives. The role of management is to facilitate all that, to create an environment where people willingly give their best day after day because they want to do it and because it has meaning.’

He loves the industry for its high technology and for its driving of all things related to productivity, quality and cost-effectiveness – ‘We are at the forefront of things like tackling climate change, tackling air quality, tackling changes in how personal mobility is provided,’ he says. He loves cars for their own sake and owns four classic cars himself. ‘It’s my hobby as well. I don’t know what I’m thinking of… Crazy, isn’t it?’ he says happily. As a teenager, he worked with his father on maintaining the family cars, and he still loves doing it.

Having been a Deputy Lieutenant of Derbyshire since 2015, he starts his new role with a broad knowledge of the county and its people, and pays warm tribute to Willie Tucker, retiring Lord Lieutenant: ‘It’s been a pleasure to work with Willie and he has already been encouraging about this post of High Sheriff.’ A highlight has been the privilege of taking part in the annual Act of Remembrance in Belper, and he recalls how moved he had been when asked to take the salute for the first time for the uniformed organisations. ‘So many of them,’ he says with wonder and respect. ‘They have a fabulous parade every year from the Memorial Gardens to St Peter’s Church and then back after the service. What a tremendous range of people taking part!’

He and his wife, Helen, have lived in Ashbourne since returning from Brussels in 2010. ‘People joke about it taking decades to get accepted in Ashbourne, but we’ve never found that,’ he says. ‘We’ve been totally accepted and welcomed and very much feel part of the community.’ Ashbourne Methodist Church is a large part of the family’s life, and Tony is both a church steward and the leader of a £2.5 million development scheme to redevelop the church’s three Grade II listed Victorian buildings for wider use in the town.

‘We’re going to bring them up to date and link them all into one complex, to make them more suitable for community use,’ he says. ‘We want to become a seven-day-a-week church and a community hub. The buildings are light and beautiful and have a good acoustic, and we think we can contribute to the Ashbourne community by developing all this.’

One of the great strengths of Derby and Derbyshire, says the High Sheriff, is the good and co-operative relationship between business, the local authorities and the voluntary sector. ‘Society is not divided here,’ he says warmly. ‘Everybody can speak to one another with respect; people from all walks of life live generally in the same places. Everybody talks about how beautiful Derbyshire is, but I also feel very privileged to live in such a community-minded place.’

Tony’s many interests and responsibilities are testament to his own contribution to the life of the community. Awarded a CBE in the New Year’s Honours List in 2018, he holds honorary doctorates from both the University of Derby and Nottingham Trent University, and is an honorary Fellow of Burton and South Derbyshire College. He has been a governor of John Port Comprehensive School; was the founding Chair of the Lowland Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire Local Nature Partnership; sits on the board of several business, education and engineering groups, and is Deputy President (and a former President) of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).

And he still finds time for his family (three married children and four grandchildren) and for hobbies… gardening, walking, beekeeping, wildlife, history and industrial heritage, and watching football – he and Helen are both season ticket holders at Derby County. How does he organise his life, I ask in wonder, and he confesses, ‘I have to say that I was very, very busy. By the time I came to retire from my main role, it was a bit too busy and a bit too much.’

Churchgoing was always a solace and sometimes work and personal interests have married, as they have in his love of nature. He pays particular tribute to John Malpass, environmental manager at TMUK, for his desire to promote natural diversity and the management of industry within a natural environment – ‘improving all the time,’ he says with respect. And working with the chief executive of Derbyshire Wildlife Trust has been ‘a blessing and a privilege’, as has engagement with the RSPB – ‘I get this interest in nature from my mother, who’d collect and press wild flowers,’ he says. We’re conducting this interview by phone because of the coronavirus restrictions, and I’m enchanted to hear that as he sits at the kitchen table, he can see up to 20 birds on the garden feeder.

In the present circumstances, there’ll be some instances during the early months in office when posts on the dedicated website – www.derbyshirehighsheriff.co.uk – will have to substitute for people being present. ‘Maybe by the summer, I’ll be able to do it in person, and that’s a great thing,’ he says, reflecting on the convening power of this ancient office and its great historical tradition.

And many plans are in place for what he’d like to achieve by the end of the year. One key aspect of the High Sheriff’s role is to support the organisations of law and order, and in addition to the unique opportunity to get to understand and support the police and judiciary, he also hopes to support these forces by raising money for two of the charities with which he is closely involved – YMCA Derbyshire (he is a board member), and ACE Youth Trust, an Ashbourne charity working with disadvantaged young people.

‘My theme for the year is that I’d like to try and help local people, and young people in particular, to fulfil their potential, grow as individuals and have a good quality of life,’ he says, recalling a project, the Toyota Working Assets Programme, which, in association with the YMCA, takes 10 people a year living in the YMCA because of challenging home circumstances and gives them the basic skills that enables them to become useful, contributing members of the community. ‘If I can do that, I’ll feel it has been a worthwhile year,’ he says.

There’ll be fundraising events for both: he’s planning, with friends, to do a High Sheriff’s Peak Pilgrimage, following the pilgrim route from Ilam to Eyam over three or four separate days and hopefully involving some of the young people who are part of the ACE Trust. A concert at Buxton Opera House on 13th March 2021 will be a fundraiser for the YMCA and for the Armed Forces charity SSAFA, and will be by the UK’s premier military big band, The RAF Squadronaires, led by Tony and Helen’s son.

A reception for civic, business and charity people is currently scheduled at Toyota Burnaston for 2nd July, a date that might have to be reviewed. In November, he’s hoping there will be a Strictly Come Dancing dinner dance with Hot House Jazz, also to support YMCA. ‘And after all that,’ he says with pleasure, ‘I think I’ll be exhausted.’

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