You wait for years for a new alderman and then two come along at once! Roger and Flick handed ultimate honour

Touching speeches – with one or two tears – at special meeting held to celebrate service of two of the longest-serving councillors in Camden history

Friday, 24th June — By Richard Osley

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Flick Rea and Roger Robinson

IT is an honour which is rarely used in Camden, a sacrosanct title reserved only for those who have provided exceptional and the most extraordinary service to the borough.

So it was in unusual – and at times touching – circumstances that not one but two new honorary aldermen were anointed in the Town Hall chamber on Monday.

An important moment of local history, Roger Robinson and Flick Rea took a bow after more than 70 years combined service as councillors.

Both have already had honours from the Queen, but this felt more special as it came in the place where they have fought for the community for so long.

Their names will now be carved in the marble walls of the Town Hall’s civic floor – generations to come will see and learn what they did for the borough.

Before his retirement in May, Mr Robinson had amassed nearly four decades as a Labour councillor, over two different spells.

Roger Robinson

He was elected in 1964: the year the Post Office tower was finished, Harold Wilson became PM, The Beatles released A Hard Day’s Night – and Camden Council was formed.

Ms Rea, meanwhile, spent 35 years representing Fortune Green. However hard her opponents tried, first the Tories and later Labour, to unseat her, she always held onto her place. She is Camden’s first Liberal Democrat alderman; she insisted on not changing the title to alderwoman for her award.

Technically, both nominations needed a vote at Monday’s all-member meeting but when Mayor Nash Ali turned to the floor, there was only a sea of hands in support to see.

Council leader Georgia Gould said: “I like to talk about Camden’s rebellious spirit. Roger embodies that fight for social justice as a campaigner for the rights of tenants, against racism, for young people and as a tireless voice for our disabled residents.”

His contribution is due to be marked and celebrated in the new Somers Town history museum in Phoenix Road. “You are someone who has taken up tens of thousands of pieces of casework,” Cllr Gould told Mr Robinson, who joked he was like her “second Jewish grandpa”.

“You never give up,” she said. “Whenever I go to Somers Town I hear another story of how you have served that community.”

Pat Callaghan, her deputy looked visibly moved and close to tears as she paid her own tribute to Mr Robinson, telling her Glasgow-raised friend: “You are a tough Scot, Roger – one that grew up realising you had to fight to improve the conditions for so many, which over the years you’ve continued doing.
“Camden’s motto is: Not for oneself, but for all. This is engraved on your heart.”

His efforts on a series of campaigns for the people of Somers Town were recalled – and how he had been one of the key organisers behind the Prisoner of War memorial near Mornington Crescent.

He saw that service personnel who had been held in detention camps – notably in brutal conditions in the Far East – had not been properly recognised and worked with the New Journal to raise money for the monument which is now an important focal point on the anniversary of VJ Day and Remembrance Sunday.

Flick Rea receives her award from Mayor Nash Ali

While some local authorities regularly hand out “keys to the city” or alderman titles, Camden reserves the honour for only the most special cases – which is why some members were suggesting on Monday that this meant more than even the yearly OBE and MBE handouts from the Palace.

The last honorary alderman to be given the tile was the late Roy Shaw, a Labour councillor who clocked up 51 years as a councillor, in 2007.

In total only 15 people – before Monday’s ceremony – had been recognised in this way, although largely in the 1960s and 1970s when aldermen could then still have a seat reserved for them in the chamber, which they could claim in a wig and robe.

As well as having their names on the roll of honour at the refurbished council HQ in Judd Street, King’s Cross, the new honorary aldermen will be invited to civic events.

Former council leader Keith Moffitt and, below, the current Town Hall leader Georgia Gould

Mr Robinson thanked people who had sent messages of support in his final months on the council.

“It has been a great pleasure and an honour to serve the people of this unique borough,” he said.

“As has been said by my friend Richard [Cotton], I was actually present at the birth of the borough in 1964/65 – so I have many, many memories.This evening will provide another great and lasting memory.”

Ms Rea, wearing the pink jacket she wore to her very first council meeting, said she was overwhelmed as former colleagues reminded the room of her many campaigns and her role making the annual Jester Festival a success.

“I’ve had a ball” she said. “My heart is with local government, it’s my raison d’etre. I never wanted to save the world, I knew I couldn’t do that – but I did want to make Camden, which is the borough I am proud to live in, hopefully just a slightly bit better.”

Ms Rea joked that she had “become a ‘Liberal’ by accident” because she didn’t like any of the others and that she saw them run a “perfectly dreadful Christmas bazaar and thought I could do better than that”.

Several former Liberal Democrat activists and councillors were back in the public gallery to see her receive the honour.

Ms Rea was surprised by her constituents during the Covid lockdowns when they turned up on her doorstep for a ‘Clap 4 Flick’ applause.

She has been described as “the best mayor Camden never had”, but former council leader Keith Moffitt told the meeting: “I know Flick would have been an outstanding mayor but it wasn’t really something she wanted to do. When we ran the council [2006-2010], she was far more interested in holding the culture portfolio.”

Deputy council leader Pat Callaghan gave an emotional tribute

In this role, he added that she had been “obsessive” about making sure the Prince of Wales of Baths was restored – and not sold off. Her kitchen table, Mr Moffitt said, had been the scene of great political discussion and support for fellow campaigners.

Green councillor Sian Berry said the pair had their “own little gang” at a time when they were both the only councillors from their parties – everybody knew what she meant when she said they used to pop out of the meeting for some fresh air outside.

“It was an honour to sit next to Flick during council meetings and get the full benefit of her asides – which were legendary. I miss them so much already,” she said.

Perhaps the liveliest speech of the evening came from Tory leader Councillor Gio Spinella who teased her that she had first come onto the council at a time when we “could dance to Duran Duran and Wham without irony”.

He said: “Politics in many ways is an eternal ‘now’ formed by the past, trying to form and turn the future, but if you want to know how to do the work ­– how to endure – how to make sure all you try to work towards stays on, I will point to the example of Flick Rea.”

Peeps: How to be a councillor

IT is a funny old irony that Labour once went hammer and tongs at trying to unseat Liberal Democrat Flick Rea up in Fortune Green, insisting that it was vital to win every council seat possible.

On Monday, members were queuing up to praise her longevity as a councillor, some admitting they missed her thespy speeches already. Certainly, fewer people spent this week’s meeting-stroke-ceremony staring at phones than normal, perhaps because we were being treated to an exquisite history lesson.

Tory leader Gio Spinella

Maybe it was the Tory leader Gio Spinella – he has come out of his shell as a council chamber orator since returning to the head of the group – who summed it up best when he explained he once saw Ms Rea as a “dragon” who “young bucks” would think they could defeat, only for them all to add their names to those electorally slain in her wake. His words were steeped in both admiration and affection.

It was a clever line to suggest she was actually a different mythical creature: “a councillor that is known”.

Many pass through thinking they have great personal votes, when really they have coasted in on the colour of their rosettes.

For all the bonhomie, you wouldn’t know Flick has a wicked tongue by the water cooler and Roger Robinson had every now and then irritated his colleagues with his dogged insistence that something that needed to be fixed… should be fixed.

Because it turns out all these councillors love each other really.

They roll their eyes at each other for most of the year, they jibe away at each other – but when someone has done nearly 40 years as a councillor, it is impossible not to have respect for the achievement.

It was ok to have a lump in the throat thinking these two characters, Roger and Flick, will not be on their feet in our chamber again.

In a way, it felt like a crossroads moment, as the nature of council politics – for good or bad – changes.

Like football clubs no longer having managers who stay for 20 years, maybe we won’t see too many more marathon stretches. A clutch of councillors who can remember Ellen Luby – the famous heckler who was mentioned a couple of times – are still there but they are now a small pool.

But it’s not just their stubborn durability that should be celebrated. It’s the fact these two could liven up the room.

At local and national levels, politics is crying out for more people who can ditch the recitals from bits of paper and stand up and speak from the heart.

A simple skill, it may seem, but only because Roger and Flick made it look easy.

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