Salute ‘First Lady’ of Westminster

Ceremony comes with the job: The Lord Mayor of Westminster Susie Burbridge in her office in Westminster City Hall
Ceremony comes with the job: The Lord Mayor of Westminster Susie Burbridge in her office in Westminster City Hall
Have your say

FROM the 18th floor of Westminster City Hall, there are panoramic views taking in Big Ben, St Paul’s Cathedral, Canary Wharf and the London Eye.

Every so often a helicopter flashes literally metres past the windows.

“Don’t worry about that,” an assistant notes. “They’ll be dropping guests off down the road.” Down the road is Buckingham Palace.

And here, sitting in this incredible office and parlour – mahogany desk, leather couches, dinky cakes on a plate – is Ecclesall lass, former Hunter’s Bar Junior School pupil and one-time Penny Black nightclub regular Susie Burbridge.

Or – perhaps we should give her proper title – the Lord Mayor of Westminster, the Deputy High Steward of Westminster Palace and the First Citizen of an eight and a half mile patch of the capital which takes in Trafalgar Square, Oxford Street, St James Park, The Houses of Parliament and – yes – that house down the road.

Since being elected one year ago, Lord Mayor Burbridge has met the Queen so many times, they’re virtually on nodding terms (“we talked about the weather”), has had Barack Obama tell her he is humbled (“he took the words out of my mouth”), and dined with Condoleezza Rice.

There’s been talks with David, George and Boris, walks with Camilla and Kate, and a Christmas Lights switch on with a group called...“now, let me think...does The Saturdays sound right?”

It does and it is.

Perhaps there’s little wonder she can be forgetful.

In this year-long role as the figurehead of Westminster Council she has attended more than 1,000 formal engagements, representing the authority to everyone from Elizabeth II to the homeless.

“I must stress, though” says the 65-year-old, whose term comes to an end next Wednesday, “my superstars are the people who work tirelessly every day for other people, the young carers looking after people after school and the charity fund-raisers.”

She’s met a fair few of those too in this whirlwind year.

“I had five days in Portugal in the summer but other than that I think I’ve had something every day,” she says. “Even Christmas Day I went to Centrepoint, a homeless charity, and had dinner there – although it was so nice I might go again this year when I’m not Lord Mayor.”

And yet, despite being so busy, never once does this Lord Mayor make you feel her time is pressing.

At 5.30pm, roughly 15 minutes before she is due in St James Park for a further engagement, she offers The Star another cup of tea as she shows off the Sheffield picture book she keeps in her office.

Which perhaps leads us to the obvious question: how did this Steel City girl who was born and raised in Dobbin Road, Ecclesall, who still has family in the city, and who once counted footballer Peter Eustace and singer Joe Cocker among her friends, rise to be Lord Mayor of one of the most powerful metropolitan boroughs anywhere in the world?

Relatively straight-forwardly as it happens.

One of seven children to Frank – who worked in the food industry – and Marjorie Sullivan, she left Sheffield in 1969 attracted by the bright lights of London.

There she found a job in a travel shop and a husband in the shape of men’s retailer Jeffrey.

She had two children – James and Charlotte, who are her consorts this year – and spent several years raising her family in Maida Vale where she still lives.

Then, after divorcing, she threw herself into a new challenge, working for Teresa Gorman, the Conservative MP for Billericay.

There she worked on everything from European fishing policy to encouraging more women to run for parliament before being elected as Tory councillor for the Lancaster Gate ward of Westminster.

“I have very strong views on things and I believe in trying to help where you can,” she says.

“I’m set for re-election in 2014 and sometimes I wonder if I’m getting too old but whenever I question myself I remember an old lady who gave me a £10 gift voucher one Christmas for helping her out. I said ‘You can’t afford this’ and she said ‘I would be insulted if you gave it me back because you have helped me so much’.”

She pauses for a moment, almost in tears at the memory.

“That’s what makes it worthwhile,” she concludes.

She had been helping such people in her post for some 12 years when, in 2010, fellow councillors asked her to be Lord Mayor for the 2011-12 term.

“It was a huge honour,” she says, “because the role comes with huge responsibilities.”

As well as representing Westminster Council and its people’s interests to the world – and in Westminster, a borough where almost every country on the globe has an embassy, that really means the rest of the world – she also chairs council meetings and raises money for four chosen charities.

They are Veterans Aid, The Mayhew Animal Home, Kidscape and London-based women’s charity Eaves, all picked because they’re close to the Lord Mayor’s heart.

Among her favourite memories from her year in the post are travelling to Oslo to cut down the Norwegian Spruce which sat in Trafalgar Square at Christmas and hosting a tea party for 1,000 pensioners.

She also enjoyed coming back to Sheffield to plant a tree with our very own Lord Mayor Sylvia Dunkley and deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

“I do still love the city,” she says. “Although – am I allowed to say this? – I do sometimes wonder if the council would like to borrow our planning department. The Town Hall is amazing but so much is... unkempt.”

But perhaps her favourite moment of all is every single time she walks into Westminster Abbey.

As the Deputy High Steward of the building, tradition dictates when she walks in everyone must stand. That’s even if your name is Barack and you’re the president of something or other.

“Every time I go in the Abbey,” she says, “one word springs to mind: awesome. That’s what it is. I don’t know how else it could be described.”

She insists there have been no ‘bad’ moments – although she also says she’s looking forward to waking up on the first Sunday after she finishes and knowing she can sit at home all day with nothing to do but read the newspapers.

“I will miss being Lord Mayor terribly but that will be Heaven,” she says.

Not that she’ll be resting on her laurels.

She’s been raising money during her term to take a group of young carers to Disney World which she hopes to make happen in the autumn, and she plans on setting up a woman’s lobbying group.

Randomly perhaps, hydrogenated fats in foods is something she particularly wants to see action on. So too is the curbing of financial excesses by multi-national companies operating in London.

And, of course, she will still have her work as a councillor.

But for now?

She’s enjoying the last fortnight as Lord Mayor.

That assistant knocks at the door. Is she aware her next appointment is in just a few minutes? She is.

She looks out the window again at that magnificent view.

“It’s not bad, is it?” she says.

Not bad at all, Lord Mayor.

City of Westminster in numbers

8.5 – square miles in size.

240,000 – population.

600,000 – people employed there by more than 40,000 businesses.

200 million – visitors every single year.

2.2 – per cent of the UK’s GDP it generates.

The Queen? She’s a wonderfulo lady...

“WHEN people say they are anti-monarchist,” says Lord Mayor of Westminster, Susie Burbridge, “it makes me feel like jumping on them.”

The 65-year-old Ecclesall-born civic leader is, it’s fair to say, most definitely not a republican.

And a good job too - because she has met the Queen several times during her year in the prestigious post.

“The first time,” she recalls, “was at a garden party at Buckingham Palace.

“I could see her coming down the line of people, talking to each and every individual with her royal smile. She’s a wonderful lady. I can’t remember what we said but it was not a very nice day and we talked about the weather.”

She’s met her several more times since, including that famous day in March when the Queen, Camilla and Kate first toured London together.

“It’s always a thrill,” says the Lord Mayor.

She also met Barack Obama when he visited Westminster Abbey, Condoleezza Rice when she was in the UK, and almost the entire British government at various times.