I was greatly saddened to hear of the death of Bob Cristofoli. Bob was a long standing member of Brighton Borough Council and was Mayor when I was first elected in 1985. He was also a member of the Board of Brighton Housing Trust for over 20 years.
I first met Bob when I went as part of a delegation from the Brighton Unemployed Workers’ Union to meet him in Brighton Town Hall. We had a list of demands including reduced fees for unemployed people who wished to use a Council-owned leisure facilities and half price bus fares on the buses, then owned by the Borough Council. We expected a hostile reception but Bob was charm personified and he readily agreed to our requests.
Before becoming Leader of the Council, he had been chair of the Housing Committee, a lifelong passion. That led him to joining the Board of BHT. At that time, the work of BHT did not enjoy the all-party support it does today. Bob was one of the two Conservative councillors on our Board (the other being Ruth Larkin) who would declare an interest whenever a BHT-related matter came before the Council. By doing so they denied their party the majority to vote down a particular measure or planning application (such as the planning application in 1984 for First Base Day Centre to open in its current home in Montpelier Place).
For someone of such ability and who had such an illustrious local government career, he was an incredibly humble man. When it was proposed that a new housing scheme in Whitehawk was to be named after him, he was opposed to the idea. He was uncomfortable at having something named after him, and joked that nobody could pronounce let alone spell his surname. He compromised when he agreed that it could be named ‘Robert Lodge’ because “nobody would know it had been named after me”, he later told me.
Bob fell out with his group at the end of his year as the Mayor of Brighton. The 1986 local elections resulted in parity between Labour and the Conservatives after Labour had picked up a seat or two. Control of the Council would be decided by the casting vote of the new Mayor. The vote for the new Mayor was tied 24-24, Bob having used his personal vote to support the candidate of his party. But when he used his casting vote as the outgoing Mayor, he used it for Labour’s candidate, Jacqui Lythell, saying that as Mayor he had to reflect the will of the people of Brighton and the people had voted in greater numbers for Labour in May 1986. That decision marked the end of 130 years of unbroken rule by the Conservatives in Brighton.
While Bob was Mayor, I asked him whether he would receive a delegation from Namibia (the country to the north west of South Africa that had been occupied by the apartheid army for decades). He readily agreed. However, I felt guilty as I had not been completely frank with him about the nature of the delegation. It comprised members of Swapo which was involved in an armed struggle against the South African occupying forces. Swapo was regarded by the then Conservative government as ‘terrorists’. I went to see Bob and explained to him about the make up of the delegation. He replied: “Andy, I am fully aware of who Swapo are and what they stand for, and it will be an honour to receive them on behalf of the people of Brighton”.
In spite of his position as a civic leader, he remained down to earth and very humble. He regularly ate at a small, unfashionable cafe in Baker Street, a short walk from his modest flat in Grand Parade. Bob had the quality that is not always evident amongst other politicians, of being able to talk to ordinary people and to really listen to what they had to say. Above all, he had a genuine belief in serving his community.
Bob Cristofoli was a special man and I am I am glad that I knew him.