Freedom of the Borough approved for key workers and Customs House chief 'Tommy the Trumpeter' Ray Spencer

Key worker heroes and a well-known South Tyneside culture chief have moved a step closer towards receiving the Freedom of the Borough, following a decision by councillors.

Ray Spencer, executive director at The Customs House.
Ray Spencer, executive director at The Customs House.

South Tyneside Council, at a meeting this week, discussed the latest recipients primed for what is the highest honour the council can bestow.

The two nominations included Ray Spencer MBE and all local NHS, carers, and key workers, with awards expected to be conveyed at special meetings in coming months.

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The council said Mr Spencer has ‘played a major role in the civic and cultural life of South Tyneside’, with decades promoting performing arts and the culture sector, and the borough as a whole.

He serves as executive director at The Customs House and was previously much-loved for his appearances as entertainer ‘Tommy the Trumpeter’.

Mr Spencer also hosts The Shields Gazette Best of South Tyneside awards, honouring the borough’s unsung heroes.

The key workers nomination follows a cabinet decision in May, 2020, endorsing plans to honour NHS, carers and other key workers who contributed to keeping people safe and continuing essential services during the height of the pandemic.

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At a meeting of full council on Thursday, September 29, councillors were asked to agree to the proposals and the arrangements for two extraordinary council meetings to confer the civic awards, with a ceremony for Mr Spencer in October, 2022, and one for key workers in early March, 2023.

Councillor Tracey Dixon, leader of South Tyneside Council, said nominees “could not be more deserving of this marvellous tribute”.

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Councillors also heard the ceremony for key workers in March, 2023, aimed to coincide with the unveiling of permanent Covid memorials in locations across the borough.

The Freedom of the Borough nominations were approved, but not without comments from opposition councillors.

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Councillor David Francis, Green Group leader, noted the current cost-of-living crisis and asked if there was a “mechanism” where councillors could pay towards any catering costs linked to ceremonies.

Councillor John Robertson, independent member, said it was “unfair” key workers had to wait until March, 2023, for their award and asked why the awards couldn’t be combined into one meeting.

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Councillor Ian Forster, Conservative member, added he was asked by local residents to raise the issue of Ray Spencer’s previous 12-month driving ban in 2005 for a drink-driving offence.

Cllr Forster clarified the issue should not be a reason for refusing the civic honour, adding “as human beings we’re all capable of making mistakes”, but that it was “something that should be considered”.

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Labour chiefs including councillor Joan Atkinson, deputy leader of South Tyneside Council and councillor Joanne Bell, cabinet member, criticised Cllr Foster's comments.

Cllr Bell, cabinet member for governance, finance and corporate services, added Mr Spencer had been “a stalwart in this borough and will continue to do so”.

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Councillor Tracey Dixon also gave further praise to the achievements of Mr Spencer.

She added: “Ray has been such a huge advocate for us in this borough and he has worked tirelessly not just within Customs House but out in the communities supporting every single one of our vulnerable and our young people where there was a need for it”.

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It was also confirmed by Cllr Bell that arrangements for catering at the special council meetings would be “taken away and looked at”.

After being put to the vote, councillors agreed the next steps towards conferring the Freedom of the Borough to Mr Spencer and key workers.

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The rare honour has only been awarded to 10 people or organisations since 1981.

Some previous recipients have included The Rt Hon Lord Don Dixon P.C.D.L, The Citizens of Wuppertal and 205 (3rd Durham Voluntary Artillery) Battery Royal Artillery (volunteers) and South Shields Volunteer Life Brigade.