Obituary: Alan Rees MBE, champion of accessible transport and children’s play

Alan Tait Rees MBE, champion of accessible transport and children’s play. Born: 4 August, 1931 in Shanghai, China. Died: 24 October, 2019 in Edinburgh, aged 88

Alan Rees was one of those men whose myriad achievements made it difficult to define him in a single way but the common thread running through all his work was enablement: he strove to empower others.

His particular interests were in the fields of transport and play where, as founding member of the Scottish Accessible Transport Alliance and Edinburgh’s The Yard Adventure Centre, he helped transform the lives of countless people, bringing freedom, mobility and joy to disabled adults and children.

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But he also played a key role in numerous local and national organisations and was assistant director of Edinburgh Council of Social Services, his dedication to the city seeing him made an MBE in 1996, just one of several awards.

The son of Methodist minister Ronald Rees and his wife Janet, a devout Quaker, he was born in Shanghai where his father was doing missionary work. He attended the Dragon School, Oxford during the Second World War and then Kingswood School, Bath, before going up to Cambridge to read Geography at Gonville & Caius College. After graduating with an MA in 1956, he gained a certificate in Social Administration from the London School of Economics and Science the following year.

His National Service was spent in the RAF Medical branch in Berkshire, Aden and Nairobi and he then became a community development officer with HM Colonial Service in Tanganyika, now Tanzania, before joining Voluntary Service Overseas in London. He arrived in Edinburgh in the early 1960s as a tutor in youth and community studies at Moray House College of Education, before becoming organising secretary for the Board for Information and National Tests in Youth and Community Service and going on to the Council of Social Service for Wales as a community development officer in the 1970s.

It was after he returned to the Scottish capital in 1976 that he really began to make his mark, as assistant director of Edinburgh Council of Social Service, later Edinburgh Voluntary Organisations’ Council, a post he held until 1993.

As he wrote in his history of the Scottish Accessible Transport Alliance, in 1981 the stage was set by that year’s International Year of Disabled People when an international conference and exhibition, Transport for Special Needs, were held in Edinburgh and sparked many initiatives over the next decade or so.

He helped to found the charity Handicabs Lothian (now HcL) which launched the following year to provide accessible transport for people in Edinburgh and the Lothians, and served as its first company secretary, then vice chair, becoming chair in 1997.

By the time it celebrated its 21st anniversary its vehicles had covered 8 million miles, carrying more than 117,000 passengers and escorts through its Taxicard, Dial-a-Ride and Dial-a-Bus services.

The Scottish Accessible Transport Alliance’s inaugural meeting was held in 1995, backed by many local and Scottish organisations, and a couple of years later the project won a three-year grant from Comic Relief. It went from strength to strength and Rees remained the driving force for many years, receiving SATA’s lifetime achievement award in 2013.

In tandem with his focus on mobility and accessible transport was his passion for championing children’s right to play. In 1986 he was a founding member of what was then called Scotland Yard Adventure Centre in Edinburgh’s Canonmills. As its chair he was pivotal in establishing the charity to support disabled children and young people by providing an adventurous place to play. And in 1993 he welcomed the Princess Royal when she opened the charity’s new building.

He was involved in the International Play Association (IPA), the Scottish Adventure Playground Association for Handicapped Children and the Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights, and was awarded the IPA’s certificate of appreciation and the Nancy Ovens Trust Outstanding Contribution to Play.

Rees was also a member of a wide range of different organisations from the British Acoustic Neuroma Association and British Association of Social Workers to Edinburgh Council for the Single Homeless, Edinburgh Home for Mothers and Infants and the Seagull Trust.

In his leisure time he was an enthusiastic rugby fan and enjoyed sport in general – he took a dip in the North Sea to celebrate his 70th birthday. He was also musical, a fine tenor, and loved spending time in the garden with his family or growing fruit and vegetables.

He had travelled extensively, climbed Kilimanjaro three times and was an amateur artist, painting watercolour landscapes and attending Leith School of Art, where he was a patron.

He is survived by his wife Alison, children Juliet, Stephen, Jennifer and Martin, and seven grandchildren.