Former Eastern Daily Press Editor David Powles is the new Chief Executive of Norfolk Community Law Service. Two months in, he talks about making the move from local media – and the findings of the latest Impact Report
Before he left school, David Powles knew exactly what he wanted to do: be the Editor of the Eastern Daily Press in Norfolk. David, who was born in Norwich and raised in West Suffolk, says: ‘Norwich is somewhere that had a magical appeal to me. When I was about 15, a journalist from the EDP did a careers talk at my school and I went home and said to my mum ‘I want to be a journalist’. From that point on I wanted to be editor of the EDP. Most of my family are in Norfolk and, to my gran and grandad, the EDP was the bible.
If that wasn’t aiming high enough, he adds: ‘I also wanted to be the youngest ever EDP editor – and I was. And I was only the 14th editor – it’s mad when you think it’s been going for 150 years.’
Becoming Editor was his dream job. ‘Anyone who knows me knows how Norfolk runs through my blood. I’m incredibly passionate about Norfolk and I genuinely want what’s best for the county and the city.’
David became Editor in Chief in 2017 and navigated the newspaper through numerous takeovers and management changes.
‘Obviously for two of those six years there was Covid, which was unreal because we were in the office, watching Boris Johnson make that announcement, then we had to go home and work out ‘how are we going to operate?’ We had 60-80 people at that time on our team – we couldn’t just turn the paper off for a day. That’s probably the thing I’m most proud of: we kept going.’
Nowadays, we live in an age of subscriptions and digital editions in local media. For David, it has always been vitally important to cover stories about local charities: ‘Although the stories that matter that might not necessarily get thousands of page views, you’re supporting the community.’
And he adds: ‘Campaigns were important to me, whether that was a charity campaign like Priscilla Bacon Hospice or something like Norfolk Day. The campaign I’m most proud of is the Mental Health Watch Campaign, which I launched when I was Investigations Editor.’ David openly talks about the effect stress can have on mental health, including his own. ‘Being afraid to talk about it is part of the problem.’
In September last year, David parted ways with the EDP. ‘For the first few months it was hard. Then I got to last Christmas and said to myself ‘stop being a miserable git’, because I was lucky to spend time with my kids – I’ve got two boys; they are 10 and 7.
He adds: ‘I took a bit more time out and then realised that a step away from media was the right step for me.’
He turned to the charity sector ‘to find that drive and spark again’. In May, David took over from Jane Basham as Chief Executive of Norfolk Community Law Service (NCLS), which is dedicated to ensuring access to justice and equality in Norfolk. It provides free advice and support for debt, welfare benefits, immigration, family court matters, discrimination and domestic abuse victims, as well as a free legal advice service. ‘Jane and I have known each other for a while. We’ve done stuff on the NCLS over the years, and she’d written columns for us.
‘Jane has done an amazing job putting the charity in a brilliant position which was exactly what I needed because it would be too big a step, if I’m honest, to go in on day one and put out a load of fires.
‘I had a very good knowledge of media law but that was about it – but I don’t think that mattered. I knew NCLS had a good reputation, and I knew Jane had – and has – a good reputation.’
The service has a team of 23 FTE staff and draws on the expertise of 150 volunteers, including solicitors and law students. ‘We have a fantastic legal sector in Norfolk, and I’d really like to encourage more companies to sign up,’ says David.
In 2022/23 it received 9,600 enquiries and helped just under 4,000 people from all over Norfolk. ‘My job is to try and bridge the gap between the demand we could face and the demand we are currently coping with, so it’s quite challenging.’
But he says: ‘I’ve been won over by the impact that the charity has. The figure I keep quoting is around welfare benefits.’ According to the latest Impact Report, NCLS represented 155 clients at welfare benefits tribunal hearings, an increase of 58pc on 2021/22; and £2.3m of welfare benefits were awarded and paid back to clients. The service has secured more than £12m since it began in 2013.
‘If ever you need one justification of why that charity makes a difference, there you go – and that’s a tiny proportion of what we do.’
Welfare is something that David is passionate about: ‘If I was at my lowest ebb; if I had lost my house; if I was going through a messy divorce and couldn’t afford representation; or if I injured my leg at work and needed disability benefit, I would want to live in a country where we actually help people first.’
In its latest Report, the charity warns that debt in Norfolk is increasing significantly and women are suffering most.
The average debt of the charity’s clients was £15,550 in 2022/23, compared to £7,277 in 2021/22 and £4,103 in 2020/21. Last year, debt clients presented NCLS with £3m worth of debt, most of which the charity’s advisers have successfully negotiated more affordable repayments.
‘Most experts would agree that we’re coming out of a cost-of-living crisis and going into a debt crisis,’ says David. ‘I would envisage that that will put more pressure on our services.’
The Report found that in some NCLS services, up to 35pc of clients were not confident using the internet. He adds: ‘The job of charities like ours is trying to identify those people and help them.’
How does his new role compare to his old one? ‘Obviously my job as an editor and journalist has always been find more audience/readers in print and online whereas here the challenge is slightly different because if I go out and amplify everything that we do and make people more aware of us, people will face longer waits to see us.
‘My starting point is to find the right people to either fund us or to give us their time – so that we if we do end up with more people knocking at our door, we are better equipped to deal with them.
‘I’d love to encourage companies to send their staff our way, whether that is once a month, once a fortnight, or once every two months. It would all make a massive difference.
‘I think my key role is to keep amplifying what we do; to tell our story (which is possibly one of the reasons I was brought in), to shout about why we matter; and to convince people we are worth supporting.’
Two months into the role, he says: ‘I feel re-energised, that’s the word I keep using. There are days when I feel imposter syndrome and this has taken me out of my comfort zone, but I feel this is a fantastic charity. It does good and that’s what drives me. We can go home at the end of the day hoping that we have at least done something that has made a tiny bit of difference to someone else in the county.’
To find out more about NCLS, how to get involved and how to donate, and to read a copy of the latest Impact Report, visit ncls.co.uk. On another note, David Powles will be on stage In The Woods at Latitude Festival in Suffolk, this Friday (July 21) doing a Common People DJ Set, with Jon Rogers, straight after Pulp’s headline set.