Full speed ahead
Avid train enthusiast Peter Cowan tells Peter Taylor-Whiffen that his recently-awarded MBE is very much a family affair
Peter Cowan is thrilled to have been awarded an MBE – but is adamant the honour should be shared. “My wife Ann does as much for the local community as I do,” he says, “and our four grown-up children do too. This is a family award.” The honour, he says, “astounded” him. “You don’t do it to be recognised, but to help people. If someone drops something in the street you help them pick it up because you see a need.”
Since Cowan became chair of the Friends of the Hospitals of Luton and Dunstable 20 years ago, over £2m has been raised. He’s also a trustee of four local charities, including the Bedfordshire Youth Association and the Mary Seacole Housing Association, which provides supported accommodation to young adults; is a treasurer for St John Ambulance, and a school governor. It’s a busy enough schedule for anyone – but Cowan is 85 and retired 20 years ago. “If we can’t help, we make the problem known to people who can,” he says.
“And we do know a lot of people – being a chartered accountant has opened a lot of doors.” His career started with articles at Peat Marwick in London in 1951, and when he was called for National Service, Cowan continued training by correspondence from Egypt: “I’d answer the questions and wait four weeks for the answers.”
After a decade at PM he took his accountancy skills briefly into retail and the film industry before joining garage door manufacturer Cardale, where he worked for 30 years until his retirement. Along the way he and Ann moved from their native Middlesex to Luton, where Cowan also served on the Bedfordshire Police Authority and the Chamber of Commerce’s Government Affairs Committee. But Luton has even more reason to be grateful to the couple – thanks to Cowan’s avid passion for model trains.
“I was treasurer of the Model Railway Club, which holds exhibitions in Central Hall, Westminster. It was great fun – we’d regularly see (Thomas the Tank Engine creator) Wilbert Awdry and commissionaires from the House of Lords.” Those contacts became useful when the Lords discussed a bill on Luton Airport. “We were able to put over our request allowing Luton Borough Council to keep the airport freehold. As a result one penny from every passenger coming in goes to the Council. That’s £25m per year off the rates.” But Cowan, who has also received three High Sheriff Awards, remains insistent his community work is a joint effort. “Ann’s the asset, the communicator,” he says.
“And our children all volunteer – one chairs school governors, another leads a cycle group. We all get involved and do what we can.” And they’re all coming to the investiture. “We asked for extra tickets, so Ann, myself and our four children are going to Buckingham Palace. Like I said, it’s a family award.”
Originally published in Economia on 4 April 2019.