The new leader of Lancaster City Council has described the city as “sticky” and says that meeting climate emergency targets will be the district’s biggest challenge.
Labour Coun Erica Lewis, 44, was elected as council leader last month, after the party, which gained the highest number of councillors at the local elections, entered into an alliance with The Green Party and The Liberal Democrats.
Speaking with an Australian accent - she was born in Melton Mowbray but was brought up in Canberra - Coun Lewis describes her role as an “odd job”, as it is down to her to decide how much, or how little, time to give it.
But she says that it “cannot be business as usual” in terms of meeting climate change targets, after the council declared a Climate Emergency earlier this year.
Coun Lewis went to high school in Brisbane, and then university in Sydney, before building and running the Women’s Speak Network, which is now called the Equality Rights Alliance - the largest organisation promoting women’s leadership in Australia.
She then worked in education in the civil service, before becoming a ministerial advisor for Chris Evans, who was leader of the Government in the Australian Senate, from 2007 to 2013.
It was in 2012 that Coun Lewis decided to come to Lancaster University to do a PHD in Women’s Leadership.
Her CV doesn’t stop there though.
She also did a Masters in Public Administration at Harvard University in the US, and casually drops in that she also has a law degree.
“I like learning things,” she said.
Coun Lewis returned to the UK with her partner Jason, and as a long term Labor Party member in Australia, joined the Labour Party in the UK and was soon out door knocking ahead of the 2015 general election, prior to running Lancaster and Fleetwood MP Cat Smith’s office.
“I love knocking on doors,” she said.
“People are always saying that politicians never come out of the bubble, so I think it’s a great way of getting to know a neighbourhood.
“It’s really important that people know and see their councillor.
“We’ll never make everyone happy, but I think that reconnection is key at the moment.
“Working on Cat’s campaign was a good way of getting to know the issues and the people.
“People talk about Lancaster being ‘sticky’, and I agree.
“I thought I was going to go back to Australia, but I got engaged and interested with the city and its community.”
The make-up of Lancaster City Council’s cabinet has changed to reflect the result of the local elections.
There are now three Green Party councillors running portfolios for housing, economic regeneration and environmental services, and Lancaster City Council recently declared a Climate Emergency, pledging to become carbon neutral by 2030.
This, said Coun Lewis, means it “cannot be business as usual”.
“Meeting the climate change emergency targets will be central to everything we do,” she said, “and that’s going to take the council re-thinking pretty much everything it does.
“The Local Plan is one of those things.
“We’ve come in as a new administration as the (Local Plan) process finishes.
“We’re expecting an inital response from the inspector in a few weeks, and the full response in the next few months.
“When we get whatever we get, we’ll need to go forward in a way that will enable us to meet the climate emergency targets, whilst delivering the housing that meets the district’s needs.
“Councils across the country are finding interesting and new ways to try and meet them, but it cannot be business as usual.
“It will be a core part of the work that happens across every portfolio, whether that’s about community wealth building, or reinventing local government at a time when people are questioning the value of politicians and government.
“There’s an opportunity for local government as the closest thing to the people - to work for the community good, so that we can reinvigorate local democracy.
“We have to do these things.
“We’ll need both the local authority and residents together to make this work.”
Coun Lewis said there would be times when the council will look to the community for answers going forward.
“There are a myriad of talents and experts locally,” she said.
“There will be days when the council will ask the community to offer its best advice and ideas, and there will be times when the council will need to educate people too.
“We will also need to expect and require more from developers, and it may be that we need policy changes and new rules around that.
“Solar panels on new buildings is something we’ll be looking at, and also the better management of water.
“We’ll look for smart ways to raise standards, and we want to create the rules that will support better environmental standards in building.
“In the next few years there will essentially be no central government funding coming in.
“Some councils are shutting down and outsourcing everything, whereas Lancaster City Council have been able to keep services in-house, and has found ways to better invest to save.”
Coun Lewis said that Lancaster City Council had lost 61p in every pound from central government since 2010.
And there are now tugs of war over business rates.
The government says local councils will be able to keep 100 per cent of business rates, but with many businesses blaming crippling business rates on the slow death of the high street, moves to reduce or even remove business rates could leave councils in free fall.
“I love a challenge and I’m fascinated by how organisations work,” Coun Lewis said.
“I’ve always been of a mind that if the rules don’t work, you need to change the rules.
“If I see the same problem occur repeatedly, I want to know what the fix is.
“Lancaster City Council has around 3,500 council houses in the district, and we’re one of the few councils which has managed to keep a good stock, but we do need more.
“In this way, by building new council houses, it might be good for the council to ‘model’ good practice, a sustainable house that can provide its own energy is not only good for the environment, but good value for the resident too.
“The council has declared a climate emergency for itself, but the district has to move as well - homes, businesses, organisations all need to play their part.
“It will take individual actions, structural reform and system changes to make this work.”
Coun Lewis added that her mum, who now lives in Manchester “is eternally entertained” that she has moved back to the “frozen north”.
“A place is made by the people and what is going on, but if you swelter through a Canberra summer and watch the place literally burn, a less extreme climate is not necessarily a bad thing.”