Colin Saunderson describes himself as “an ordinary accountant”. But saving his town’s 100-year-old community centre, publicly shaming a housing developer into providing a youth football pitch and leading a campaign to give local children a safer route to school would suggest otherwise – especially for a man of 77. “I do read about accountants who have done wonderful things,” he says. “I’m one of the very ordinary folk who do stuff that isn’t quite so interesting – but hopefully it does some good.”
Saunderson had long sought a way to serve his community but it was retirement 10 years ago that gave him the time. “A lot of people don’t get involved in their community because they don’t think they can change anything, particularly if a decision has been made. I fight for what I believe in and don’t take no for an answer. I’m very determined, although,” he adds with a smile, “I am aware the flip side of determination is stubbornness!”
But it seems Saunderson has always taken an interest in the world around him. After an early accountancy career with east London firm Oliver Sunderland and the London office of Aberdeen firm James Maston & Co, he moved into commerce.
“I became more a management accountant,” he says, “but the work was extremely interesting. I worked for Sainsbury’s, a toy manufacturer, a vehicle body-builder, the University of Cambridge – even a defence company that made bombs. I don’t think any accountant can do their job properly unless they understand business – I learned a lot about a lot of industries.”
And when he did give up the day job in 2006, he was determined to find a new role. “I joined a political party and intended to deliver a few leaflets. But I got involved in local issues and got a reputation for getting things done – or at least trying to.”
That included the fight for the football pitch, which was won after Saunderson learned where the developer was holding its AGM and travelled 150 miles to harangue the firm’s directors in front of their own employees. He is not afraid of a fight. “It’s about working out which ones you can win,” he says. “You have to have people behind you – and in many cases, such as saving the community centre, it’s not just me, I’m only one in a group of campaigners. But you have to pick your battles carefully.
You have to work out early on if you’re just banging your head against a brick wall, otherwise you get frustrated.”
But Saunderson’s not just about righting wrongs. He also chairs the local allotment association, whose efforts recently secured St Ives’ first-ever gold medal in the Royal Horticultural Society’s Anglia in Bloom competition. “That was a proud moment for us all,” he says. “That prompted me to think: ‘Maybe I’ve done some interesting things after all.’”
And, along with his partner Norma, he intends to keep doing them. “I think you have a duty to be useful as long as you are able,” he says. “You see these poor old souls bent over on their mobility scooters. That’s not us yet, and we are fortunate to be so active. So it’s essential to make the most of it.”