From a theatrical jazz singer to borough's first Polish mayor - Merton has a new ceremonial leader

Former Mayor Gill Manly
-Credit: (Image: Merton Council)

Merton has appointed its first-ever Polish mayor for the upcoming year. Councillor Slawek Szczepanski, who first moved to the borough 20 years ago, said: “It's hard to believe that I’m sitting in front of you all. If you asked me 20 years ago if I would ever have been mayor, I would have said no, get lost, no chance, but here I am.”

Szczepanski first worked in construction before leading the Pollards Hill-based Polish Family Association (PFA), which supports Eastern European communities across Merton and South London. The Poznan-born councillor has also won praise for his efforts to welcome Ukrainian refugee families into the borough.

During the annual council meeting last night (May 22) Szczepanski took over the ceremonial attire from the outgoing civic mayor Gill Manly. In his maiden speech, he told the chamber: “It is with immense pride that I honour this historic moment.

Read more: Merton's 'little Warsaw' where Polish shops sit alongside traditional English cafés

Slawek at the PFA
Szczepanski is the CEO of the Polish Family Association, which supports Eastern European families across the borough -Credit:Harrison Galliven

“Today is a day of immense pride and gratitude; a day that marks a significant milestone, not only for me but for all the Polish, Eastern European and Ukrainian communities that have journeyed towards this moment.

“Twenty years ago I arrived in the UK as a migrant from Poland with dreams and hope. My journey began in construction, a sector where many migrants find their first opportunities.

“As a migrant, I endured the pain of separation from loved ones, the struggle to learn a new language and the effort to integrate into a new culture. I became a volunteer, driven by the desire to give back to the community that welcomed me. Today, as I accept the honour of serving as your mayor, I do so with a commitment to continue this work with compassion and integrity. My journey as a volunteer to this esteemed position is a testament that in our borough, no dream is too big and no barrier too unbeatable.”

The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) met with Szczepanski at the PFA base in the New Horizon Centre last year. His partner set up the PFA in 2007, and he has since expanded to support Eastern European families with integration, mental health, language and administration.

Lavender Fields election in 2022
Szczepanski was first elected as a councillor for the Lavender Fields ward in 2022, alongside Edith Macauley and Billy Christie -Credit:Merton TV

He explained how Merton had become a borough of sanctuary for refugees and hosted one of the largest Eastern European communities in the capital. He told the LDRS: “Merton has become home to Ukrainian and Polish migrants because of us. We are the best place to support Ukrainian families, as there are similarities."

Szczepanski was elected to the newly created Lavender Fields Ward in 2022, alongside fellow labour councillors Billy Christie and Edith Macauley. Macauley praised Szczepanski during the meeting, saying: “The epitome of Slawek’s civic commitment came following Putin’s barbarous invasion of Ukraine.”

She told the meeting how, through Slawek’s work, over 1,000 face-to-face appointments were given to Ukrainian refugees and over 250 children were registered to begin schooling in the borough.

Szczepanski will now assume the largely ceremonial role for the upcoming year alongside his newly appointed deputy Councillor Brenda Fraser. The role will see him moderate full council meetings, attend ceremonies, fundraise for charities and represent Merton at national events.

Former Mayor Manly received warm praise from across the chamber as she handed over to Szczepanski last night. The Cricket Green Councillor, often dubbed the ‘singing mayor’ due to her other life as a jazz vocalist, had become known for her theatrical approach to her civic duties.

Speaking to the chamber, Council Leader Ross Garrod said: “You added your own sparkle, surprise and entertainment to the role.

“Throughout your life, you’ve been a journalist, a celebrant, a playwright and of course a jazz musician but I think you have taken to no role more than being the Mayor of Merton.”

In his vote of thanks, Lib Dem opposition leader Anthony Fairclough said: “Politics is to an extent theatre and I think you embody that in part, but you certainly have the measure of controlling these meetings.”

As per council tradition, Manly left the chamber with Szczepanski halfway through the meeting to signal the handover. While Manly chose backing music to play as she left the chamber, Fairclough admitted: “I was very disappointed that you didn't have your backing dancers as you did on the way in.”

Merton Mayor appointment ceremony
Szczepanski will serve alongside the new deputy mayor and Longthornton councillor Brenda Fraser -Credit:Merton Council

Manly was also praised for her charity work as mayor. Councillors noted how she had once shaved her head to fundraise for the Merton Music Foundation and National Brain Appeal.

In her emotional final speech, Manly told the chamber: “I’m not a cryer but you got me tonight. It's hard hearing kind words so thank you.”

Manly also wished Szczepanski luck in his native Polish and told the chamber how she had enjoyed her year in the role. She also thanked her outgoing Deputy Mayor Martin Whelton.

Manly also acknowledged the difficulties of serving as Mayor and issued a warning to those who launch personal attacks on politicians. She said: “As politicians we put our heads above the parapet; we need to have the courage to be disliked.

“Regrettably, I experienced anonymous mail threatening my safety and inviting me to disappear in no uncertain terms. Together with the police and council officers, measures were taken to ensure my safety at home and in public were tightened up.

“I ask all of my colleagues in the chamber tonight, from all sides, please take care as we head towards the heat of a general election on July 4.”

Before officially signing out, Manly told the chamber: “Though she be but little, she is fierce. I can, I did, did you watch me?”

Don't miss out on the biggest South London news. Sign up to our MySouthLondon newsletter HERE for all the latest daily news and more.