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Mayor Chris Cooke interview: Unusual route into politics and 'putting people first'

Council and democracy

Friday, 19 May 2023
Mayor of Middlesbrough, Chris Cooke, in Centre Square

Meet the new Mayor of Middlesbrough Chris Cooke.

Chris became the fourth directly elected mayor of the town after sealing victory in the May 4 election with 10,956 votes.

The new mayor has already set his stall out with a number of pledges, however asked what will be the first priority of his time in office he is clear.

“Make sure services work for everyone and are accessible for everyone,” said Mayor Cooke.

“It’s about making sure the council is seen as an organisation that helps people and puts them first.

“The best place to start is by raising the life chances of the most vulnerable in our society so we can all grow together.”

Born in 1990, Chris grew up in South Bank, which like many he is adamant is really part of Middlesbrough, despite now sitting outside of the local authority boundaries.

He attended first St Andrew’s RC Primary and then St Peter’s secondary.

As a teen he was placed into care which led to him “living in every single Teesside post code that exists at some point”.

Post-school Chris obtained an apprenticeship with Laurence Jackson School in Guisborough as an IT technician and was soon employed full-time in the role.

His route into politics was perhaps a slightly unusual one, with two key moments playing their part in his mid-20s.

The first could be classed as fairly practical and relates to an issue when he and his now wife Julia moved to their home in Berwick Hills.

“There was lots of glass on the path next to the house,” said Chris. “And I thought, ‘if I wrote to someone what are the chances something will happen?’ and with that I wrote to Tom Blenkinsop who was then the MP and the next day people were cleaning the path and I thought ‘that actually works’.

“I decided I’d like to do that sort of thing, I wanted to help people but I didn’t know how I could do it.”

Meanwhile the second thing was slightly more ethereal.

He said: “The other thing was, while going to the church where we were going to get married, hearing a sermon on Philippians 2:3 and it stuck with me as a way of living your life.”

The moral of the passage is to do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.

He joined the Labour Party in 2016 and was first elected as a councillor in Middlesbrough’s Newport ward in 2019.

During his four years as a councillor for one of the town’s most deprived wards he gave up his career in IT to work for Streets Ahead, a help and advice centre based on Parliament Road, as a Community Cohesion Co-ordinator.

His work as a councillor and at Streets Ahead provided a strong grounding on the services and help available for people. Chris retains a strong passion for Newport which also throws up its challenges.

He said: “It keeps you incredibly well grounded because it’s full of the nicest, salt of the earth people who would give you anything if you asked.

“I have a quite deep understanding now of all the services that exist to help people in the town and over time you begin to see how they could improve.

“There’s a need for every ward to have services. If they can have a similar offering then that’s got to be better for everyone.”

He has similar warm words for his home area of Berwick Hills, which has also had issues recently with anti-social behaviour at Norfolk Shops.

“It has everything in one place,” said Chris. “A leisure centre, a doctors, a dentist, a large supermarket, several fields, a beck, there’s green spaces all over the place and again has some of the nicest people in Boro, but it’s not without its challenges.”

Now officially sworn in as Mayor of his hometown, Chris will also act as the lead member for adult social care and public health and has appointed Linthorpe ward councillor Philippa Storey as his Deputy Mayor and an Executive team of five fellow councillors from across Middlesbrough.

“We have a really, really good team,” he said. “We have deliberately kept it small but focused, I have taken on a portfolio I understand quite well where I can hopefully give strong guidance.

“We are ready to serve and our only consideration will be what is best for Middlesbrough and its people.”

This story featured in our new digital magazine Middlesbrough News. You can sign up to receive it straight to your email inbox by visiting here.