Sheffield's lord mayor planning 'big party for key workers and unsung heroes, It's a Knockout style games and fashion show'
A parachute jump, It’s a Knockout style games with teams from across Sheffield, a fashion show, a night of entertainment with local stars and a big party for key workers and unsung heroes, are just some of the plans Sheffield’s new Lord Mayor has in store for the city during her term.
Councillor Gail Smith became the 124th Lord Mayor of Sheffield in May, after waiting an extra year due to Covid-19, and it is clear that three months into the role, she has jumped straight in to make the most of the time.
We talked over tea in what is now Coun Smith’s office, the Lord Mayor’s parlour – one of the most historic and grand rooms in the city that is tucked away at the top of a marble staircase in a private section of the Town Hall.
It is full of cabinets of prized silver, gifts from across the globe and items from the city’s past including a Sheffield made sword, a model of HMS Sheffield and a stack of old newspaper cuttings.
The coming year will involve lots of events, wearing the famous gown and gold chain, chairing full council meetings and fundraising.
For Coun Smith, who was born and raised in Sheffield, the role is an honour but not something she ever saw herself doing.
She said: “It’s amazing, I feel so proud. It’s not something that was ever on my radar, it’s not something I ever dreamed to be. I never sat in that council chamber over the 30 years I’ve been here thinking ‘I want that job’. I’ve sat there saying ‘I wouldn’t want that job’.
“Now I realise I’m the 124th Lord Mayor of Sheffield and that’s just amazing, so I am proud and I intend to use this role as much as I can to the advantage of the people and meet some amazing people while I’m on this road.”
The three chosen charities she will raise money for are: the Friends of Hi5’s, the Salvation Army and Sheffield Hospitals Charity (NHS). There is a good team of people behind her and they are all aiming high to make as much of a difference as possible.
Coun Smith was born in Ballifield estate, Handsworth – which she thought was the “whole universe” when she was a child – and was the youngest of seven children. She said her passion for politics in part comes from her childhood debates.
“My three older brothers were at university and used to come home at weekends and debate politics and the news,” she said. “We weren’t big television fans, although we had one, it was always sitting around the table talking. Mealtimes weren’t just about food, we stayed there for a while and I was always made to be quiet and listen and I think that is part of who I am, I still argue about politics with my siblings but I don’t have to be quiet any more.
“The most important thing about being a politician is listening, in my view. You do have to be able to talk to anyone, you have to be able to rise up or come down to someone else’s level and that is certainly true about politics – you are there for everyone at the end of the day and the more life experience you have the better you are as a politician.”
Coun Smith was first elected in a by-election in 1992 for Brightside ward. Despite being told it was the most winnable seat in the country for Labour, she won by 465 votes and took her spot as the 10th Liberal Democrat councillor in the city. There were 11 Conservative councillors at that time in Sheffield but by 1999, the Liberal Democrats took control.
She said: “The 90s was a whirlwind experience for us as Liberal Democrats.”
In the three decades since, she was a councillor for Norton, Woodhouse and, most recently, Mosborough where she has lived for 30 years. Alongside her political career, Coun Smith worked as a chiropodist.
Meeting people is what Gail has enjoyed the most about being Lord Mayor so far. When asked what the best part of the job is, she recalled a day that really brought home how special the position can be.
While walking through the city centre with the mace bearer on their way to get sandwiches, they were stopped by a family of two young girls and a mum and dad. The dad said: “That lady is very important, she’s the Lord Mayor of Sheffield.” Gail turned around and got talking to the family and at one point one of the girls said: “Daddy, this lady has got the biggest, enormous necklace I’ve ever seen.” Coun Smith said she nearly fell over on her heels at that and after their conversation the dad said: “Thank you so much, I will make sure she remembers her fifth birthday forever, thank you so much for giving your time up.”
Then on their way back to the Town Hall, they stopped and stepped aside for a wedding when Coun Smith heard a voice say, “Nah then, is that Lord Mayor?” to which she said, “Yes, sir” and he replied, “Nah then, so-in-so, Lord Mayor’s here, will thee have a photo took wi them?”
She said it felt unbelievable that she could have such impact just by giving time to people and that she was now in someone else’s wedding photographs.
Another job most politicians find unusual when acting as Lord Mayor is being apolitical and chairing full council meetings.
She said: “I think I was probably one of the most challenging opposition councillors when I wasn’t on that top bench because I am opinionated so it’s different being sat on the other side.
“It’s a different role and I’m really enjoying it. Because you have to be non-political I’m getting to know the opposition, I’ve known some of them a long time but it’s nice to get to know them on an even playing field. There is no politics involved and that’s refreshing, because we are all here for the same reason really aren’t we? When we are in that council chamber that’s the only time we should be in opposition.”
She has lots planned over the coming year, including bringing back the Lord Mayor’s parade in some form which she hopes future Lord Mayors will build upon.
Coun Smith said: “If I haven’t got a full diary, I’ll fill it because I want to meet as many people as I can. I want to make a difference.”