Every week, Express FM runs a live show dedicated to news about the Coronavirus in Portsmouth, as Robbie James interviews a range of local people, including politicians, experts, residents and businesses. On 3rd June, Robbie spoke to Lord Mayor, Cllr Rob Wood, about being the first Mayor to have a ‘virtual’ mayor-making, how he intends to help the city going into the future, and how the city has dealt with the pandemic.
Robbie James: It’s your first time on Express as the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth. How have things been?
Lord Mayor: It’s been something we’ve never experienced before. I’m very conscious of the fact that it is a unique opportunity. A lot of us have been watching the Dunkirk films and various other things and there’s a bit of that spirit in the air, which is it’s not about ceremonial [duties], it’s about reconnecting with people.
We’ve gone through a difficult time so I’m very appreciative of the fact that perhaps historically, I [am] Lord Mayor at a very unique time, and what I do and what Debbie, the Lady Mayoress, will do will define our time as the Lord and Lady Mayor.
It must have been a strange feeling being selected as the Lord Mayor on a video call?
Yes, we prepared the week before to make sure things went as smoothly as possible because obviously it [is for] public consumption. It was very strange. Normally, it’s quite a ‘pomp and circumstance’, as you know, and so to be behind a screen and to make sure we fitted into the screen so we could see everybody else required a lot of behind the scenes direction to make sure it went smoothly. At the same time, you obviously didn’t get the connection you would have liked to get but we are in modern times. So, I’m glad it went well on the day with very few hitches.
We’re hoping that there’s light at the end of the tunnel now. How do you feel Portsmouth has coped?
I’m really proud of Portsmouth and [the residents] and the facts speak for themselves. We’re right down there as one of the lowest number of rates of infections and deaths, which means that people in Pompey have taken to making sure that they’re abiding by the rules. The few walkabouts I did to take exercise [in] Somerstown and Old Portsmouth, I was amazed at how everywhere people were making sure they stuck to the regime. I know now that the cork is somewhat popped but at this point in time, I think it’s reflected in the figures how well we’ve done in Portsmouth compared to other regions. So that’s one up for Pompey, it’s brilliant how people have reacted.
What do you put that down to? Do you feel it’s the fact that we are a quite historical city? We’ve had to go through a lot in the past.
I think we’re an island and we are very much proud of being an island…we have that mentality. But we live cheek by jowl, we’re one of the most densely populated [cities in the UK]. We’ve learned how to get on with each other, and we take pride in that. I agree with you we have that historical precedence where quietly, we’ve been at the forefront of what Britain has been about and I think people take pride in the fact that they’ve partaken in historical events. I think that our character comes out and shows that when the chips are down, we really do knuckle down.
What’s your role in the situation in Portsmouth [as the Lord Mayor]? What are you having to do day in, day out at the moment?
You’re going to hear me say this quite often and it’s something my wife Debbie mentioned to me.
I said to her, ‘What do you think’s going on?’
She said, ‘Well, people are feeling very anxious, you can sense it, I think our role is very much about going out there being available, giving reassurance about where we’re going to go.’
So, I’ve taken that leaf out my wife’s thinking. The rule book has gone out about exactly what we’re going to do. We are just trying to make ourselves as available as possible, whether that’s online, or simply walking about, social distancing, being available and supporting people in their recovery and making sure there is light at the end of the tunnel.
We’ve had the opportunity to first of all, comply, now there’s an opportunity to say so what do we do [moving] into the future? We’re going to make ourselves available, we’re going to make sure that we’re there to chat to people, to help the city recover, and do whatever is required in Portsmouth to make sure we come out [of] this in the best way possible.
If there are going to be any changes in the way that we start to live as a society and as a city, what do you see being implemented in the coming months?
While we were in lockdown, people got a lot closer to looking at the minor detail and nature and the environment. I think there is a movement to try and capture the good things that came from that lockdown in the city; to make sure we try to find a balance between the modernity of the world versus understanding what nature is about and how we got back in touch with it.
There’s also family. I have grandchildren who my wife and I really missed the physical presence of, just giving them a hug. And that’s going to be something that people will remember: how they felt during that period of time. I think it’s a case of us being together, because a lot of us have understood that maybe youngsters [are less] likely to [become ill] from this as the older generation, so much of this time has been about protecting the older generation.
I think a lot of the voluntary sector, like the HIVE, have sprung up and people have come to the forefront to help each other. That’s a tremendous thing about helping people and I hope that spirit goes forward,
Your predecessor, David Fuller, put a lot of focus into raising money for local charities. How much of your work will be centred [on that]?
Practically, a big chunk of that because I’m a great believer [that] charity begins at home: the local community, local volunteering groups, local charities that help us directly on the ground.
I will very much be following on from what David Fuller did. He did a tremendous amount of having a Community Chest, which is a funding stream for local charities to bid into. I’m going to carry that forward and be more inclusive with the local organizations that have sprung up meanwhile, like the HIVE, so they can bid in. My work in terms of charities is really to fill the coffers and allow local people and charities to say how it’s going to be distributed. It will be governed – as it is currently now for David Fuller – by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Community Foundation to give it the governance. But it will be centred around fundraising locally.
Initially, that’s going to be tough so I guess somewhere along the line my website will have something like a Just Giving [page to] start [the] ball rolling because part of it is very much centred around having events. As you will be aware that won’t happen until later in the year. So I’m going to go out there, be very visible, encourage those who can give to give and later on, encourage those who can attend events or I can attend an event for them, to be charitable for the city [and] for those who have suffered.
What advice would you give, [to] residents that feel there is light at the end of the tunnel but are still anxious about what might be coming?
I think the older generations went through the war, they got to the other side and they know what it’s like. I think to the younger generation it’s new, but there is always light at the end of the tunnel. People have a great capacity to come together and help themselves and I think we will look back at this and say, wow! We’ve got from that side to this side and we’re capable of doing that.
This article was transcribed from Express FM’s weekly Coronavirus Special podcast, 3rd June 2020, and has been edited for clarity and length.