“suddenly i saw things from the other side” — the lord mayor of leedsBack
You never have everything you need for a Mayor right away. For one thing, you need to get hold of a mace.
The first Alderman of Leeds was Sir John Savile, in 1626; the office was restyled as Mayor in 1661, when Thomas Danby was the man. The civic mace, symbol of Royal authority, wasn’t acquired until 1694, when it was made by goldsmith Arthur Mangey of Briggate; it was given first to Mayor Marmaduke Hick. The mace still has its part in the decision making process of the council today, placed in front of the Mayor in the chamber when matters are getting to the getting done stage; it’s there alongside the gavel, a carved, wooden owl of the 1930s, symbol of Leeds since the owls from Alderman Sir John Savile’s Coat of Arms were copied to the town’s.
Trophies, portraits, swords and ornaments have been acquired over the years as the office has acquired its history; and acquired its premises, in the Civic Hall, in 1933. It’s a little easier to get an invitation to the private chambers these days, where the pomp is all still present; the Office of the Lord Mayor of Leeds retains all its grandeur, but the incumbents these days are about giving, not acquiring.
Lord Mayor of Leeds No.121 is Councillor David Congreve, whose walk back to work in his office in 2015 took him through thickly carpeted halls, lined with glass cases full of the gifts to the city of hundreds of years; there, still feeling the effects of a New Year chest infection, he’s engaging enough company when chatting about the prospects of Leeds United this season for the heavy gold chain that hangs from his shoulders and down below his chest to float with no more intimidating weight than a chunky knit scarf.
“The Lord Mayor is the First Citizen of Leeds,” he says, “and I’m not sure how much power they have. But they are fairly high profile, and they can help to move and shake things. As Lord Mayor, which is totally different to being a normal councillor, you’re in contact with people who can make things happen.”
Making things happen at a local level has been David’s job since he became councillor for Beeston – now Beeston and Holbeck – in 1990, when he was still fourteen years from retirement from his work as Bereavement Services Manager at Bradford Council.
“Strangely I didn’t have great desires to be a councillor,” he says. “I did look to being a councillor when I retired, but at the time I was a party activist and I wanted to change things for people and make life better for them. I was persuaded to go on the panel of candidates, and I did say I wanted an unwinnable seat. I was virtually pushed into standing.
“But I’ve got to say it changed my life. I’m very pleased that I was persuaded because the experience has been quite wonderful, and I think I’ve achieved a lot of things. Not everything, and not as much as I’d have liked to have achieved, but certainly I have changed things for a lot of people.”
An opportunity is given to every Lord Mayor to change things in the city by raising funds for their chosen charity, which this year is the Leeds Children’s Hospital Appeal; chosen by the Lord Mayor not only to support the young patients themselves, but the hospital and its staff, after flawed data led to the temporary closure of its Children’s Heart Unit.
“A lot of us have children, and if we haven’t got them now then many younger people will in the future; and no parent likes to see their child being ill. And all children do get ill, some more seriously than others, but it’s always painful when you see your child lying there being poorly, when you want to take their place and you can’t.
“And because of the adverse publicity that the Children’s Heart Unit had, which was unwarranted, I thought that the people of Leeds ought to get behind our Children’s Hospital and give it all the support they can. The Lady Mayoress (Janet Harper JP) and myself had a look around the children’s wards and were greatly impressed by the dedication of the staff, surgeons, doctors, nurses, cleaners and volunteers who help out there.
“They give care to children, and to parents as well, who clearly have great concerns and worries about their child’s illness; the patients themselves have that fortitude, whether they’re between operations, or getting better and moving about and getting on with their life, or are more seriously ill and are being well looked after.
“It’s important that we support this facility, and support those children that need help, because although Leeds is a wonderful thriving city with a lot going for it, there are areas of deprivation and no matter what your background, if a child is ill, that child is being deprived of a quality of life. And we need to ensure that they get the best quality of life they can have.”
David’s life in local authority has been one of changing perspectives, until now when he can take a city-wide view to inform his decision to support the Leeds Children’s Hospital this year. From officer to councillor to Mayor the picture has changed and enlarged.
“The biggest change when I became a councillor was that suddenly I saw things from the other side,” he says. “In some ways that was an advantage because as a senior council officer I understood the system, how councils are run, how budgets and political systems work. But working as an officer and carrying out the council’s business is different to working in the community and supporting communities – often against some of the decisions made by the council.
“That local ward work is then completely different to being Lord Mayor. Although as a councillor you make decisions that impact on the whole city and you have to have an overall view of things, you don’t have as much detail about community groups and different areas of the city. You tend to concentrate on your own ward.
“But as Lord Mayor you’re the First Citizen of Leeds, and one of the wonderful things is that you meet some wonderful people who are all interested in the city, and in furthering the city to the benefit of all its citizens. One of the interesting things is that in all communities there are small groups of volunteers who work tirelessly, giving up their own time for no renumeration, for the benefit of all the people in their community. No matter what it is, there may be different issues or different things they’re working on, but the people all have the same community spirit.
“The negative side is the fact there are not enough of them. People are always struggling, no matter where they are, to find other people who will come and join their group. We need more community volunteers.”
People aren’t as attached to the trimmings as they once seemed to be. The half-tonne gilt bronze owls that John Hodge sculpted for the pinnacles of the Civic Hall’s wedding cake towers still gleam over Leeds as a compliment to its first Alderman; but the two lions Hodge provided for Sheffield’s City Hall have wandered, first to Derby in the sixties and then in 1997 to stand guard outside the offices of Tarmac Heavy Building Materials UK Ltd, near Wolverhampton.
Hodge himself had been a mystery to the frightened children who encountered him in the Derbyshire village of Middleton-by-Wirksworth; coming and going late at night from Mrs Fox’s lodgings to his workshop of enormous lions and owls – the first unveiled in Sheffield in ’32, the latter in Leeds in ’33 – he dressed in “black cape and a large brimmed black hat,” according to one local child who didn’t forget the sight. That’s what people most often do remember: the person and the character, not the monuments.
That lesson might be why civic and corporate grandeur has less to do with gilt nowadays, and more to do with change; which ironically makes it harder for the most gilded office in the city to effect the change it wants through the Lord Mayor’s Charity Appeal; which has brought from David a rethink.
“As Lord Mayor something I have found that is very impressive in Leeds is that there are many companies in the city that support charities, and put something back into the area that they work and live in. I think that has surprised me. Lots and lots of companies, large, medium or small, all pick a charity each year and raise funds.
“So one of the things I’ve found with my charity is that actually makes it difficult for the Lord Mayor to get companies on board. That’s why one of the things I’ve asked people is, why not just give up one day a year for the Lord Mayor’s Charity? Have one event during the year and donate that to the Lord Mayor’s Charity Appeal, and support your own choice of charity for the rest of the year. I think that’s a way forward, and I hope companies will take that on board.”
That’s a different tone to so much of the largesse asked for in giving, and recognition in the city’s highest office – in Leeds, the Lord Mayor yields precedence only to the Queen and her family – of the value of small change. The Banqueting Suite will be opened in the spring for 200 donating business leaders to attend a high profile fundraising dinner, but contributions are just as necessary from anyone who wants to donate just the spare pennies from their payslip – up to ninety-nine of them, which over a year, and across a workplace, and across a city, soon stack up.
It could be difficult to keep that perspective from the loft of the First Citizen, and there is a designed seclusion to the Lord Mayor’s Offices that insulates you from the constant city outside; and from the biting January winds. That seclusion was designed in the 1930s, though, and is designed to be kept for Sunday best; visiting dignitaries will love it, although the current Lord Mayor is more animated when talking about last year’s civic reception for Hunslet Hawks than about the more formal events for the Grand Départ. Those were a great experience for the Lord Mayor, but their reception was a better experience for the Hawks, and that’s the difference.
“It’s a wonderful job,” says the Lord Mayor, as he prepares for his first formal meeting of 2015, with the council solicitor. “It’s a great privilege and a great honour, and I wouldn’t have swapped it for anything. It’s a marvellous experience. I think it changes your outlook on life.”
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 20