As South Ribble’s longest serving councillor, Tony Kelly has notched up an incredible 40 years of service.
Winning 12 elections, his political career has survived seven different prime ministers and seen him be mayor in 1986 and leader of the council in 1995.
The 77-year-old, who represents the Lowerhouse ward in Leyland, was first elected in May 1974 – in the first round of elections after the creation of the council on April 1 (40 years ago today) and says he hasn’t any plans for retirement anytime soon.
Reminiscing, he says: “I was interested in politics at the time, and my brother Michael was on the old Leyland Urban District council, but he didn’t like the idea of it becoming a big authority under the reforms.
“I’d already stood for election for Leyland Urban District.
“I stood twice and didn’t get elected, but when South Ribble Borough Council formed and Michael decided to step down, they asked me to give it another shot.”
And it proved third time lucky for the dad-of-four who has since clocked up four decades on the council.
Coun Kelly, who lives with his wife Sheelagh in Towngate, has represented the same area for his full stint, although the ward boundaries and names have changed a few times.
He had been a councillor for 12 years when he was asked to stand for the leader’s position, and during that time was involved in some major changes in Leyland.
He oversaw the groundwork for the transformation of Leyland town centre, including the creation of the covered market and the Tesco development.
“It was absolutely wonderful to be leader,” he says. “We achieved a lot in that time – the regeneration of the town centre which had been talked about for more than 30 years, the opening of the Women’s Refuge and the creation of the Passport to Leisure – providing free swimming for pensioners.”
“The Labour group asked me to go for the leader position,” he adds. “It was between me and another councillor, and they took a vote – it was very democratic.
“I wanted to do it mainly to make changes in Leyland town centre, which was a big problem at the time.
“A developer had built a little market where Tesco is now. He’d knocked down the old Public Hall and then just left it, and it looked like a bombsite.
“When Labour took control and made me leader, it coincided with a new chief executive of the council starting, and we worked together on the project.
“Eventually Tesco came along, and it really helped with employment and parking issues in the town, and after that the market as it is today was built.”
He also remembers talk of Hough Lane becoming pedestrianised, but eventually that plan didn’t go ahead, and a mini roundabout was built at the top of the high street to alleviate traffic problems instead.
“We realised that making Hough Lane a pedestrian area might mean that shopkeepers would lose trade,” he says.
Another revolution for Leyland under Coun Kelly’s leadership was the introduction of the Women’s Refuge, and handing over council houses to New Progress Housing.
“The Women’s Refuge is something we really needed,” he recalls. “And it’s been full ever since – unfortunately.”
But despite his success as leader, it was Coun Kelly’s stint as mayor that he says has been the highlight of his political career.
“We have seven albums packed full of photographs from all the things we did and people we got to meet,” he says.
“It was a fantastic year and one of the stand-out memories was when we got to fly on Concorde as part of the Lancashire Evening Post’s 100th anniversary celebrations in 1986.
“All the mayors from Lancashire, nicknamed the ‘chain gang’, and dignitaries, including the Chief Constable of Lancashire, the High Sheriff and well-known personalities like Sir Tom Finney were bussed down to London and then we were flown back to Manchester.
“It was a fabulous experience, but I couldn’t help thinking what would have happened if that plane had crashed with every one of Lancashire’s mayors and dignitaries on-board!”
One downside to being mayor, though, was the couple’s hectic schedule, as both Coun Kelly and Sheelagh were still working.
Coun Kelly, who grew up in Hampden Road and attended St Mary’s when it was still ‘one big school’, started as an apprentice boiler maker for Leyland Motors.
He then ‘travelled around a bit’ and worked for an oil refinery in Birmingham, Faircloughs bridge builders in Coppull, and Iddon Brothers rubber and plastic machinery in Leyland, before retiring.
“Being mayor was difficult when we were both working,” he admits.“Sheelagh was a teacher, so we mainly went to evening events.”
“Christmas was the worst though!” he laughs. “I was fed up of turkey and mince pies!
“And they always said ‘the mayor will say a few words now’ which caught me off guard, and I had to ad-lib a lot.
“One nice thing I do remember was when a little girl asked me to dance at an event at St Ambrose.
“All the mums’ and dads’ cameras were going. I enjoyed that.”
Coun Kelly, who has six grandchildren, is very much a family man, and says his wife, daughters and son have always been very supportive of his work as a councillor.
He also sits on the Licensing Committee, and said he never expected to be a councillor for this long.
In recognition of his long service, he was made a freeman of the borough in 2010. “You could have floored me when I received that call,” he says.
“I’ve always seen it as just doing my job and wanting to help make a difference – I didn’t ever expect any accolades.
“I’ve had a lot of support along the way – from my colleagues on the council, my family and friends, and I certainly couldn’t have done it without Sheelagh’s help.
“I do want to stand again next year, but they’re changing the boundaries and I don’t know how that will affect things. I must be doing something right though.”