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Dragon Interview: Nikki Nelson-Smith on Her Year as Mayor of Guildford

Published on: 25 May, 2016
Updated on: 25 May, 2016
Nikki Nelson Smith Mayor

Cllr Nikki Nelson-Smith after the official “Mayor Making”

Cllr Nikki Nelson-Smith, a Conservative councillor for Christchurch, became the Mayor of Guildford in May 2015, probably one of Guildford’s youngest citizens to be made mayor. Here she reflects on what, by common consent has been a successful year…

Was being the Mayor of Guildford as you expected it to be?

Although I had had a year as deputy, I’m not sure I really knew what I was letting myself in for but I had a wonderful year.

How many events did you attend? Did you find the schedule manageable?

I was invited to over 550 events, and attended about 400 engagements but this was only a third of my schedule as I also had countless meetings around my theme and about fundraising events.  It was a very busy year, I hardly had a night in or a whole day off.

What did your family think about it?

They were all hugely supportive that I should do it but I should imagine there was a certain mixture of pride and embarrassment from my teenage daughters. Since my husband has a demanding job he was only a part-time consort which gave me the opportunity to ask a number of friends to different events and share the great experience of being mayor.

The Mayor of Guildford, Nikki Nelson-Smith pictured with her husband Mig and their two daughters.

The Mayor of Guildford, Nikki Nelson-Smith, pictured with her husband Mig and their two daughters just after Nikki had completed a charity abseil.

Why is having a ceremonial mayor important or even necessary?

We’ve had mayors in Guildford since the 13th century so there’s a lot of history surrounding the position. A ceremonial mayor is the first citizen of the borough and is apolitical so is expected to support all the many things going on in the borough without a personal political agenda.

The Mayor of Guildford, Nikki Nelson-Smith former World War 2 soldier Douglas Mitchell, who had been awarded the Croix de Guerre.

The Mayor of Guildford, Nikki Nelson-Smith, former Second World War soldier Douglas Mitchell, who had been made a member of France’s Legion de’Honneur.

What do you think about having an elected mayor? Wouldn’t there be some advantages?

The current system works well so why change it?

I’m not in favour of an elected mayor for Guildford. I think local government is so different from working in the private sector that having a council leader who has worked their way up through the system, and has the support of other councillors, is preferable to parachuting someone who may have only limited experience in local government straight into the top job, with power and a budget. I think it could challenge the premises of selflessness, transparency and accountability.

On reflection, does it make you realise how little you knew parts of our borough before your mayoral year?

There are always parts of the borough you get to know better, but it was more about what the people do there. I learnt a great deal about the many charities that are supported, the voluntary groups set up for local communities, the unsung heroes who look after their own area.

People make a place – and Guildford is full of wonderful people.

The Mayor, Cllr Nikki Nelson-Smith, who had officially started the race looked really concerned.

As the mayor, Nikki officially starts the annual raft race at Millmead.

Do you have one single event that stands out for any reason?

No not one, but a number for different reasons.

Presiding over National Armed Forces Day was a huge honour. An amazing feat of logistics, having to make safe for VVIPs three different sites in Guildford. Over 1,000 people parading up the High Street and in the region of 40,000 visitors on the day. But I had had no part in its organisation so can’t take any credit.

The Duke of York, the prime minister and the secretary of state for defence were among the dignitaries who attended Armed Forces Day in Guildford.

The Duke of York, standing next to Nikki as he takes the salute during Guildford’s Armed Forces Day in Guildford, June last year (2015). Not even the prime minister made it to the podium.

By contrast, the science and arts festival Innovate Guildford which I spearheaded as part of my theme, is an achievement I am very proud of, but I couldn’t have done it without the amazing support I got from the economic development team at GBC and our internal communications team as well as the local arts community.

The Boileroom were amazing at putting out social media and helping us to find arts-based participants. Local companies were terrific that they got behind the idea and made it work.

With over 5,000 people visiting on the day, a further 880,000 impressions on Twitter and a number of companies having been approached subsequent to the festival for work experience, I was delighted with the outcome. It was deemed such a success that we will be doing it again, and better, in 2017.

I have also really enjoyed meeting the long list of amazing people we have in our borough. During this whole year, I have never ceased to be surprised by the number of organisations and individuals who work so hard to make this a great place to live.

Mayor Nikki Nelson-Smith SATRO

Nikki performing one of her last official functions as mayor presenting a cheque to GBC’s civic secretary Kate Foxton, responsible for organising the mayor’s diary and events.

How important was the charity fund raising? What will the money be used for?

More important than the fundraising was raising awareness of both the skills debate and the part my charity plays within that. My theme was about inspiring young people in order to motivate them to get the skills needed for the jobs of tomorrow.

The deficit in skills we particularly suffer is in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects and a lack of hands-on experience – kids these days, I am told, tend to play with technology – iPads, X-boxes etc – rather than Meccano and Lego or just tinkering. SATRO goes into schools to inspire kids with hands-on activities to inspire an interest in STEM subjects from an early age – eight years – all the way through and even goes on to help some of them get placements after they have left school.

The fundraising will go towards more hands-on activities in schools. And it will fund a few placements.

Has the experience changed you, do you think?

Every experience changes you, I think, hopefully for the better. I have learned much about the area, the people, the amazing companies we have. I have seen nothing but kindness, goodness and generosity this year. The people of our borough have made me feel very special and that was a really lovely experience.

Proud as punch, (and why not?) at the front of the civic contingent the Mayor of Guildford, Cllr Nikki Nelson-Smith.

Not Dick Whittington but Nikki in full garb not advertising a play.

Do you have an amusing incident you can share with us from you year as the Mayor of Guildford?

On Open Heritage Weekend, I stood in the High Street in full robes, with the chain sitting on the Jabot around my neck, tricorn on my head, staff in hand and I was asked countless times which play I was promoting and what part I was playing! I was amazed at how few people knew there was a mayor despite my being in the local news almost every week.

Would you recommend it to your fellow councillors?

Absolutely. Provided you are curious, enjoy meeting people and being out a lot, then it is an amazing year. I should imagine some introverted types might enjoy it less.

What are your priorities now as a councillor and a new member of the Executive

Let me get my feet under the table!

As mayor I really wanted to increase communication between groups as I firmly believe that understanding each other’s point of view helps smooth relations, even if you can’t agree.

So I hope very much that I can continue to further communication and some of the collaboration that I started as mayor and that, working with the community, we can all agree some positive objectives to put Guildford where it should be, firmly on the map for its arts and heritage.

In addition, I will continue on the Innovate Guildford Science and Arts Festival Project Board as we are already working on next year’s festival.

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