New Tory Lewes council leader ‘happy to work with anybody’
In what proved to be an interesting set of local election results last month, few were as interesting as the results for Lewes District Council.
While remaining with no overall control, the council’s makeup has changed dramatically since the polls closed – perhaps most noticeably with the departure of Conservative council leader Andy Smith, who unexpectedly lost his East Saltdean and Telscombe Cliffs seat to Labour.
Despite some talk of a co-operative alliance taking over (a deal opposition groups say is still on the cards) Conservatives retained control of the council’s cabinet, electing Chailey, Barcombe and Hamsey councillor Isabelle Linington as the authority’s new leader.
In her first interview since becoming council leader, Cllr Linington spoke about her hopes for the authority’s future as well as working within a council with no overall control and an opposition eyeing up a co-operative alliance.
“I’m happy to work with anybody,” Cllr Linington said.
“A good idea is a good idea, never mind where it comes from. If it is a good idea and it is financially viable and it is practical and we can do it, then I’ll support it.
“I know the opposition parties have all been talking but I’ve been talking to people too. I’m not just going to sit here on my own and try and do things without talking to anybody.
“I’m hoping we can all work together. We are the largest party, so I would hope they would want to talk to us as well.
“We are not going to agree on everything. There are bound to be some things we disagree on and I’m sure there will be some things at full council where there will be debates.”
One area of possible contention is the future of the North Street Quarter project – a major council-supported development incorporating housing and business space in Lewes town.
First put forward in 2016, the total scheme will see 416 new homes built alongside commercial floorspace, a health hub, flood defences and an underground public car park.
The scheme has long proven controversial in the town, most recently with concerns being raised over the scheme’s sustainability credentials at a planning meeting last April.
In light of these concerns, the Lewes Green Party (now the authority’s largest opposition group) called on the council to look at buying up the rest of the site to speed up development of “sustainable, affordable and zero carbon” homes.
But for Cllr Linington this would be the wrong approach.
She said: “I think we are probably all slightly disappointed there is not more sustainable stuff in there.
“It is a huge shame, but in the end you’ve got to be realistic. It’s a huge project and the health hub is crucial.
“We are on deadlines now where the whole thing would fall apart if we stopped and tried to think it all over again. From my point of view we just need to get on with it.
“We can’t afford to go back to the drawing board and wait another five years.”
In other areas, however, Cllr Linington says she hopes to find common ground with opposition councillors, such as on projects to regenerate Newhaven town centre, bring a health hub to Seaford and provide more affordable housing around the district.
She says she has particular hopes that the council can pull together on its environmental policies, saying councillors ‘all want the same things’.
It is an area of special interest for Cllr Linington, whose 11-year career as a Whitehall scientist included a stint with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).
More recently she has been the council’s portfolio holder for environment – a post she chose to keep after becoming council leader.
Cllr Linington said: “There are lots we have been doing already and there are things I would like to continue and see what else we can do.
“We’ve already started our own little climate change group within the council. That was set up, I think after a notice of motion, some time ago. It’s been really successful, because we have had all parties on that.
“We have already started looking at what we can do to make things better, what the council can contribute. That is something I would like to continue.
“I’m sure there will be something coming up about whether we declare a climate emergency or not. I’m sure there will be a notice of motion about that and it’s something I am happy to support.”
So would is council considering setting a target for becoming carbon neutral?
“Again it is what we can practically do”, Cllr Linington said.
“I think it is something we can do but it has to be realistic. These things don’t happen overnight, so we have to be realistic about what we can do.
“It is fair to set a target because it is good to have something to work towards. If you don’t set a target then things aren’t likely to happen.
“I’ve been looking at what other councils have done. Some are saying 2030, some are saying 2038. I’m not sure but it can’t be any sooner than 2030 really, we’re going to need at least 10 years.”
These plans, however, come against a backdrop of difficulty finances for councils across the country.
While Cllr Linington says the council is in a ‘better place than some’ – a position she puts down to the work of council officers and her predecessor’s move to bring about the joint transformation programme – she says money is still a concern.
She said: “Obviously it is still a squeeze we’ve got to count every penny and again I hope that’s something that the other parties will work together on.
“We’ve all got ideas about what we would like to do, but in the end you’ve got to be realistic about what we can afford.”