Leeroy Simpson – a winsome mixture of bolshieness, humour and missing teeth – is the unexpected chair of Harlesden Town Team. The first time I met him at the Salvation Army service for Mother’s Day, I mistook him for a vagrant. But looks are so often deceptive! The second time I met him, he was chairing a Harlesden Town Team monthly meeting and he was a revelation. Mr Dynamo Simpson did not allow for circumlocution. Oh no, Leroy is all for action.
Today, he is sitting in the cafe opposite the Jubilee Clock – used to be Dora’s Delights but within months, as is the way in Harlesden, it had become Akbar’s Jewel In The Crown – bemoaning the mythology surrounding his chairman status. Harlesden Town Team consist of sixteen volunteers and Louis Theroux ( who is in fact the marvellously termed town champion) is one of them. Leeroy would like Harlesden residents to know that he does not drive a Merc. In fact, he is working his socks off for no remuneration at present.
The Town Team have created a vision for a future Harlesden that could decrease the traffic levels, and wait for it, has the possibility of pedestrianisation or shared space as they like to call it. Where it also is cared for, thriving and welcoming. Community space, trees, market stalls, more street furniture – they’re all in there. But there are a few problems at present. “We’re finding ourselves in a them and us situation,” explains Leeroy with a look of pure frustration, “the shopkeepers don’t really have the energy to look into what is possible. We’re trying to have a conversation with them about Option A which is refurbishing the streets and Option B which is pedestrianisation but they don’t want to find out about the different options. That’s our struggle, we want to involve them in consultation but they don’t want to.”
There’s a lot of Option A and Option Bing going down. And although HTT are impartial, I’m getting the significant impression that Option A is the minor cowardly choice, and Option B is the brave way forward – pedestrianisation of the High St from the Jubilee Clock to Tavistock Road, with traffic becoming two way again along the bottom part of the High St. However there’s a long way to go in terms of shopkeeper education.
“Tomorrow we doing a drive in the Harlesden,” he says, “Louis is going to be down here with posters and we’ll be explaining what we’re talking about to the shopkeepers and passers-by. We do have to be neutral and we really want them to understand the options. There’s a lot of resistance, they just want us to decide and we don’t want that. We want to consult with them.”
I’ve had my own problems consulting with Leeroy today. I turned up at the Jubilee Clock and he wasn’t there. I then decided to see if the Royal Oak barmaid knew his mobile no. It sounds like a red herring but the Royal Oak is involved. She didn’t but sent me to visit a ‘Julia’ down the road. I thought this must be Harlesden Town Team vice secretary and incredibly internet message-prolific Julia Straker but it turned out to be another Julia – Julia Marcus – that I’d never met before but who knew my name because she was a press officer at Chrysalis in the 80s. It was wild goose hunt that turned up Eugene Manzie (former London Records press officer who lives in Kensal Rise) as a mutual friend. But no Leeroy.
I have to go home again to locate him. I’m ready to cause a fire storm – I’m not known for withholding anger – but it turns out that there’s been a misunderstanding. I can’t blame him after all. We re-meet an hour later.
There’s a misconception, claims Leeroy in Town Team mode, about shoppers coming from out of town. “Shopkeepers think their customers arrive by car from outside Harlesden by car,” he says, “but 45% are local and walk in, and then another 25% come by bus.”
Can anything be done about having to pay at the Plaza car park when at Asda and Sainsburys, it’s free? Whoops, there’s a weary sigh from Leeroy. The sort of sigh that is not going to turn into a battle cry, more a surrender. “The trouble is those supermarkets own their car parks,” he says, “whereas Tescos leases this one. So there’s not much that can be done. But there is a plan for an hour’s free parking in the streets nearby.”
For a war-weary commander, Leeroy still ebbs and flows with ideas for Harlesden and bringing the community together. “We’re going to have a Love Harlesden Day on June 17th, and a Clean Up Harlesden Day on April 14th, and I want to organise a concert that includes pupils from all the Harlesden schools so that the school children get involved too with raising Harlesden’s profile and self-love,” he says.
Oh and Harlesden Town Team need an office space. “We’d like to procure a pop-up situation,” says Leeroy, “but strangely, there isn’t much of that kind of shop space around.”
According to Leeroy, Sir Frank Lowe – advertising exec of mucho casho, and chief provider for the Capital City Academy – is planning a Harlesden Hub which is to be a focus for activities from classes by celebrity chefs to sporting challenges. And apparently, it’s going to be organised by one Serena Balfour, a ‘society’ benefactor who has been involved with this kind of thing before. Although she sounds distinctly un-Harlesden, it’s an interesting idea. And they have been considering the huge space above Iceland for their Hub. Who would have thought it? Certainly, I would never have guessed.
We’re finally on our feet. And there’s the Royal Oak which is an integral part of the Town Team’s regeneration ideas for Harlesden. Oh yes, the Renaissance of Harlesden is much bandied around. “They’ve got a brilliant space upstairs,” he says, “we’re going to put comedy nights on there, we need more activities like that. There’s too many betting shops and chicken and chip takeaways. I want somewhere with waiters apart from the Amber Grill. I want more places that look like Way 2 Save these days.”
That makes me laugh. Leroy dreams of a bistrot in Harlesden. Somewhere where waiters deliver food! Ah, lovely idea.
What will happen if the area from the Clock to Tavistock Rd is pedestrianised? “There’ll be room for more seats, it’ll become more of a place to hang out, also perhaps there’ll be little market stalls running down the middle,” he says, “it’ll be an attractive place to be.”
There are posters about the consultation process that is going on right now, about Option A and Option B. You can get involved (brent.gov.uk/harlesdentown). Leeroy is not happy. One day shopkeepers put up the posters, the next day, they take them down. With notable exceptions like Lords shoe shop and a few more.
Come on we’re going to have to cheer up Leeroy and do something…