The Birch Edition: Leicester City ambassador Alan Birchenall meets Sir Peter Soulsby
They are old pals, but at one stage they looked set to become rivals at the polls. Politics reporter Dan Martin takes notes as the Birch meets city mayor sir Peter Souslby.
Alan Birchenall once set his sights on becoming Leicester's first elected mayor. Now, the man who got the job, Sir Peter Soulsby, has told him what he missed out on and why he would like another term running the city – if we want him.
Sir Peter, who is nearly two years into the job, told The Birch he was ready to stand again in 2015.
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"I would do it, but it's down to the electorate to decide," said the Labour politician.
"That's what is healthy about having an elected mayor. It's not just down to whether I want to do it, but if people want me.
"Sometimes, people say politicians cynically only look from one election to the next.
"I think they ought to be looking to the next election because that's when they go back to ask for their contracts to be renewed.
"I will say 'look at what I have done and judge me on what I have done'.
"That's democratic and what is different between being an elected mayor and a council leader who never had to do that. They only had to be accountable to their councillors – the mayor is accountable to the people."
The Birch admitted his own tilt at becoming mayor was "always a gimmick", but asked Sir Peter if he was ever worried about him as a potential rival.
"Alan, I've known you far too long to be worried about you," said Sir Peter.
The mayor admitted the row over his pay rise was his most difficult moment in his term so far.
When he came to the job it had a £56,000 salary. Then, last year, the council's independent remuneration panel caused outrage by suggesting it should rise to £100,000.
The mayor scrapped the panel and a backdated £9,000 rise was eventually agreed.
Sir Peter said: "The last thing that bought me into this job was how much I would get paid for it.
"I wish the Government would take that well away from local control. I think the pay should be set nationally.
"They set up the remuneration panel before I was elected. I wish they had set the pay before I was elected.
"I was left to pick up the pieces and I really could have done without it."
He said what had finally been decided was to peg the mayor's salary to that of a backbench MP.
"People generally accept that's a way to deal with it and I don't hear people now raising the issue," he said.
"Do you need skin like a rhino to do this job?" asked The Birch.
"People say that, but when politicians develop such thick skins there is a danger they stop being sensitive to what people say," said Sir Peter.
"When they stop being sensitive, they lose touch.
"Sometimes, you wish your skin was a little bit thicker but you have to be sensitive to what people are saying to you."
The Birch said: "I say to nervous young players coming through that if there are 15,000 people in a ground, 5,000 love you, 5,000 don't love you and the other 5,000 couldn't give a monkey's."
"That's absolutely right," said Sir Peter.
"It's amazing that when the criticism seems to be overwhelming, someone will – quite out of the blue – come and tell you how well you have done something – 'You're doing a good job and I agree with you'.
"Nobody agrees with everything you do."
The Birch said people in Leicester were concerned about the city council's future provision of services.
He asked Sir Peter: "Will you be a 'cutting mayor'?"
"The fact is," replied the politician, "that we are looking at what the Government is going to do in the next few years and there will be less money to spend every single year.
"It will be quite a lot less in some years, but that does not mean to say you have to stop doing new things that make a difference to the city.
"There are also things you can do better or change what you are doing.
"I'll give you an example with Richard III.
"Just because we are having to cut, as we are, it doesn't mean I haven't got a job to do to make sure the city takes the opportunities that arise from having found a real king.
"It's my job to make sure I raise the profile of the city and bring visitors in.
"I must not let the fact we have to make some pretty dramatic cuts in what we spend be an excuse for not doing the things the city needs to do today."
"People out there are thinking about the little things, the potholes," said the Birch.
"People don't think big. That's for the politicians.
"Everyone accepts there will be cuts – but will it damage the structure of our city?"
"For the people who rely on the services the city provides, it will not be easy," said Sir Peter.
"It will be painful for some of the people providing those services, with their jobs at risk.
"There is pain there and there is no getting away from it. I have to make sure we minimise the amount of pain the cuts cause.
"I've used a surfing analogy before. It's like riding a wave – you have to catch the wave, and if you don't, its gone.
"There may another along, but you don't know when.
"I have to make sure we do catch the wave.
"The finding of the king's bones gives us an enormous opportunity."
Peter Soulsby Q&A
Alan: What has been your finest moment?
Sir Peter: My first daughter, Cassie, arriving. Then the birth of my second daughter, Ellie, and then the birth of my third daughter, Lauren.
It doesn’t get any better than that.
They are all living in Leicester and producing grandchildren.
A: Who or what is your greatest love?
SP: It’s the city. Seriously, it’s Leicester. I came to Leicester, like so many people, from the outside and knew nothing at all about. I’ve never regretted making my home here.
I came to Leicester when I was 19 and I hadn’t got a clue what to expect. I almost picked out Leicester with a pin.
A: Why do we get on so well as a city?
SP: It’s really hard to put your finger on. There’s not a magic potion that makes it work well here.
Over generations, Leicester has been a place that people have come to and fallen in love with. We have a long tradition of making people welcome and people respond to that.
I’m not complacent about Leicester. It doesn’t always go right, but we do this better than anywhere else.
A: Soaps or Question Time?
SP: Question Time. I don’t follow soaps. I can watch one quite happily, but I scratch my head as to what the back plot is.
Question Time happens to be on at the time I usually get home.
A: But at 10.30pm don’t you just want to switch off?
SP: Not really. But I watch it really differently now that I’m mayor from the way I used to watch it when I was an MP.
I used to watch it because I wanted to know what had been happening through the day. Now I watch it much more for fun.
A: Would you do I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here?
SP: No. I think politicians who do it must be mad. I can’t think of any better way to lose what little respect politicians have got.
A: City or Tigers?
SP:City. I’m very proud of the Tigers, of course, but my first love is City. I was brought up playing football and football for me has always been the game.
A: Greatest moment in Leicestershire’s sporting history?
SP: The greatest year was the year Leicestershire won the championship, City got promoted and Tigers won the championship.
A: What makes you laugh?
SP: Questions like that... A lot, actually. Myself sometimes. If there is one think I hate about politicians, it is them taking themselves too seriously.
If you can’t laugh at yourself, you’ll find other people will do it for you.
A: What makes you angry? What makes you really mad? For me, it’s ignorance.
SP: People who judge other people not for what they are, but what they think they will be. That makes me cross.
The intolerance of judging people by where they come from or the colour of their skin, their race or religion. People are people. I can’t be doing with people who are dismissive of other human beings.
A: At Junction 21a of the M1 [near Kirby Muxloe], is it a good idea to have some sort of emblem saying “You are now entering the sports capital of the country”? Something like the Angel of the North?
I’m sure we’d get some sarcastic comments because that is just the way people are, but 90 per cent of Leicester people would think it’s a good idea.
SP: I’d be very interested in what sort of emblem people think would be good because we should be very proud of lots of things about Leicester.
A: Who do you most admire in Leicestershire sport?
SP: Could it be a team? I suppose I have been struck by how many stars have come and gone over the years. My wife’s favourite was always (ex Leicester City star) Lennie Glover, but look what happened to him. (Glover was jailed for three-and-a-half years in 2004 for his part in drugs racket).
A: What, as mayor, has been your best moment so far?
SP: One of the best moments has been when they announced the found King Richard’s bones in our car park.
Quite a lot of us were a bit sceptical about the chances of finding anything. It’s a testament to the skills of the archeologists involved.
I have been most heartened by the response to making the reconnections in Leicester across the inner ring road.
It has been encouraging to find out how many people really care about the city centre.
A: What’s your favourite book?
SP: A book? Dear me. I’m a great fan of Jane Austen.
A: Your favourite music and artist?
SP: This is a bit of a sad answer, but I’m a great fan of Meatloaf. The great thing about Meatloaf is that you can sing along really loudly, but I only ever do that in private.
A: Are you a hairbrush guy?
SP: It has been known.