Preston gets its youngest mayor in more than 170 years

A Preston councillor has become the city’s youngest mayor in modern times.

Thursday, 19th May 2022, 5:36 pm
Updated Thursday, 19th May 2022, 6:51 pm

At the age of 34, Neil Darby – who represents the Ingol and Cottam ward for the Liberal Democrats and has sat on the city council since 2014 – is thought to be second only to a 29-year-old, James German, who held the honour back in 1849-50.

Cllr Darby said at the ceremony at which he was installed that he would seize the opportunity of being mayor to listen to – and learn more about – the city from people from all walks of life.

Speaking to the Lancashire Post, he added that he hoped the ‘youngest modern mayor’ tag would tempt more people into politics at an earlier age – and to persuade those who do put themselves forward as councillors to remain in their roles for longer than many of them feel able to.

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Preston's new mayor for 2022/23, Neil Darby (centre), with his mayoress, Cllr Pauline Brown, and his partner and mayor's consort, Dan Leung (image: Michael Porter Photography)

“Every year we have to say goodbye to young councillors [who have decided not to stand again] – and it doesn’t lend itself to good governance, because you need to have a diverse range of people in the chamber of all age groups, as well ethnicities and everything else.

“I’m very lucky that my boss is community-minded and is prepared to give staff time to carry out civic duties. I’ll be working all the hours I can to make up the [time], but we need more employers across the city who are prepared to do that.

“I think they actually get better employees out of it, because, yes, they will lose a few hours through the month, but it means they have employees who are much more well-rounded. They have also got more experience that employers don’t have to pay anything towards,” Cllr Darby said.

As a politics and parliamentary studies graduate himself a decade ago, Cllr Darby says that he believes young people are more politically engaged today than they ever have been – but that they do not necessarily consider the council chamber a place where they can make a difference.

Neil Darby - thought to be Preston's youngest mayor at 34 - is welcomed to his new role by departing mayor Javed Iqbal (image: Michael Porter Photography)

“It’s like the lottery – you’ve got to buy a ticket to win it, you’ve got to play the game. And as frustrating as it is that it can take such a long time to make any changes [as a councillor], if you’re prepared to put in the time and work with the system, then you can get there.

“You have got to get young people involved, having a say and putting in their ideas in the first place. If they don’t engage, the system is never going to [give them] what they want.

There is also a degree to which people forget their younger experiences as they go through life, which is only natural. But the world changes - what someone needs now at the age of 20 isn't the same as what someone needed even when I was 20 years old.

"There are practical issues, too - technology being a great example. Younger people are much more au fait with technology - and if you've got a room full of people who don't have that familiarity, then having them make rules when thinking about that technology, is never going to [result in] a good set of rules."

The new mayor will be supporting two charities in his term of office – the Ingol-based Intact Centre and the Lancashire Teaching Hospitals Charity. He told the Post that both had made a huge difference to people’s lives during the darkest depths of Covid.

“I know how hard the Intact Centre works and throughout the pandemic they went absolutely above and beyond to help local people – whether it was trying to get them food if they needed it or trying to help them re-skill back into work for those people who lost their jobs during that period.

“The LTH charity supported not only the patients, but the staff who worked themselves down to the bone. There were so many reports of people having mental breakdowns because they had been working in the hospital at this difficult time.

“The charity helps [get] all the extras that the NHS can’t afford to pay for – like staff facilities, which often fall by the wayside.”

Cllr Darby, who hails from Essex, settled in Preston in 2010. He has asked former Lib Dem group leader Pauline Brown to be his mayoress and will have his partner, Dan, as his mayor’s consort.

Cllr Brown missed out on being mayor in 2020 as a result of ill health – and Cllr Darby said he was delighted that she would be able to share the experience with him.

“There is every chance I may not have been stuck around as a councillor, or even been one in the first place, f it hadn’t been for the support Pauline gave me when I was first finding my feet.”

His partner, Dan, accompanied Cllr Darby on his first official duties less than 24 hours after the mayoral installation ceremony. Asked if he was a willing consort, Cllr Derby joked: “He is coming round to the idea.”

“I’m certain that he’ll be a wonderful support over the year and I’m very grateful to him,” he added.

Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown told the Post that he was delighted at Cllr Darby’s accession to mayor, because it showed that the city was making “progress to ensure those in civic office reflect the rich communities we represent”.

“Neil is 34 years of age, meaning he will be one of the youngest mayors Preston has seen, and a member of the LGBT community. He is a hardworking and friendly young man and will bring a new energy to the role,” Cllr Brown added.

Conservative opposition group councillor Sue Whittam sent her congratulations and welcomed Cllr Darby’s plans to involve young people during his time in office.

Nominating Cllr Darby for the role, Lib Dem group leader John Potter said he was “the face of the new Preston we want to see – proud, modern, energetic, humble, community focused and caring”.

“We know you’ll be an incredible mayor for the city,” he added.

***With thanks to Keith Johnson for details of the mayoral history of Preston.

“LOVED EVERY MINUTE”

Preston’s outgoing mayor said that he was honoured to have met so many key workers during his year in the role – people who had helped “keep everything going” in the city during the pandemic.

The start of Cllr Javed Iqbal’s term of office coincided with Covid restrictions gradually beginning to lift last summer – and he said that people had “come out in droves” to the events he had attended over the past 12 months, because they were so pleased to be able to leave their homes once again.

“It was lovely to meet the key workers – like teachers and school staff who helped keep our schools open so that other key workers could go to work. Then there were the pharmacy staff and our own council workers who did so much to support the vaccination [programme] – and, of course, our first responders who are always there for us.

“I have loved every minute.”

In spite of a lack of the usual mayoral fundraisers as result of the pandemic, Cllr Iqbal said that donations from several business people, as well as other contributions, had helped him raise around £4,600 for his chosen charities – Preston Domestic Violence Services and Heartbeat. Earlier this year, he also spearheaded a fundraising effort for Ukraine, which brought in around £3,600.

Preston’s new mayor paid tribute to his predecessor after they had exchanged the ceremonial garments. Neil Darby said that Cllr Iqbal had set a “very high bar” for him to follow.

“At his outgoing service he said how amazing it is, the respect people have for the office of mayor. That is certainly true – but as his deputy for the last year, I have spoken to many people…and it is clear that Javed himself is very highly respected.

“And he has done an outstanding job in what has often been very difficult times over the last 12 months, as we have continued to face Covid restrictions at many events – especially early in his term,” said Cllr Darby.