The Lord Mayor of London with his heart in Blackpool
It's not every day that a '˜Blackpool lad' and former Pleasure Beach musician is honoured with a knighthood.
But that’s the latest in a line of accolades for musician-turned-teacher-turned-Alderman, and Lord Mayor of London in 2016-17, Andrew Parmley.
On Friday he was named in the New Year’s Honours list, receiving a knighthood for services to music education and civic engagement.
Although Dr Parmley, 61, left the resort in his 20s for the bright lights of London – like a modern day Dick Whittington – with dreams of a career as a West End musician, his heart very much remains in Blackpool.
So much so, that he’s intent on using his influence as former Lord Mayor of London to help bring new investment to the town in a bid to tackle some of its social and economic problems.
Andrew grew up in South Shore, attending Thames Primary School, before securing a place at Blackpool Grammar School, where Aspire Academy is now based.
His keen interest in music soon developed; he was a chorister at Holy Trinity Church in South Shore and by the age of 16 was the organist at Christ Church in Queen Street.
At 18, Andrew won a place at the Royal Academy of Music in Manchester, but returned briefly to the resort on graduating – where he became musical director at the Pleasure Beach, working on the popular Showtime On Ice and Holiday On Ice productions.
“I planned a career in theatre music,” he said. “When we got married, my wife Wendy was a teacher in London so we went back there and I assumed I would get a job in the West End.
“So I took a doctorate in 17th Century French opera – which makes me totally unemployable, and rather unusual for a Blackpool lad.
“I got to 28 as a jobbing musician making ends meet, but decided it was time to get a proper job.
“I got a teacher training certificate and started as a music teacher at a boarding school in East London. I’m now principal of The Harrodian School in West London.”
Looking back, Dr Parmley says he had no plans to get involved in local –never mind international – politics.
But his route to becoming Lord Mayor of London began 25 years ago when a friend suggested he stood for election to the Court Of Common Council, which is effectively the local authority decision-making body of The City – or Corporation – of London, often known as the Square Mile.
He was an organist in one of the 25 electoral divisions of the City, which qualified him for election and he became a local councillor.
“The City’s not like a normal council though, you have an international profile,” he explained.
“Then the Alderman of my district retired. I had no intention of becoming as his replacement, but I stood for election – and thought I had no chance as the other candidate had filled the ward with voters.
“Then, the night before the vote, he died.
“I suggested cancelling the vote, but was told no, there’s one vacancy and one candidate.”
So he won and became an Alderman of The City by default, unusual in that he was still a teacher when usually the roles are filled by business leaders.
After a decade as an Alderman, Dr Parmley became one of two Sheriffs of The City Of London, a role he describes as ‘effectively an apprenticeship to Lord Mayor’ and he was elected to the top job to stand as the 689th Lord Mayor of London for the year 2016-17.
Such is his pride in his home town, that Dr Parmley commissioned a special Blackpool Illuminations float to star in his Lord Mayor’s Show back in November 2016.
And he took every opportunity on offer during his year in office to draw attention to the potential of Blackpool and the Fylde to the international business community.
“All year I was speaking about Blackpool,” said Dr Parmley. “My opening speech at the Guildhall was about Blackpool.
“It was a week before Strictly Come Dancing came from Blackpool and I said: ‘Welcome to a banquet with more sparkle than Strictly’.”
Throughout the year, Dr Parmley visited 26 countries including far-flung locations such as Nepal, Colombia, Mozambique, China, Qatar and South Korea, some slightly less exotic spots such as the Channel Islands and the Isle Of Man, and spent a lot of time in the UK regions –especially the North.
“Businessmen said ‘We don’t believe you’ [when I told them about the strength of the North], so I took them on a ‘Seeing Is Believing’ tour in July,” he said of visiting towns and cities including Blackpool, Leeds, Sheffield and Liverpool.
“People recalled coming to Blackpool as it was; magical, the warmth and nostalgia.”
But he admits it was a highlight of his year in office.
“Coming to Blackpool [as Lord Mayor] was a personal indulgence,” he said. “We went to the Tower Ballroom, went up the Tower, turned on the Lights.
“But we spoke about the town’s issues: HMOs (houses of multiple occupency), deprivation, drug abuse, education, youth unemployment, the things we need to look at.
“It’s important to look at what The City Of London can do to assist Blackpool and other seaside towns in the UK.”
Viewing Blackpool now as something of an outsider, but someone who also has a great love for the town and an understanding of its place in history, Dr Parmley recognised the issues faced locally - but insists they are not only Blackpool’s problems, but those faced by many seaside resorts.
“I have come to the conclusion there are four things to do here,” he said.
“My top priority - having been brought up here, working at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, and knowing that as a resort it’s the greatest of its type - is that we should invest.
“There’s been cosmetic investment – that’s easy, the Tower, the Winter Gardens, but we need to think about what’s needed to attract people [over and above tourism].
“Secondly, I think it’s true to say we have the lowest education results in England and second only to Glasgow in the UK, and thirdly is the social deprivation; we need to ask why that has occurred.
“Fourthly, we need to reinvest in the community.
“Back in the day, if a woman ran the boarding house, the husband worked at ICI in Thornton but that’s disappeared now - by and large. The business leaders were asking ‘what can we invest in to create jobs?’
“I’d say new technologies, they can be anywhere in the world
“And if Liverpool is half the price of London, then Blackpool’s half the price of Liverpool and that works for both the businesses costs and the cost of living for workers.
“If enough people come here demanding better education, housing etc, then it has to come.”
Since competing his year as Lord Mayor, Dr Parmley is now in ‘purdah’ for six months – meaning he’s banned from even setting foot in the Square Mile of The City Of London, to allow the new Lord Mayor to settle into the role.
“So I should be in Blackpool a couple of days a week for the foreseeable future,” he said. “It’s a nice break, after 16-hour days, seven days a week for a year.”
That said, he’s conscious of not stepping on toes in the town but is sure that solutions found in Blackpool can be rolled out to other similar towns.
“What I’m fearful of is the town suffering initiative overkill; people coming, seeing the problems, and thinking they have a solution when there’s already a lot of help in town,” he said.
“But Blackpool’s problems aren’t just Blackpool’s problems, they’re coastal problems.
“We need to guard against a scattergun approach. I don’t not approve of people trying to assist, but it needs a cohesive, strategic view.”
After building relationships as the Lord Mayor, Dr Parmley hopes to use his influence now to promote the resort as a business destination as a way to help combat those issues.
“I’m not knocking Blackpool [when I acknowledge its problems]; I absolutely love it,” he said.
“The vision for the future of Blackpool is fantastic, but it’s going to take a huge amount of will power and energy to get it together.
“When I was in the Isle Of Man, I asked if they would consider reinvesting in a direct flight to Blackpool.
“People there said ‘Give us a reason to go to Blackpool and we’ll put a flight in.
“Prosperity follows major investment.”