Thelma keeps her grip on reality

She has sat through more council meetings than had hot dinners. But one of Norfolk's longest-serving politicians tells ADAM GRETTON why she is ready to retire and write science fiction.

Thelma Paines might never have entered a successful career in local politics if it had not been for her first kitchen sink.

Like many London families, the mother of four moved to the overspill estates of Thetford in the 1960s for its cheap housing and good employment opportunities.

But frustrated by the height of her council house worktops, the young outspoken Mrs Paines vowed to help fellow sufferers in the town by becoming a local councillor.

Forty-four years after moving to Norfolk, the now grandmother of 10 is proud to reflect on nearly 30 years of service as a town, district and county representative.

The recently re-elected mayor of Thetford has seen the town develop from a "dying" settlement in the 1960s to one with a "bright future", thanks to her tireless campaigning on issues from sinks to road links and regeneration.

"When we first moved to Bury Road, the sinks and draining boards were at the wrong height. I thought that if there were more women involved with making council houses, we could at least get something right," she said.

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"Having a nice house and a healthy place to bring up the children, we wanted to give something back to the community."

But despite her zest for life and endless voluntary commitments, the Labour party stalwart is growing weary of council life and is preparing to step aside at the next elections.

"I am not too happy with the way district and county have gone to cabinets for decision-making. I feel there is a lack of democracy in this system and it is about time someone fresh came along and used it to the benefit of Thetford."

But even if Mrs Paines does relinquish her role as town and district councillor next May and her county council post in 2008, she will still act as champion for the town she loves. County colleagues are known to place bets on the number of times she mentions Thetford in a committee meeting.

"We do our best and never give up. We have to push it because we are the fourth largest town in the county and we have our own needs, which are specific to Thetford. I can see a bright future for the town, particularly if we can retain our young people and get skilled training for them," she said.

Mrs Paines was born in Battersea and grew up in south-west London, before moving to Norfolk with husband Albert, also a councillor, in 1962.

As well as bringing up the children and working for a furniture company, she became a Citizens Advice Bureau volunteer before being elected town councillor in 1978 after years of failed attempts.

"It was getting to a stage when I wanted to take a break because I had been working since the age of 14. I wanted to write science fiction, and got involved in politics instead!"

Over the years, her diary has filled up with commitments for the town council, Breckland, and Norfolk County Council.

She has served as chairman on all three bodies, sat as a magistrate for 14 years, and been a member of the Keystone Development Trust, Breckland Line Rail Users Assoc-iation, Norfolk Police Committee, Norfolk Police Authority and the Board of Visitors for Norwich prison, to name just a few.

She added that she was once asked to stand as MP for south-west Norfolk, but declined because she did not want to become "divorced from reality".

Mrs Paines, who lives in Minstergate, is now looking forward to winding down and spending more time gardening, reading, and visiting her family, who are dotted across Europe.

She also plans to write the science fiction stories she never wrote almost 30 years ago.