Councillor Cliff Barber became the worshipful Mayor of North East Lincolnshire on May 28th 2015. His investiture and that of his wife Sally as Mayoress took place at the Mayor Making ceremony on June 11th.
He’s Grimsby through and through, born when his family lived on the Grange estate, one of the first residents of the Willows, an alumnus of Willows, Great Coates and Whitgift schools. His father was a lumper and he worked as a runner on the docks when he left school. Later he spent many years as landlord of The Valiant. He entered politics in 2007 as a Lib Dem Councillor for Freshney Ward, switching to Labour in the wake of the formation of the coalition. And in the run up to his inauguration he was nice enough to spare some time for a chat with The Peoples.
When we meet he’s seated at the head of a large table in an impressive looking office on the ground floor of the Town Hall, surrounded by huge Victorian cabinets full of ornate ceramics and silverware. The walls are hung with signed photographs of members of the royal family who have visited the town over the years. In so ornate a room he makes a striking figure in his blue and white checked work shirt, with his sleeves rolled up. He doesn’t look as though he’s overawed by his new position, nor does he look as though he’s in love with the trappings of power. He looks like a man who’s ready for a day of hard work, which is what most of us would wish for in a local politician.
The Peoples: You’ve lived and worked in Grimsby all your life so my first question is are you proud to be a Grimbarian? And, since I’m sure you are, what is it that makes you most proud?
I certainly am proud to be a Grimbarian. It’s a town full of history and tradition and the people of the borough are so friendly. Warm and welcoming but very down to earth. We don’t have deeply divided communities. Everyone gets on well together and enjoys the town together. And it’s important to remember that I’m Mayor not just of Grimsby but of North East Lincolnshire, including Cleethorpes and Immingham and many villages and I take great pride in representing the people of all these communities. And I’m a Mariners fan of course- I’m expecting big things this season!
Your dad was a lumper and your first job was as a ship’s runner. You also ran TC’s club. So you saw at first hand the collapse of the fishing industry and the harm it did to the area. We recently spoke to Steve Norton of the FMA and he was very upbeat about the future of the local fish industries. Do you share his optimism?
Ship’s runner was my first proper job. In those days it seemed like everybody’s first job was on the docks, working with fish in some way, either dragging fish or loading fish or packing fish. The decline of the fishing industry was rapid and devastating and we know those glory days will not return. Most fish comes in by container now and a lot of it goes straight to merchants and bypasses the market but this is still Europe’s food town and with widespread innovation in the local industry and the development of the Seafood Grimsby and Humber brand prospects are brighter than they have been for many years.
How did you get into the licensed trade?
I was playing snooker with Kevin Kilmore, the former Grimsby Town and Scunthorpe player who was at that time the landlord of The Jubilee and he was saying how difficult it was to recruit a trainee manager. He was stressing and struggling about it and when I asked a few questions he said “Are you interested? I can train you.” I told him I’d never worked in a bar in my life but he said give it a go and the first night I worked the Dangerous Brothers were playing and the place was packed and he said “If you can cope with that you can cope with anything.” After that I never looked back and twenty five years later I’m still in the trade.
Do you still find time to get behind the bar sometimes?
I’m too busy to get there much now and I have to admit that a lot of the fun has gone out of it. The change of hours and the smoking ban have changed the industry beyond recognition. Drinking habits have changed too. In fact I’ve decided to call it a day and give it up. I’ll miss the good bits, running the local on the estate where I was brought up. I’ll miss the people and friends I’ve made.
Does the pub ever become like an informal surgery with people popping in for a pint and to bend your ear about a local problem?
Frequently. Sometimes The Valiant is like a community centre with a bar in it. And not just in the pub. If I walk over to the shop for a newspaper people will stop me and say “I’m glad I’ve seen you. The streetlight outside our back gate has gone out. It’s pitch black.” And I’ll promise to deal with it and hopefully it gets sorted. Sometimes I can have a two hour ward surgery and not see anyone and then I’ll walk back home and four or five people will stop to talk with me about an issue they have. And this is good because it’s important that local councillors are accessible because their job is to help sort out people’s problems.
What made you decide to get involved in local politics?
There was a company who wanted to build a lot of houses on the Willows. They wanted to build everywhere where there was a patch of green or a football pitch. Everybody was fuming and there was to be a meeting and someone said to me “Hey Cliff, you’re good at talking. You go down and tell them.” So I did. And we got a petition up and I went round knocking on doors and people said to me “You should be a councillor.” One day Councillor Andrew de Freitas came to one of the meetings to observe and he suggested I stand. It wasn’t an easy decision to make and I talked it over with my wife first and then I decided to give it a go.
What does a Mayor do?
The job of the Mayor is to promote the borough. It’s a non-political role and the Mayor’s job is to do everything I can to help NE Lincs, to encourage growth and to get our name and brand out there. I’ll be at events and meetings, helping local business wherever possible, doing my best for the whole community.
Are you looking forward to it?
I’m looking forward to it very much. I was at an engagement last weekend at Cherry Garth. It was the Cleethorpes Rotary Club’s annual Kids’ Day Out, run in conjunction with the NSPCC. Eighty children were having a wonderful day and it was just so rewarding to be involved, and fantastic to see the smiles on their faces. I also presented a bouquet to a lady on her hundredth birthday and she told me some wonderful stories. Later that week I was at a meeting with the Lord Lieutenant and the Police Commissioner. Entirely different but equally fascinating and enjoyable. Last year I was Deputy Mayor and I was a judge for the Compass FM Carers’ Awards. That was very moving and humbling.
St Andrew’s Hospice is your charity for the year. Is that something that’s particularly close to your heart?
As a publican I’ve always raised money for charity. When I was at TC’s it was the Humber Lifeboat but I have also been involved in raising money for the hospice. The work they do is incredible and everyone in the town knows somebody who has benefited from their work. I have seen friends in there and the care and support is incredible. We’ll be holding a 70s Ball at the Town Hall in December and hopefully we’ll raise a lot of money.
And how are your family adapting to the idea that you’re the Mayor? Are they pleased? Have they bought lots of new clothes?
They’re all exited and looking forward to it. My wife Sally will be Mayoress. She’s been poorly but she’ll attend as many events as she can. She has always given me her help and support during my whole career so this is a big year for her as well. My daughter Sarah and my son Scott have both taken a bit of ribbing about it but they don’t mind. I do wish my mother and father were still alive because they would be so proud. I used to bring my mother to Council meetings sometimes.
What are the priorities for you in your year as Mayor?
I’d like to help the local economy, help local businesses expand, bring new businesses in. I’d especially like to improve the prospects of young people in the area and try to create new apprenticeships and opportunities for training. Times are hard. It’s important to help people get back onto their feet. And at the same time we need to help and protect the vulnerable in society which is not easy because the austerity programme means that there is very little money to spend. But this is North East Lincolnshire and the people are resilient and hard working and I’ve no doubt that we’ll all pull together to make the area the best it can possibly be. I’ll be proud to be a part of that.
Mr Mayor, thank you very much for your time.
This interview is from The Peoples Issue 36 Print Edition