INTERVIEW: Lancaster’s new council boss Susan Parsonage

Susan Parsonage
Susan Parsonage

Since moving to the Fairfield area of Lancaster in July, Susan Parsonage has been amazed by what the district has to offer.

In an exclusive interview with Lancaster Guardian chief reporter, NICK LAKIN, Susan Parsonage – the city council’s chief executive – said she wanted to take the district from “good to great” by working together.

Lancaster Town Hall.

Lancaster Town Hall.

Since moving to the Fairfield area of Lancaster in July, Susan Parsonage has been amazed by what the district has to offer.

The new chief executive of Lancaster City Council said: “Every day I come across something and think ‘that’s incredible’.”

Prior to taking over the top council job after former chief executive Mark Cullinan stepped down in June, Ms Parsonage was director of safer communities and housing for Ealing Council in London for 16 years.

She also worked in partnership with police and other local organisations on child sex exploitation projects, and was the first point of contact for a prevent agenda linked to counter terrorism.

John Regan, Edwin Booth, Susan Parsonage and Alistair Eagles at the Chamber relaunch. Image by Nick Dagger Photography.

John Regan, Edwin Booth, Susan Parsonage and Alistair Eagles at the Chamber relaunch. Image by Nick Dagger Photography.

She was also responsible for overseeing a stock of 15,000 houses, and chaired a small housing association in Hackney.

Born on the Welsh/English border 10 miles from Chester, Ms Parsonage studied law and philosophy as a mature student at the University of Aberystwyth, and said that wanting to make a positive difference to people’s lives was what drove her to become a public servant.

Despite challenging times ahead for local authorities, Ms Parsonage remained optimistic about the Lancaster district’s future.

She said: “There are so many things that are taking place in Lancaster. What really attracted me here was seeing the potential in the place. The history for one – it’s such an interesting city.

“In terms of the arts, there’s so much entrepeneurship and newness, the two universities, and what they can contribute.

“There’s also Morecambe Bay and it’s uniqueness.

“When I first saw the bay I literally thought ‘wow’.

“There’s the dock and the link road, and the beauty of the rural areas.

“There’s so much here, and in many ways it’s not as well known as it could be.

“For me, it’s about how we move from good to great now and the only way to do that is through collaboration.” She said the council’s role was to be an enabler in terms of shaping the area.

“I want to make it so the council is easy to do business with”, she said.

“When we make decisions we have to balance interests, but the council does have a role in the survival of businesses.

“In terms of the city’s Business Improvement District (BID) - being clear on what they want to achieve is really important. Businesses have now got a single
 voice, and it’s a strong partnership.

“With the issue of empty shops - we’re talking to the BID about how we can encourage new businesses into those units. Where we haven’t got a tenant, we should be looking at how the window fronts might be dressed. It’s about the street scene and the environment we present.

“We want people to come back, and we want them to tell their families and friends and bring them too!”

She said that strengthening links with the university is also vital.

“Part of that is about students living in the city centre,” she said.

“It’s important that does take place. But also that we have a mix of communities in our city. That mix is really important.

“What the council can do is build more houses, and improve the condition in the private rented sector. In terms of social housing it’s a challenging time because of the reduction in income and the reduction in council rents.

“It’s a good thing for tenants, but what we really need to do is be as creative as possible with the income that we have.

“Creativity is what we need, and I’ve been talking to my team about what we can do in terms of social housing and working with housing associations.”

Councillors are due to discuss proposals for new housing in the district in December, and Ms Parsonage said understanding community needs was essential in planning for the future.

She said: “It’s understandable there are concerns from communities about where the council is setting out housing, where it will be built and how it affects local communities.

“It’s important that we try to retain identities.

“If you think about Lancaster, Morecambe, Heysham and Carnforth, those places have their own identities, and their own uniqueness. There is a need to build houses, and the important thing is to understand where communities are coming from - what is their concern, and how we can tackle that.

“What’s incredible about this area is the passion that people have and how that manifests itself.

“The independent shops, the festivals - all of that - it’s something about the energy of the place that I find compelling, and we need to continue to think about the opportunities to enhance it.

“A lot of the business owners live in the district, a contrast to where I worked in Ealing.

“Businesses want to be part of defining and creating what the future is.

“Similarly with the council officers, as most of them live in the district too.

“In terms of the link road, it’s really important that both the city and county councils have a clear idea about what they want in the area around Heysham and then work towards that.

“Councillors here are really keen to have a clear sense of direction.

“What the link road presents is the start of something.

“That’s something the officers and councillors are working on to see what the opportunities are, and it will grow and change.

“Alongside that it’s thinking about what more we can do in Morecambe, what we can emphasise in terms of tourism, and bringing in more business to Lancaster city centre.

“It’s incredible how connected Lancaster is to the rest of the country, where it sits geographically, and it’s really key for the district to reach its potential and put itself on the map.” Ms Parsonage also said she wanted council officers and councillors to start coming up with ideas about how the council can generate income.

She said: “There are financial challenges, which will start properly in 2018/19, and I want officers - working with councillors - to think about ideas for income generation, commercialisation, and to think about how we can bring more money in.

“We have a lot of assets for instance, and investment has taken place at Salt Ayre, which will mean both a great community space, and more income for the council.

“The relationship between councillors and officers is very important.

“Councillors are elected by the residents and their views are critical to whatever the council does in terms of moving forward.

“Councillors have ideas about how we might generate income and we want to encourage more conversation, and seek views from the business community as well.

“We can still be more efficient.

“We need to think about what processes we are doing that perhaps we don’t need to do.

Looking at savings through the lines of income, new ideas, which could potentially bring other benefits in terms of job creation.

“It’s important that residents know where their money is going.

“We need to provide services, but there are some things that we may have to charge for, for example green waste collection.

“But the premise on which I’m going to be working on in the future is to think about how we can generate income and work in a more efficient way, so that we can deliver even better services within the community.”

Ms Parsonage added that while walking around the Lancaster “getting a feel for the place” she noticed little activity in the city centre after 7.30pm, and that was something else she wanted to address.

She added: “As part of looking at how we can become more efficient, and more effective, it’s all about how our teams can work more closely together.

“There’s a commonality between teams, but that doesn’t mean restructuring.

“We can take it as a way of looking at the council’s business and rethinking the way that it operates to make it more efficient.

“The only reason we exist is for the residents, and what they need must drive what the council does.”