As Gerry Harper's term approaches its end, Jon Howe looks at potential high-profile replacements for the role
Ground-breaking Leeds. Pioneering Leeds. Boundary-pushing Leeds.
All terms served up to describe the frenetic pace of our city as it stares cultural, digital, financial, legal, culinary, and retail innovation square in the eyes and asks ‘what can we do next?’.
There are many faces and names that make Leeds tick, the unsung workhorses who fall on an idea and run with it, or who sweat blood for the greater good of the city and its people. We need to celebrate them.
Currently wearing our Lord Mayor chain is Belfast-born Gerry Harper, who moved to Leeds in 1967; the city’s heritage runs through his veins like the 221 bus down Dewsbury Road. Working firstly in Kirkgate Market and then for Montague Burton, he couldn’t be more ‘Leeds’ if he lived in the beer cellar of Whitelocks and had a couple of whippets called Cuthbert and Broderick.
Awarded the office in May 2016, Gerry Harper will soon be coming to the end of his year as Lord Mayor of Leeds - a relentless itinerary of receptions, luncheons, entertaining visiting dignitaries and various plaque unveilings - which means that the revealing of a new Lord Mayor is currently under discussion.
We’re thinking maybe it is a time to break with convention and for Leeds to take a bold step into the future?
The Lord Mayor’s position is elected by Leeds City Council, and as such each occupant of the position comes from the council’s membership. Apart from its already-established reputation for excellence in various fields, Leeds' proposed South Bank Development - and the 2023 European City of Culture Bid - could thrust Leeds even further into the unchartered territory of ‘Big Global Cities’. So why not respectfully cast precedent to one side and appoint a more public figure for people to identify with and to lead Leeds forward as its ‘First Citizen’?
It worked in California when Arnold Schwarzenegger ran two terms as Governor despite not having a political background, and it sort of worked in London when career buffoon Boris Johnson somehow became Lord May- OK, maybe not a good example.
Protocol weighs as heavy on the Lord Mayor as the ceremonious gold chains, so we retain the necessary pomp and grandeur of the position, but move away from status and wealth to promote a whole city view, while making the position a more normal, everyday post; something people could even aspire to reach if they achieve great things for the city.
Leeds-born ‘Welcome to Yorkshire’ Chief Executive Sir Gary Verity has done so much for the region as a whole, but particularly Leeds; arranging the Tour de France peloton to ride mere yards past where Big Lil’s once stood. Who could ever have envisaged that?
Nathan Clark from the Brudenell Social Club has channelled the community spirit of a humble operation into one of the most popular music venues in the North, while retaining its all-inclusive ethos. Meanwhile Everton Campbell has lead the way in making Leeds’s menfolk some of the sharpest-dressed in the country for nearly 30 years, via his proudly independent Hip Store.
In the world of the arts, of course we have author and playwright Alan Bennett, Armley-born and a highly respected writer of works such as The Madness of George lll, the Lady In The Van, The History Boys, and Talking Heads. Bennett would bring a quiet dignity to the role, but with an acerbic wit and the ability to keep us all firmly rooted to our humble origins.
Many people would queue in a line to meet Ralph Ineson at a function and hear the unmistakable voice and feel the formidable aura present in Game of Thrones, The VVitch, Harry Potter and The Office, while I’m sure Leigh Francis could bring a bit of character to the role - I’m not sure any of his existing characters would be suitable, though…
Let’s not forget that Vic Reeves was born in Leeds, and with his comedy partner Bob Mortimer already has vital experience of high office via the upstanding Councillors Cox & Evans from ‘The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer’ series. Marc Almond grew up here, formed Soft Cell at Leeds Polytechnic in 1977, and regularly works with young musicians at Leeds College of Music. Who better to demonstrate how the city has embraced diversity and inclusion, with the recent unveiling of the Freedom Bridge on Lower Briggate and the Council's current embracing of LGBT History Month.
In the world of sports, the city is currently associated with various epic triumphs, and is well-blessed with tales of sporting greatness that could further inspire our populace. You can choose from double Olympian Boxer Nicola Adams, or former Leeds Rhinos captain Kevin Sinfield who - though born in Oldham - has done so much for sport in Leeds and personifies so many famous Leeds traits, such as leadership, humility and sheer hard graft.
While we’re on the subject of Leeds Rhinos, what about Jamie Jones-Buchanan? About to enter his 19th season as a professional player, a tireless community worker in Leeds and now branching out into TV and stage work with the brilliant Red Ladder production ’Leeds Lads’.
Nadiya Hussain is another famous Loiner we should all be proud of; as a self-taught baker she won BBC’s “Great British Bake-Off” while also being a full-time mum and studying for an Open University degree. And while we’re considering personalities as representatives of Leeds’ food and drink scene, who better than the enfant terrible of the restaurant world Marco Pierre White.
And these are just the high-profile examples - there are countless unsung heroes doing their bit for local communities. It’s highly unlikely that Leeds City Council will break with tradition and nominate anybody outside their membership, but we can still hope that whoever is nominated represents Leeds’ cultural diversity as much as the personalities mentioned above. One thing's certain though - regardless of gets elected, they’re bound to be better than Boris… Jon Howe