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Sir Robin Wales

(Elected 2010)


In 1982, Sir Robin Wales was elected as a Councillor for the London Borough of Newham – serving until 1986.

A resident of Newham since 1978, he moved to the area after completing a BSc in chemistry at Glasgow University. Sir Robin returned to Newham Council in 1992, becoming Leader in 1995 before winning election as the borough’s first ever directly elected Mayor in 2002. He was knighted in the same year, in recognition  of his service to local government, and was re-elected for a third Mayoral term in 2010 with an increased majority.

Birkbeck’s £33m joint venture with the University of East London to open a new educational centre in Stratford in 2013 has had vocal backing from Sir Robin: 'The development of Stratford City means there will be tens of thousands of new job opportunities in Newham; our residents need the skills to fill these jobs – and this is why we welcome Birkbeck.'

Following involvement in London’s successful bid for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Sir Robin serves on the Boards of the London Organising Committee of the Olympics Games and the Olympic Park Legacy Company to ensure the Games’ legacy is  of lasting benefit to Newham.


Master, Distinguished Governors, Graduates and Guests.

Robin Wales was brought up in Kilmarnock and attended Kilmarnock Academy. He had plenty of acquaintance as he grew up with poverty and social problems, which impelled him to join the Labour Party at the age of 15. He carried his political interest forward to the University of Glasgow, where he went to study for a BSc in chemistry degree, and joined the Glasgow University Labour Club, of which he became Chair, following in the footsteps of notable predecessors like Donald Dewar and John Smith. He left Scotland in 1978 to take up a position with British Telecom, to which he has said he was attracted by the idea of working for a nationally-owned industry, only to find it sold off underneath him by the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher. His involvement with local politics, and with the area of Newham in particular, began in 1982, when he became a local councillor, and in 1995 he became Leader of Newham Council. It was in recognition of his long service to local government that he was awarded a knighthood in the Birthday Honours' List in 2000.

In May 2002, he became the first elected Mayor of Newham, one, so far, of only 12 directly-elected Mayors in the UK. He was reelected in 2006, and was recently, in May of this year, returned for a third term, with a resounding 68% of the vote, a majority that is the envy of many parliamentary representatives. This continues a strong tradition of Labour voting in the area, which elected both the first Labour council country and, in 1892, Keir Hardie, who would go on to form the Independent Labour Party the following year. Keir Hardie he refused to wear the top hat and wing collar customary among MPs of the time, and took his seat in a tweed suit, red tie and deerstalker, thereby inaugurating a proud tradition Labour Party sartorial free-thinking. Robin Wales has become not only in his practice a strong example of what directly-elected Mayors can achieve, but a vocal advocate of the idea of directly-elected Mayors, who are regarded by many as more visible and accountable to their electorates, and with an electoral mandate than can give them the authority to draw together partners and resources for the benefit of local areas.

Under Sir Robin’s leadership, the Borough of Newham has seen some striking improvements. Using indicators from the Audit Commission, the council has moved from 31st out of the 33 London boroughs in 1997 to 17th in 1998 and third in 1999. The borough pioneered initiatives for free school meals and free access to swimming facilities, services which it has promised to maintain following the recent withdrawal of central funding support. In March this year, the Borough announced its 1.25 million Every Child a Musician initiative, which will make available free music lessons for some 4000 9-10 year olds in Newham schools. And somehow Newham also manages to have the lowest council tax of any Outer London borough. Nevertheless, the Borough of Newham remains one of the most deprived in the country, and Sir Robin loses no opportunity to remind people of the gap between it and its more affluent neighbours.

Sir Robin has an infectious enthusiasm for the dynamic population of Newham. Like many areas of east London, it is a place which subject to a characteristic rhythm of inflow and outflow, as immigrant populations build economic success and then move out into more affluent areas. Parts of Newham were once known as ‘Little Jamaica’, but are now home to large numbers of Asians who are themselves building successful businesses. Sir Robin has said that he wants Newham to be a place where more people put down roots. There are one or two notable former residents whom he has tried to woo back, such as the young Austrian teenager who trained at a gym in Forest Gate and went on to carve out a career for himself in local politics. Hopes are high that Arnold Schwarzenegger will accept Sir Robin’s invitation, from one Gubernator to another, to be his guest of honour during the Olympics.

Of course the overwhelming preoccupation of the Mayor over the last five years, since the announcement of the success of London’s Olympics bid, has been the planning for the 2012 Olympics, more than 60% of which, including the Olympic Park, the main stadium and the Aquatic Centre, will take place in Newham. The robin is a chirpy and familiar British bird, which sings vigorously both day and night, but can also be fearsome in its behaviour and defence of its territory. Sir Robin’s song is fluent, euphonious and frequently-resumed, but he has also displayed all the ferocity of his namesake bird, in his tireless efforts to ensure that the Olympics really do leave the legacy in expanded local employment and improved infrastructure that he and we were promised. It has often been hard to get politicians and investors, understandably focussed on the rapidly-approaching deadline for completion of the facilities, to pay attention to their afterlife, and their long-term impact in the East of London. Sitting on the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, Sir Robin may at times have suspected that the Government’s promises that ‘seemed so full of sweetness at the start’ might turn out to be, as in ‘Paper Roses’, the surprisingly melancholy signature song of Kilmarnock FC, ‘like a big red rose that's made of paper’. Sir Robin works constantly to remind the organisers of the local dimensions of this global event, taking an interest even in the nature of the food to be made available; where previous Olympics have handed over exclusive catering contracts to large corporations, Sir Robin wants to ensure that there will be plenty of locally-produced food available, which is to say, Asian and African cuisine, as well as a heartily cockney culinary presence, with pie and mash, jellied eels and fish and chips (this may of course be a secret plan to slow down the opposition). Sir Robin has made it his business to keep people’s eyes on the longer-term prize of East London regeneration, seeing the Olympics as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – a literal sporting chance – to close the grotesque gap that yawns between East and West London in terms of employment, educational achievement, child poverty and health. Recently, he has backed a bid from West Ham United, his adopted second team, to take over the Olympic Stadium after its glamorous fortnight in the sun is over.

He has a particular concern with the problem of the long-term unemployed, of whom Newham still has 80,000. He has developed a scheme to guarantee that nobody in Newham is worse off in work than on benefit – not by the nineteenth-century Poor Law expedient of making unemployment ‘less eligible’, but by making up the difference. He also has a strong interest in the improvement of education. Newham’s schools are the most improved in the country, providing an emphatic refutation of the assumption that ethnic diversity (and there are some hundred languages spoken by Newham’s schoolchildren) must automatically be equated with low achievement. Birkbeck’s role in Stratford East is key to the borough’s educational ambition, and Robin Wales has given valuable advice and support to the establishment of Birkbeck’s campus in Stratford. Welcoming Birkbeck at the launch of the project at Stratford Old Town Hall in 2007, he spoke confidently of the impetus that he expected Birkbeck to give to training and education in the area.

Sir Robin has devoted his life to a celebration of the values of community and the improvement of lives and prospects in his second home of Newham, the borough he has served for so long and so indefatigably. We owe a particular debt of gratitude to him for the support he has given to the establishment of Birkbeck’s second home in East London, and it is with the greatest pleasure that I welcome him now as Fellow of Birkbeck.