A series of unexpected events has made it an unusual year for the mayor of Brighton and Hove Alex Phillips.
From snap elections to the coronavirus crisis – and chairing the city’s first ever “virtual” council meeting – it’s been a mayoral year like no other.
The day after Councillor Phillips took the chains of office to become the city’s youngest ever mayor at 33 years old, elections took place for the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
Councillor Phillips won a seat and faced the challenge of balancing her role as mayor with her position as a Green Party MEP (Member of the European Parliament).
She spent eight months juggling both jobs until the end of January and Britain’s exit from the European Union – known as Brexit.
But the European elections were followed just over six months later by a snap general election, called by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “get Brexit done”.
Councillor Phillips stood as her party’s candidate in Brighton Kemptown, raising a few eyebrows and prompting some concerns.
The mayor is by convention a politically neutral post in Brighton and Hove – a ceremonial role, unlike the decision-making mayors in cities like London.
So she stepped back from her ceremonial duties during the election campaign, with deputy mayor Alan Robins ably filling in, helped on occasion by previous mayors.
Councillor Phillips had taken a sabbatical from her job with a national charity so that she could meet the demands of being the first citizen of Brighton and Hove.
She said: “It feels like every other month there’s been something huge going on. I never expected this sabbatical to be like this.”
At the start of her mayoral year she chose 20 charities to support, many of them focusing on children, young people or women.
They were Allsorts, BHT, Brighton Women’s Centre, Cruse, Grace Eyre, the Oasis Project, Rise, Survivors’ Network, Sustrans, Whoopsadaisy, Amaze, the Parent Carers’ Council, Brighton Table Tennis Club, the Clock Tower Sanctuary, Extratime, the Hummingbird Project, Off The Fence, Rockinghorse, Sussex Nightstop and the Martlets.
Councillor Phillips said: “My charities have benefited – some have used it better than others – but they’ve all benefited from being a mayoral charity of the year.
“Some charities have used it to their advantage as it has helped with funding streams and getting money in for them. That’s what I was hoping for.
“The refugees project, Hummingbird, said it was a mayoral charity very clearly on its website and helped raise its profile.”
Councillor Phillips has visited some charities and spoken with people one to one to find out more about the help they receive.
She said: “I had Survivors’ Network come to the Mayor’s Parlour. There were four women there with me sharing their experiences.
“It’s so incredible the work that goes on in the city to support people who are going through so much.
“Many of us can’t imagine where to begin. When you hear it from them, it really stays with you.”
Her biggest disappointment, she said, was cancelling her gala dinner in March but she hopes to reschedule it for September, adding: “They’re great events and they help raise tens of thousands of pounds.
“I hope it takes place and raises the money it should do, but these are difficult times for people financially.”
In a change from tradition, Councillor Phillips, a former secondary school teacher, chose to start meetings of the full council not with prayers but with poems read by young people.
She said: “Having young people come into council has been amazing.
“We’ve had a lot of self-penned poems by children and young people read at full council.
“I remember the last one in particular with many stylistic elements interwoven through it. She was a tiny Year 7 or 8 girl and she delivered it so well.
“It’s quite a difficult thing to do for anyone, let alone children and young people who have never done anything like that before.”
It’s easy to imagine that the mayor’s years in the classroom – she taught French and German – have helped her keep order in the council chamber.
It is the mayor’s role to chair full council meetings – when all 54 members of Brighton and Hove City Council are expected to attend – and she sets the tone. She keeps to time.
During debates, she is happy to be called Alex although more traditional colleagues still address her as Madam Mayor.
Her husband – Big Lemon bus company boss Tom Druitt – is a fellow councillor and her two-year-old son Rafi has even joined her during meetings.
She has been keen to show what women, including mothers with young children, are able to do. And despite the challenges, she has accomplished a great deal, unashamedly drawing on support when required. One colleague called it a lesson in delegation.
Next month – on Thursday 14 May – she is due to hand over her red mayoral robe and the chains of office. Labour councillor Alan Robins is due to step up from deputy to mayor.
Former Conservative council leader Mary Mears is due to become the new deputy mayor and in a year’s time she is scheduled to succeed Councillor Robins as mayor.
Usually the mayor-making takes place at “annual council” – with a degree of pomp and ceremony – but remote meetings, in response to the coronavirus crisis, have brought more change.
Councillor Phillips’s year in office looks like ending as unconventionally as it began, albeit for a different reason. It’s certainly been a year to remember.
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