Meet the new Lord Mayor of Leeds INTERVIEW

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He’s become a vicar, a councillor and now he’s Lord Mayor of Leeds, but Coun Rev Canon Alan Taylor’s biggest education was working as a Leeds postman.

Rod McPhee found out more about the man behind the cloth.

‘Hang on, how come he’s got the best cups?” Rev Alan Taylor giggles mischievously. He gestures, firstly, to a cup of tea served to me in fine china, then back to his own more plain cup.

“I am the Lord Mayor, after all,” he giggles some more. “Mind you, I’m just Lord Mayor elect for now, someone called me that the other day and it made me sit up and take notice, I can tell you.”

Rev Taylor, as we shall refer to him, likes a laugh. He’s not at all the austere figure you might expect a vicar to be, in fact, on meeting him, he’s an obvious choice for the role of Lord Mayor.

It’s another title to add to the many he’s gained over 67 years of his life. Ordained in 1969 and elected as Liberal Democrat city councillor three decades later, he gets called all sorts.

Fortunately, the engineer’s son from Hunslet, now vicar at St Aidan’s Church in Harehills, isn’t precious. As we sit in the newly-titled Ark Royal Room at Civic Hall he reassures me he’ll gladly answer to Alan.

He started out as plain Alan too.

The engineer’s son from Hunslet left school at 14 and became an office worker at the nearby Yorkshire Copperworks. By his early 20s he was a postman.

Not the most inspiring job, you might imagine, but for the future priest and politician, coming into contact with more deprived neighbourhoods proved to be something of an epiphany.

“It was such a social mix,” he says. “It helped me to formulate my views and thinking, particularly in a political sense.

“You have to remember that in some parts of Hunslet, the parts where I delivered mail, there were back-to-back terraces where you’d walk into the living room and you’d be walking on raw earth without any covering – and we’re talking about the 1960s now.

“And even though I had been brought up not far away, I was shocked, because I’d been relatively fortunate in how and where I’d been raised – we lived on a cobbled street as part of a block of six through-terraces with fields nearby.

“When I saw these other terraces I thought it a totally different world. But there was a wonderful sense of community there, so when they were knocked down and replaced by social housing I wondered: ‘what on earth are we doing here?’

“Which is why I went down the Labour Party path. I was member of the party at 16 because that was the party of the working class, the party that supported people on the margins, the party that was saying: ‘we need to have a better life’.”

But his alliegances were about to change. By the 1970s Rev Taylor was working in Liverpool and witnessed the rise of the militant left in the city, causing him to question the direction of the party he loved.

Eventually he joined the newly-formed Social Democratic Party (which later merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats) after Derek Hatton and his band of fellow extremists were starting to elbow out more moderate socialists who had been dedicated Merseyside MPs.

They were the same MPs that Rev Taylor had worked with in Liverpool on a range of issues, but none more pressing than the tumultuous Toxteth riots of 1981. Naturally, he found himself in the eye of the storm.

“I think I’m the only clergyman in England that’s been hit by a police CS gas canister,” he laughs. “I was in the middle with rioters on one side and the police on the other. I don’t think I slept for about 48 hours.

“I even had to come to the rescue of the hospital where I was formerly chaplin. There were 90 elderly patients with buildings burning around them and we had to get them out, so I was in the thick of all of that.”

He came to Leeds in 1984 and nurtured a very real sense of community in his parish.

At one stage the Church of England suggested he live somewhere quieter than his inner city place of work. But Rev Taylor insisted he reside alongside his congregation.

Becoming a Lib Dem councillor for Harehills and Gipton was almost an extension of the work he’d already started, but the solidarity of the community was quickly put to the test when rioting broke out in the area in 2001.

The vicar insists this was more of an isolated incident which violently grew out of proportion. In Toxteth, he maintains, it represented a groundswell of discontent felt across the country.

Harehills, with its multi-cultural maze of terraced streets, is something of a contrast with the predominantly white working class residents of the many council estates which characterise Gipton.

The latter, you might presume, would be more in tune with a Church of England place of worship.

“Actually, there are more Muslims that come to my door about council matters than other people might about other matters,” he says. “And I’m frequently invited to Muslim weddings in the local community.

“Harehills is much maligned by many people in the city, but it really is a wonderful community. It’s only when you’re living there and experience the diversity that you realise how valuable that is.

“As for being happy with me as their councillor, well, you need to ask the residents what they think, but I don’t think they would have elected me several times if they had been unhappy.”

Another consideration, of course, is the potential clash between religious, personal and political beliefs, particularly as he is a Liberal Democrat.

“On most occasions things go hand in glove but there are inevitably issues where I think one way and the church thinks another – but I can live with that.

“I’ve always said it’s my faith that inspires my politics, and if I believe in a God of hope and love and justice, that determines how I think politically.

“But in most matters I like to go down the line of reason rather than going back to some archaic document that was printed however many years ago.

“And if you think that’s going to be the model of today’s society then it’s a load of....well, I can’t say.”

In three years time the reverend has to retire as vicar of St Aidan’s and wants to stand down as the local councillor so as not to be “like a ghost in the cupboard” to the incumbent priest.

So, he admits, there’s a now-or-never impetus to taking up the role of Lord Mayor of Leeds, a role which his Liberal Democrat colleagues on the council backed him for.

Inevitably he sees his job as one of representing the city, providing a local focal point and a voice in good and bad times.

But does he feel his job has altered given the backdrop of the recession and spending cuts?

He says: “One way I can answer that is to indicate that the chosen charity for my time as Lord Mayor is Voluntary Action Leeds

“That’s a charity that supports voluntary groups working with so many different organisations in the city in order to meet the needs of vulnerable people.

“Because I’m conscious in view of the economic climate that there have been many groups finding it hard to make ends meet. This will hopefully make sure that voluntary work that goes on will be continued.”

His time as Lord Mayor will also be different on a personal level.

As a single man he’ll be enlisting the help of a circle of friends and colleagues, male and female, to act as Lady Mayoress or consort.

He also supports the removal of the office of the Deputy Lord Mayor at a time when local authorities are being forced to find extensive savings.

That even extends to his own official car, which will still be available to him, but the vicar insists he’ll walk from Harehills to the city centre as much as possible and go by foot to as many functions as he feels appropriate.

But above all else he is the first clergyman ever to hold the position of Lord Mayor in the history of the city.

And for those who think a vicar is still too austere a choice for Lord Mayor, he has reassurance.

“There’s a wonderful breadth of expression within the church,” he says. “And I definitely fit in on what I’d like to call ‘the sunny side of centre.’”

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