Home is where his heart is.
Maybe that's the reason Sir Reginald Eyre looks younger than his 75 years. Or perhaps it's having a wife 30 years his junior and a daughter still in her teens.
"I certainly think having a younger family keeps you young," he says reflectively. "I have also been very busy during my life and have travelled a good deal."
It's little exaggeration to say Sir Reginald makes most busy people look slothful. In a rich and varied career spanning more than half a century, he has been a lawyer, an MP, vice-chairman of the Conservative Party and the driving force behind one of Birmingham's biggest success stories - the regeneration of the Heartlands area.
His long and unerring dedication to the place of his birth has earned him a knighthood - bestowed in 1984 - and freemanship of the city in 1991.
Today, Sir Reginald is trying hard to live life at a slower pace - having just retired from his latest job as chairman of Birmingham Cable. He had held the post for ten years. He might still be there but for Telewest's recent takeover which made him decide it was the natural time to step down.
Last year, Sir Reginald relinquished the role he is best known for - his chairmanship of the Birmingham Heartlands Development Corporation, the body which oversaw the regeneration of 2,350 acres of east Birmingham.
The biggest ever project of its kind undertaken in the city, it is estimated to have attracted more than pounds 450 million of investment and spawned about 5,000 jobs. Sir Reginald is the man who can take most of the credit for that.
During his 11 years with Heartlands, he was instrumental in the Leyland Daf management buy-out and the completion of the pounds 110 million Heartlands spine road. He also saw the building of the UK's first urban village in Bordesley and the first Jaguar car at Castle Bromwich.
Sir Reginald clearly remembers the area as it used to be. Travelling down towards Saltley viaduct on a tram as a boy, he would see the smoke curling skywards from the belching chimneys.
"I used to think these were the original dark Satanic mills," he says with a wry smile.
With the crumbling of Birmingham's industrial heritage came the decline of the eastern fringe. "It was a black hole. In 1987 much of the area was derelict and the housing was badly run-down. It was the fifth worst area of deprivation in the country.
"Yet there were some very big companies there which were very important, like Daf, Jaguar and Dunlop Tyres. Now, their situation has been improved, not least due to the access they have to the new spine road, which has also encouraged inward investment.
"Heartlands has also provided an enormously improved chance for the young."
The launch of various education and employment initiatives gave new hope to a previously demotivated population of young people who lived in an area where unemployment was high.
"It was vital to provide training and job prospects and in 1991, 300 children went into jobs with training through a unique initiative called Birmingham Compact," Sir Reginald explains. "So the decline began to reverse. Parents became interested and started to come to school meetings."
Small businesses were also given a boost with grants from the Government and Europe and slowly Heartlands began to blossom.
"The area has been converted into a real contributor to the life and prosperity of the city. There have been social, environmental and economic improvements."
Sir Reginald is rightly proud of the part he played in helping Heartlands to rise, like a phoenix from the ashes, into the thriving, bustling area it is today.
"Nobody gets anything perfectly right, but I think we made a good show in Heartlands. There were a lot of difficulties, but there was a really good understanding and a desire to embrace the whole of life in that area."
Sir Reginald's commitment to Birmingham was evident long before his Heartlands days, however. He was elected as a Conservative MP in 1965 - and spent more than 20 years in the Commons.
As the West Midlands whip for the Tories from 1966 to 1972, he lobbied for the National Exhibition Centre to come to Birmingham. He also served in three different ministries with the Government - environment, trade and transport.
"It was a triumph to get the NEC," he says now. "It has made us more outward-looking and brought us more in touch with business and other aspects of life. Then there was the decision to build the International Convention Centre, which was so brave and has been so good for business tourism.
"Not only that; when we did up Centenary Square it required us to look at the environmental concerns of areas that surrounded the city. That's what we did in Heartlands really."
Sir Reginald spent much of his childhood a stone's throw from the area into which he would later breathe new life.
"We lived in Stechford, on the edge of the city, and just beyond our house were thousands of acres of Warwickshire countryside. It was marvellous in those days; climbing trees and swimming in the river. But at the same time the area was related very much to Birmingham."
He was educated at King Edward's Camp Hill - a "very good, robust Birmingham school" - and Emmanuel College, Cambridge.
He qualified as a solicitor in 1950 and was senior partner at Eyre & Co from 1951 until 1991.
In 1959 Sir Reginald stood as a Conservative parliamentary candidate in Northfield but didn't gain entry to the Commons until five years later, when he was elected in Hall Green.
Although he rose to the ranks of parliamentary under-secretary of state and vice-chairman of the Tory Party, with special responsibility for urban areas, he remained a committed local MP.
"People underrate politics; they perhaps don't realise how much it involves you with the community, with business interests and with all aspects of life. As a politician you must try to understand all these different aspects; you must try to encourage and protect what you think is good. It's a great way of trying to understand people. You have to try to understand your constituents and do your best for them. I did that for 22 years."
It was, he says, "a very strange thing" to retire from the House of Commons in 1987. "I'd had a good run and a very interesting time, but I think it was very fortunate that I was asked to do the Heartlands thing straightaway. It's given me 12 years of good activity which I have enjoyed very much and which I think has been useful to the city."
Cities have always been Sir Reginald's passion - which is why he is planning to devote some of his newly acquired spare time to carrying out a study of what makes them successful.
"As a native Brummie, and because of my life's experience, I feel that the importance of cities and big towns has not been properly looked at," he says.
"Because of their large populations, it's essential they are successful in industry and commerce. But that's only the beginning, because if you're going to attract investment to towns and cities, you have to have a cultural side and an environmental side and an educational side. And you have to think about supporting leisure facilities."
So how does Birmingham rate?
"Because we have set out to attract business tourism it has obliged us to look at our main roads, our inner areas and other aspects of life in the city," he explains. "The way green foliage has been introduced, for instance, has had a marvellous effect on the look of the city. It's been a great improvement - and people say as much.
"I think Birmingham is trying very hard and provided we stay competitive in these things and continue to improve, then we are heading for a good future."
Sir Reginald's own future - apart from researching what makes cities tick - is likely to include charity work in his home city.
"One of the charities I'd like to do some work for is the Birmingham Foundation, because I think its long-term aim is absolutely right for the city."
More than a little relaxation also features in his retirement plans.
"I'm keen on theatre and literature, walking and swimming, but until now I've not really had time to do as much as I'd like. So I hope I'll get the chance to do that in a more organised way. I want to read more too.
"Also, what would be a real luxury to me is to spend a few weeks in November and February in a warmer climate. I'm very interested in Andalusia and the Algarve. During the war I went to both places briefly and have gone back many times since."
It was in foreign climes that Sir Reginald met Anne Clements - who was to become his second wife. His first marriage, to a Finnish woman, ended in divorce and for a while he was "put off" the idea of tying the knot again.
"I met my wife in Nairobi," he recalls. "I was sent out there to represent the Government at an international conference on the environment. I went to a dinner one night and by chance Anne had just completed her year at the Donovan Maule Theatre, which was a very successful theatre in Nairobi. Her father, who was a lawyer in the Temple, had gone out to go round Kenya with her before she returned home."
Her father knew the lawyer Sir Reginald was talking to, so the three sat together. It was then that Anne walked in. Was it love at first sight?
"I wouldn't say that, but she was very attractive," says Sir Reginald. "So I arranged to telephone her in London." Romance blossomed and the couple married in 1978. Their daughter, Hermione, is now aged 19 and a student at Oxford.
So what makes their marriage a success?
"Tolerance," Sir Reginald says promptly. "You have to put up with each other."
One can well understand that a certain degree of tolerance has been needed over the years given Sir Reginald's formidable workload and regular absences from the family home. He and his 48-year-old wife, who still works as an actress, live in central London, but he keeps a small flat in St Paul's Square for when he's in Birmingham.
And he intends to pay regular visits to his home city, retired or not.
"I want to keep in touch with Birmingham; I am very attached to it and I will never let go of it. I think both my time with Heartlands and Birmingham Cable made real contributions to the prosperity and regeneration of the city.
"What I don't want now is to be on the treadmill of meetings and so on. I've been on the treadmill since 1948."
And that, by anyone's standards, is plenty long enough. The man deserves a well-earned break.
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|Publication:||The Birmingham Post (England)|
|Date:||Jul 3, 1999|
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