My Cotswold Life: Joe Harris, Britain’s youngest mayor
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
Katie Jarvis meets Joe Harris, probably the only mayor in the country to be still living with his parents, and asks him about his Cotswold Life Pictures by Antony Thompson/ © Thousand Word Media
At 20 years old, Joe Harris heads up Cirencester Town Council as the youngest mayor in the country. He’s also a district and county councillor. His interest in local politics was fired after being mugged in Cirencester town centre in December 2009. “I didn’t like what I was seeing and I decided somebody needed to do something,” he says. “I didn’t instantly think: Right, I’m going to be a councillor. But after I’d spoken out, I was approached by local politicians who thought I could make a difference in the town. When an opportunity comes your way in life, you’ve got to take it. You learn from every experience.”
Still living at home, Joe devotes himself full-time to local politics, though future possibilities include furthering his education through the Open University and following his father into a career in IT and social media.
Where do you live and why?
I live in the centre of Cirencester – probably the only mayor in the country who still lives with his parents! I enjoy it; it’s home; and the way the economy is, I’m not looking to move out any time soon.
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How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?
I was born in Cheltenham but I’ve lived in Cirencester more or less my whole life. It can be strange when I meet new people – especially of my own age – and tell them what I do, but my friends all accept it: they’ve been on the journey with me. As far as my council work is concerned, knowing the area means I understand the issues that are important to local people. My biggest priority is to help create a strong economy in Cirencester, and the biggest bane of my life is the whole car-parking charges problem. Stats show that places with lower parking charges get more people through the town and that those people spend more money in the shops: it’s basic market economics.
What’s your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?
We had the Phoenix Festival last weekend [a youth and music-based event in Cirencester’s Abbey Grounds], which really brought the community together. There’s not enough for young people to do in our market towns generally and that’s something I’d like to address. But the great thing about the Phoenix Festival was that the kids were involved in running it, which really empowered them and gave them some skills. I was in youth work in the town for four or five years, at the Cyber Café, which has now sadly shut. We had a great range of kids – those from poor backgrounds who just needed a helping hand in life, to relatively well-off kids. But they were all mingling together, doing something for themselves.
If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?
Can I have two properties? I’d quite like somewhere in the countryside, probably around Northleach or Stow-on-the-Wold. But, because I’m a town boy, I’d like somewhere in central Cirencester, too – I’d cart everyone out of the Bingham Gallery [town council chambers] and create my own mansion! Everyone would be welcome, though. Wherever I lived would have to be environmentally-friendly: all the scientific evidence points to the fact that our climate is changing; but, even if global warming didn’t exist, we should still be looking at ways of living within our means.
Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?
I’ve got to live in Cirencester or the surrounding area to do the job I do, and I do like the fact that people know me and constantly stop me in the street to say hello. Most of them realise I’m not on duty all the time, but there are occasions – in the pub on a Friday night, trying to chill out – when I don’t always want to talk about potholes! The weirdest request came not long after I was elected the first time, back in 2011, when somebody rang and asked me to pick up dog poo from their garden – which I did.
Where’s the best pub in the area?
I used to work in the Crown so I’d be doing them a disservice if I didn’t say I love drinking in there. We’ve also got some great pubs for food in Cirencester – the Golden Cross has just won a Cotswold Life award. Mark, the owner, was very pleased and still recovering from the night before, when I saw him! Most young people will start a Friday or Saturday night off in the Crown before heading off for our two nightclubs: Seventeen Black and the legendary Rock Club, which has been here for a good 20 years. Parents will always tell you stories about what happened at the Rock.
And the best place to eat?
I love Graze, where Harry Hare’s used to be. Made by Bob and Jesse’s Bistro do fantastic food, too. The recession has done a funny thing to Cirencester – although it has affected us, the town has been pretty resilient, with new businesses opening up - especially eateries and coffee shops.
Have you a favourite tearoom?
Café Mosaic [in the Woolmarket]. It’s very convenient for me – just down the road from the town council - with good local owners.
What would you do for a special occasion?
After my ‘special occasion’ – when I was elected mayor – I went into hiding for two weeks. It was surreal! I had the whole thing around my father, who became the deputy mayor. I thought he was the best man for the job, though there were some people saying it was nepotism. But it’s up to us to prove it can work and that the family connection isn’t going to get in the way.
I believe I’m the youngest mayor ever, and there are advantages and disadvantages to that. Certainly, it has helped put the town on the map. I’ve had invitations from all over the country to go and network.
What’s the best thing about the Cotswolds?
The beautiful scenery. We’ve got the district council currently consulting on the local plan, which is the biggest issue that’s facing the Cotswolds because it sets out where we’re going to put housing. Unfortunately, because we haven’t got the local plan in place, we’re at the mercy of developers. But, even so, we need to make sure we’re not railroading this through; that we do it properly. It’s a totally old-fashioned, out-of-touch view to think that we can retain our picturesque villages with no development; that’s not going to happen. But what we can make sure is that, where development does happen, it’s sensitive to local residents and it’s done in a way that really complements the area. The key to that is engaging and talking with communities.
... and the worst?
The sense people can have that they aren’t listened to. Unfortunately, I don’t think councils and public authorities do consultation very well. We had a great consultation on the Market Place at Cirencester Town Council, where we wrote to every resident and we had about 1500 responses, which is almost unprecedented. What Cotswold District Council need to decide is what their [local plan] consultation is for. Is it to listen to residents? Is it to take their concerns and do something about them? Or is it just a tick-box measure that the Government requires and you know they’ll plough on whatever?
Which shop could you not live without?
Henleys Sweet Shop in Cricklade Street. I love any sweets with jelly in.
What’s the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds?
The people. When we had a by-election in the north of the Cotswolds last year, I found I could walk into any pub, strike up a dialogue, find some common ground and get some good answers.
What would be a three-course Cotswold meal?
My three-course meal would be multicultural: we have some great Indian and Chinese restaurants in the Cotswolds. I’d start with soup from the Golden Cross, followed by an Indian main from the Rasoi in Dollar Street – a chicken tikka or korma hits the spot. I’m not much of a dessert person but I had a really great chocolate brownie recently at the Kingham Plough.
What’s your favourite view in the Cotswolds?
My best urban view is from the top of the parish church – you can see for miles and miles. And my best rural view is Condicote, from the main road, on a beautiful summer’s day. Staggering.
What’s your favourite Cotswolds building and why?
Again, the magnificent parish church. I was in the choir when I was growing up, and I’m lucky in that I get on well with the church wardens and Father Leonard, the vicar, so I often walk round the building: yet I can still discover things I never knew existed. They call it the Cathedral of the Cotswolds, and rightly so.
What would you never do in the Cotswolds?
Sit back and do nothing. If there’s a debate to be had, I like to have my say, even if it’s not particularly valid! If I feel there’s injustice, I have to act.
Starter homes or executive properties?
When we talk about affordable housing, what do we really mean? £200,000 isn’t affordable when your average deposit is 20 grand. I want to push for the council to take responsibility and start building some houses. People can sometimes be a bit snobby about ‘council houses’, thinking they can breed social problems. But if we get a good local plan in place and build them well, and make people want to live in them, that’s not going to be an issue.
What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?
I like boundaries so, for me, it’s the Cotswold District.
If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?
A collage of images showing the beauty of the Cotswolds – but I’d like to see people in the photographs, too.
What’s the first piece of advice you’d give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?
Get stuck in. Laurence and Jackie Llewelyn-Bowen are great examples. They could have come here and been reclusive but they really got involved in community events and projects and are such good ambassadors for the local area.
And which book should they read?
There are lots of good photo books of Cirencester over the years. It’s always worth finding out about the history of a place. I find it fascinating how much Cirencester has grown over the past 50 or 60 years – the Beeches Estate, a lot of Chesterton, Stratton to the north. I’m convinced that, in 25 years’ time, Cirencester will be 50 percent bigger than now.
Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?
I love the walks round the Cotswold Water Park, which I do with my little brother, Peter, who’s five.
Which event, or activity, best sums up the Cotswolds?
Tetbury Woolsack Races; the duck race at South Cerney; Bourton-on-the-Water football in the river; cheese rolling. If it’s mad, it’s Cotswolds.
If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
I’m quite into my football so I’d go behind the scenes at Chelsea.
The Cotswolds - aspic or asphalt?
The Cotswolds has to change but we have to make sure it’s in a way that complements the area. Take the amphitheatre, for example: we feel it’s underused and we’d like to keep it maintained. One of the grand plans is to look at building an eco-hut there, which could be used for community events, and to teach people about the wildlife and history of the site. It’s a way off at the moment, but not beyond the realms of possibility.
With whom would you most like to have a cider?
Probably Daniel Bingham who did so much for the town in the early years of the 20th century. I’d like his opinion on what we’re doing now.
Joe Harris can be contacted on email@example.com 07540 734500