An invaluable relic from Leeds’ motoring past, the U1 number plate, once exchanged between two former Lord Mayors over 120 years ago, is now under scrutiny as Leeds City Council explores its potential sale to address unprecedented budget challenges.

The coveted U1 plate, historically affixed to the Lord Mayor’s civic vehicle, is currently being assessed by experts, who believe it could yield a substantial sum in a private sale, providing a much-needed financial boost for the city.

Historical records reveal that in 1903, when the Motor Car Act mandated number plates for all vehicles, Rowland Winn, a Leeds resident and motoring pioneer, secured the first plate issued in the city. In a gesture of camaraderie, Winn bestowed the U1 plate upon his friend, Arthur Currer Briggs, upon Briggs’ election as Lord Mayor that same year. Since then, the U1 plate has adorned the vehicles of successive Lord Mayors of Leeds.

Winn, an early car dealer and a significant contributor to the city’s life, later assumed the role of Lord Mayor in 1938-39. His public service spanned until the 1950s when he received the Freedom of the City in 1956 for his enduring contributions to Leeds.

With Leeds City Council grappling with a daunting £58.4 million financial gap, officials are exploring innovative avenues to generate income and balance the budget. The potential sale of the U1 plate emerged as a viable option after consultations with industry experts, who estimate its substantial market value. Proceeds from the sale would be directed back into the council’s budget, safeguarding essential services.

Debra Coupar, Leeds City Council’s executive member for resources, said: “The sale of any assets is never something we take lightly and, in an ideal world, would not be something we’d wish to do. However, the financial pressures we are facing are simply so acute, we are being forced to look at all manner of options which we have never explored before.

“After consulting with experts, it’s clear that the sale of this number plate gives us a one-of-a-kind opportunity to secure a significant amount of funding, helping us protect vital services where we can whilst having no tangible impact on the people of Leeds.

“In the current circumstances, it’s an opportunity we can’t afford not to examine in more detail and our priority has to be to do whatever we can to balance our budget, meet the needs of residents and not risk being driven to the point of financial distress.”

If the decision to sell the plate is approved, the council will appoint a private dealer to act on its behalf. It is estimated a sale would then take around three months to complete.

If a sale is completed, the plate would then be replaced on the Lord Mayor’s civic vehicle by L6EDS, a plate also owned by the council, but which is substantially less valuable.

Lord Mayor of Leeds, Councillor Al Garthwaite, said: “It’s astonishing to think that the story of this historic number plate began with a kind, congratulatory gesture between two friends more than 120 years ago.

“I’m sure neither of those two former Lord Mayors of Leeds could have envisaged how valuable that gift would one day become. However, it is oddly fitting that the legacy of their friendship could be to potentially help their city when it is in the midst of such challenging circumstances all these years later.”