The National Rural Conference 2023 - Speaker Biographies

Derek Thomas MP, MP for St Ives and Chair of the APPG for Rural Services

Derek Thomas was first elected as the Member of Parliament for the constituency of West Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly (St Ives) in the 2015 General Election, becoming the first Conservative MP for the area since 1997. He was re-elected as MP in 2019 with an increased majority.

Derek sits on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee having previously sat on the Environmental Audit Committee, the Work and Pensions Select Committee, the Health and Social Care and the Science and Technology Select Committees. Derek is an officer and member of numerous of APPGs which includes the Rural Services APPG for which he is the Chairman.

The Rt Hon Lord Benyon, Minister of State (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 

The Rt Hon Lord Benyon was appointed Minister of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on 30 October 2022.

He was previously Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from 13 May 2021 to 30 October 2022.

Lord Benyon was raised to the Peerage in January 2021.

Political career
He was Conservative MP for Newbury from May 2005 to November 2019.

Richard Benyon was Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Natural Environment, Water and Rural Affairs from May 2010 to October 2013.

He served as Opposition Whip from 2007 to 2009 and as Shadow Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from 2009 to 2010.

Career outside politics
Following a career in the army, where he served with the Royal Green Jackets from 1980 to 1985, Richard qualified as a chartered surveyor and ran a business which included farming, forestry and the management of rural and urban housing.

Simon Fell MP, MP for Barrow and Furness and Rural Connectivity Champion

Simon was elected as the Member of Parliament for Barrow & Furness in 2019. 

Prior to entering Parliament, Simon worked as a director at a not-for-profit company which prevented fraud and other financial crime, and protected vulnerable people from falling victim to fraud and scams. Before this, he worked in telecoms, helped run two charities, and also ran his own communications business for a number of years. Until his election, Simon was Chair of the Barrow and District Credit Union for two years.

In Parliament, Simon is a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on AUKUS. In June 2023 he was appointed as the Government’s first Rural Connectivity Champion.

He lives in Ulverston, has three young children, and is married to Pippa.

Kerry Booth, Chief Executive, Rural Services Network

Kerry is the Chief Executive of the Rural Services Network. 

She has been working with the Rural Service Network for almost ten years, honing her skills at representing rural service providers at a strategic level.  Kerry is highly motivated, strategic thinker with excellent communication skills, able to interact with a range of audiences in an engaging and persuasive manner. She has a successful track record of working in a political environment and excellent understanding of the challenges facing organisations delivering services in rural communities.

Prior to joining the RSN, Kerry worked for almost a decade in Local Government where she was part of the National Graduate Development Programme, completing her Post Graduate Diploma in Local Government Management at Warwick Business School. She then held a number of positions in a rural local authority with the last five years spent leading a joint Policy, Performance and Improvement Team across two shared rural local authorities.

Cllr Roger Phillips, Chair of the Rural Services Network, Rural Services Network/Herefordshire Council

Roger is an experienced councillor holding office since 2011, he represents Herefordshire Council.   

He is a previous Leader of Herefordshire County Council and former chairman of the West Midlands Councils, Regional Transport Partnership and joint Strategy and Investment Board.

Councillor Phillips now sits on several outside bodies including County Councils Network, Hereford and Worcester Fire Authority, Local Government Association and Worcester Local Pension Board.

Paul Wood, Head of Economic Development and Regeneration, East Suffolk Council

Paul is an economist with over 25 years’ experience in local and regional development economics. With a first degree in Economics and master’s degree in Urban Regeneration, he has worked in local and regional economic development across the country. This has included stints in Greater Manchester, Nottinghamshire, Cambridge and Suffolk.

In the mid-2000s Paul joined the East of England Development Agency and led on infrastructure development in Suffolk and Essex, with a particular focus on the Thames Gateway in south Essex. It was in this role that Paul first became involved in rural economic development through developing and advising on project investments in Suffolk and north/ central Essex.

Paul now heads up the economic development function at East Suffolk Council and with responsibility for six team he has a very varied remit covering areas such as clean energy development (new nuclear, offshore wind and green hydrogen), Freeport East, rural and coastal tourism, town centre regeneration/ revitalisation, business support, inward investment and transport/ digital infrastructure.

Outside of work Paul is a keen road cyclist and runner. He is married with three grown up children and lives and work in the beautiful district of East Suffolk – the largest district in the country.

Professor Stephen Roper, Co Director, National Innovation Centre for Rural Enterprise (NICRE)

Steve is Co-Director of the National Innovation Centre for Rural Enterprise (NICRE),  Professor of Enterprise at Warwick Business School, Director of the Enterprise Research Centre (ERC) and Co-lead of the Innovation and Research Caucus (IRC).

An economist, he has more than 30 years’ experience of researching issues related to small and medium enterprises, innovation and innovation policy in the UK and abroad and has published widely.

Steve has led externally-funded projects, been a member of government advisory boards and regularly acts as a consultant regarding small business development and innovation policy internationally.

At NICRE, he leads the development and analysis of its large-scale survey of rural and farming businesses. First conducted in 2021, this year’s State of Rural Enterprise Survey is seeking the views of around 3,000 firms in the North East, South West and West Midlands on aspects including the impact of the cost-of-doing-business crisis, response to the climate crisis and the availability of skills/labour in the rural economy.

Steve is an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

Alex Rehaag, Principle Affordable Housing Officer, South Hams District Council & West Devon Borough Council

Alex has worked at South Hams and West Devon Councils for almost 20 years, starting her career in homelessness and housing advice and has been an affordable housing enabler for the past 10 years.  South Hams and West Devon are predominantly Rural and Coastal areas where developing affordable housing is challenging due to special land designations including Areas of Outstanding National Beauty, coastal locations and Dartmoor National Park. House prices to rent or buy and lower than average local wages plus second home ownership impact the availability of good housing.

Despite these challenges Alex loves her job and feels very lucky to live and work in such a beautiful part of the country where no day is the same. Alex’s free time is spent dog walking and visiting local beaches and countryside in her campervan.

Christine Phillipson, Chairman, Newton and Noss Community Land Trust

Chris, now retired, grew up on a farm in Shropshire and has lived in rural Devon for over 25 years.  As a volunteer and part of the Parish Neighbourhood Plan team, she was instrumental in setting up Newton and Noss Community Land Trust, which she now Chairs. The CLT have recently won a National Award from the Community Land Trust Network in recognition of their work to engage with the community, develop their own Local Allocation Policy and as co-applicants with Pillar Land Securities to gain permission for an innovative new development designed to help restore balance to the community which has just won a National Planning Award for Best Housing Scheme (fewer than 500 homes).

Kevin Garvey, Head of Member Relations, National Housing Federation

Kevin is the Head of Member Relations at the National Housing Federation, having worked for a number of years as the External Affairs Manager, liaising at senior level with a range of high profile housing associations.  Previous to this he has experience working as the Westminster Lead for the Local Government Shadow Minister and a Policy Officer at Shelter.  He started on the NGDP at the London Borough of Bexley so has a range of local government experience to bring to discussions too.

Helen Fielding, Director of Development and Investment, Broadacres Housing Association

Helen has over 30 years’ experience of housing strategy, delivery and investment in the RP sector, central and local government and has strong links to North Yorkshire.  Appointed in 2022, Helen leads the delivery of the Growth Strategy, delivering new homes and Broadacres’ investment in existing homes to enhance their energy efficiency, in pursuit of the Sustainability Strategy.

Ella Pinder, Vulnerability Policy Manager, Northern Powergrid

Having trained as a policy specialist in the Department of Health and Social Care, Ella now specialises developing policy that sits at the intersection of the health and energy sectors. This includes leading Northern Powergrid’s Powergrid Care programme, which provides holistic energy advice on fuel poverty, energy efficiency and low carbon technologies. Ella seeks to bring partners together at the system level to tackle the barriers facing domestic residents in the path to net zero. She uses her expertise in developing and implementing user-centred policy to drive the role of Distribution Network Operators in the transition towards net zero, keeping the diverse needs of energy customers at the centre of that.

Cecily Spelling, Membership Programme Manager, UK100

Cecily joined UK100 in April 2023 as Membership Programme Manager. She is responsible for the delivery of our membership programmes which engage and empower our growing network of local leaders. Cecily has previously worked at Possible, Wildlife and Countryside Link, and Sustain where she has specialised in network building, shared learning, and events. When not fighting climate change, she uses every pot and pan she can find to cook up a storm in her kitchen, walk her rescue dog, or swim on the North Essex coast.

Will Taylor, Senior Low Carbon Consultant, Gemserv

Will is an experienced public sector professional with 5 years’ experience. He specialises in the management of policy development and implementation of policy and regulation across the public sector. He has expertise in policy, strategy, finance, and change management with expertise in the development and implementation of government policy, delivering client, organisational and ministerial objectives while balancing industry views. He is experienced in research, undertaking quantitative and qualitative research. He is an effective leader and project manager delivering complex change projects within and across organisations.

Prior to his time at Gemserv, Will worked in a range of in the UK Civil Service, Local Government, and the NHS including leading Department for Education’s policy on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, a Private Secretary to the Minister for Employment in Department for Work and Pensions Private Office, developing an Integrated Care Strategy for an NHS Trust, Strategic Finance at Department for Education and Renewable Electricity Policy at BEIS.

Lucy Baker, All IP Director, BT

Lucy is an experienced leader in the telecoms industry, delivering large scale digital transformation programmes from Emergency Services to the NHS.   A credible and passionate voice, as Head of Emergency Services Customer Engagement, Lucy gained the confidence of senior leaders from UK’s Emergency Services to aide their adoption of a new network.  As Healthcare Solutions Director, Lucy collaborated with the NHS to drive digital transformation in healthcare and was awarded an MBE for leading BT Enterprise’s Covid-19 response.  Lucy brings her experience of technology combined with her customer focus to ensure the switch to a digital network brings benefits to everyone in her role as All IP Director at BT.  

Bryn Jones, Shared Rural Network Director, Digital Mobile Spectrum

Bryn is Director of the Shared Rural Network (SRN) at DMSL. The SRN is a £1 billion project to improve 4G coverage in rural and remote areas across the UK. In his role, Bryn leads the DMSL team in delivering the publicly funded element of the programme.

Bryn has decades of experience in the UK mobile market, having helped develop and deliver award-winning customer experiences for brands such as Virgin Mobile, Virgin Media, EE and Three. He previously managed Virgin’s mobile and off-net broadband technologies, Three’s mobile network for 3G, 4G and its preparation for 5G, and, as a Board Member of MBNL, helped manage the EE/Three network sharing arrangements and roll-outs. 

DMSL, a joint venture of all four mobile operators, manages and runs the SRN programme and provides reporting and tracking information for the programme. Bryn works closely with Building Digital UK (BDUK), Ofcom and the four mobile operators (BT, Three, Virgin Media 02 and Vodafone) to deliver coverage improvements across the UK and ensure value for public spend.

Mike Jones, Chief Operating Officer, SWS

Mike has extensive experience in the telecoms and utilities industries, joining SWS Broadband from ITS where he was Head of Major Projects and spearheaded the delivery of the company’s fibre optic network implementation. Within SWS Broadband Mike holds the position of Chief Operations Officer and will oversee our own full fibre network build across rural areas, ensuring quality and efficiency at every step.  

Professor Stuart Maitland-Knibb, Professor, National Centre for Remote and Rural Medicine

Stuart previously held clinical and medical director posts for the NHS and private sector.  He is now the Director for the National Centre for Remote and Rural Medicine at the University of Central Lancashire. He is a qualified GP who originally worked in the UK military. He has extensive experience working throughout the world's health care systems, specialising in remote and hostile locations, providing urgent and emergency care.  He continues to fly two days a week in a clinical supervision position, he is also an examiner for the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, a medical officer for the UK International Search and Rescue and an advisor for the Ambulance Liaison Committee of the Royal College of General Practice.

Kira McDiarmid, Senior Policy and Public Affairs Officer, National Rural Mental Health Forum

Kira is the Senior Policy and Public Affairs Officer at the charity Change Mental Health. Change Mental Health set up and runs the National Rural Mental Health Forum, which is a strong dedicated network of over 230 organisations from third, private and public sectors, with an outreach to over 500,000 people in rural Scotland. It delivers regular seminars in partnership with guest speakers from organisations to collaborate on key topics and issues related to mental health and wellbeing in rural communities.  Change Mental Health supports around 8,000 people per year and employ around 200 members of staff, other work includes a mental health and money advice service (UK-wide), Mental Health Training and educating educators on supporting their students with mental health.

Jan Sobieraj, Chair of the National  Centre for Rural Health and Care

Jan has 28 years experience in the NHS with most at CEO level across a range of NHS organisations. This  included many years in Lincolnshire where he saw first hand the challenges of providing healthcare to a dispersed population across a large rural and coastal geography. He was Managing Director for NHS and Social Care Workforce at the Department of Health and set up and ran the NHS Leadership Academy.

Since retiring from being a CEO he has been supporting the development of NHS Integrated Care Systems, helping NHS Trusts improve their governance and providing individual help to senior leaders. He is also an active Charity Trustee.

Selaine Saxby MP, MP for North Devon, Rural Services APPG Transport Lead

Selaine Saxby MP has been the Conservative Member of Parliament for North Devon since the 2019 General Election. Selaine has a particular interest in levelling up North Devon and in protecting our environment. She has worked in the roles of Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Treasury and to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. She is the active Chair of four APPGs: Broadband and Digital Communication, the Celtic Sea, Cycling and Walking, and the Wood Panel Industry. Selaine currently sits on the Work and Pensions Select Committee, ensuring that welfare and pensions payments work the best they can for people across the country.

Caroline Whitney, Director for England, Community Transport Association

Caroline has specialist knowledge in voluntary sector development, promotion and research. Prior to her current role as a Director at the Community Transport Association she was the Chief Executive for CVS Cheshire East. Her strengths lie in the creation and management of sustainable voluntary/charitable organisations.  Caroline has a deep understanding of not-for-profit organisations, volunteering, charity development, as well as relationship building with statutory organisations.

John Birtwistle, Head of Policy, First Bus

John is Head of Policy at First Bus, one of the UK’s largest bus operators.  In England, First Bus provides rural services across Cornwall, Norfolk, Suffolk, North and West Yorkshire and Somerset and is a leader in the introduction of contactless and capped payments and app based passenger information.  John has worked with local and national government, and with national and international trade bodies, for many years and brings a wide range of experience to the Rural Services Network; essential at this time when rural buses are facing multiple challenges.

Xavier Brice, Chief Executive, England, NI & Wales, Sustrans,

Ever since childhood Xavier has been fascinated by transport’s impact on society. He believes that how we get around shapes how happy and healthy we are as individuals, our relationship to each other and, crucially, the world we live in. He thinks we could all be a lot healthier and happier and is thrilled to be leading Sustrans, a UK charity working with others to make that happen.

Xavier joined Sustrans in June 2016 from Transport for London where he held a variety of roles, including leading the modernisation of London Underground’s stations, developing a new cycling strategy for the city, which led to the introduction of the Cycle Superhighways and Cycle Hire Scheme, and advisory positions in the Mayor’s office. Before this Xavier worked internationally as a strategy consultant.

Xavier was a member of the Department for Transport’s Net Zero Board, and a member of National Lottery’s Climate Action Fund Advisory Panel. He is a member of the Board of the Office of Road & Rail (the UK’s rail regulator and highways monitor).

Xavier cycles, walks, loves to travel by train and bus and owns a car. He is married with two young girls and lives outside London.

Philip Clifford, Senior Advisor, LGA

Philip Clifford is a Senior Adviser at the Local Government Association and leads the LGA’s policy work on devolution and place-based growth. For much of his professional career Philip has worked on issues of local leadership, regeneration, and public service transformation. Prior to joining the LGA he was part of the Government’s London Thames Gateway Initiative and worked with partners across London local government on a range of issues including housing investment, migration, welfare reform and devolution. Recently, his work at the LGA has focused on urban and rural recovery, sustainable development, devolution, and constitutional reform.

Philip Dunne MP, MP for Ludlow and Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee

Philip was first elected Member of Parliament for the Ludlow Constituency in May 2005. He was appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Ministry of Defence in September 2012. Following the General Election in May 2015, he was promoted to Minister of State for Defence Procurement at the Ministry of Defence.

Philip was the founding Chair of the Rural Services APPG which raises the profile of rural issues in Parliament and is currently the Vice Chair of this group which the RSN provides the Secretariat for.

Philip was appointed Minister of State for Health at the Department of Health between 2016-2018.

In February 2018, Philip was elected to the Environmental Audit Committee and is the Current Chair of this Committee.


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