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Lewes Mayor Making 19 May 2023

This was my fifth time to attend Lewes Mayor Making and this the first of a second term of four years. We didn’t need to make a play of 12 Green Councillors out of 18 – there would be change with an emphasis on climate resilience and sorting out the problems Lewes has in our heads and now on the agenda. 

There were little differences; several of us chose not to wear the Victoriana, or academic robes as I would know them. We may don the garb and the equally anachronistic headgear for public celebrations such as the kids moving on parade ‘Moving On’. 

Before the event, many of us picked Dirk Campbell’s brains on his escapade with Jacob Rees-Mogg at the National Conservative’s Conference. It amused us, those of us who are, have been, or toyed with being active in Extinction Rebellion. The way forward with these kinds of action is getting a point over with humour, even humility, as well as surprise —as if the subjects of our invective are the characters in a Private Eye cartoon. 

There was also talk between Greens and Lib-Dems about how the local elections at District and Town had gone, no longer rivals, we could congratulate and commiserate. 

The double semi-circle of councillor seats were placed in reverse alphabetical order, which had me dead centre in the front row, rather than consigned to the rear. The perfect spot for the best photos, but I kept my phone down, just for notes, until the event was over. Had I mini-tripod for the camera, I may have run it as video and picked the best clips from it. An ‘Owl’ streamed the event live – high audience figures are doubtful!

The most excellent Rev Ben Brown (there’s something ‘Bill and Ted’ about his demeanour IMHO) spoke about what good leadership requires; he developed an idea of  ‘vulnerable leadership’, something more than being humble, to with with listening and creating an ‘open space so that others can be heard’. He should be doing ‘Thought for the Day’ on BBC Radio 4. 

The Vote of thanks to the outgoing Mayor, Shirley Sains, suggests to me why I may not be taking it on:  

118 events

10 full town councils

6 extraordinary meetings

2 town twinning events in each of Germany and France 

Amd church services across Sussex. And on in London to attend.

Her departing words were that Lewes should ‘grow but not at the expense of our unique heritage’; we all agree. 

Cllr Dr Wendy Maples proposed Matthew Bird as Mayor, talking of his visibility in the community, his achievements at Lewes District with sustainability, and his involvement with the likes of Love Our House and Rights for Rivers. To cap it all, Matthew’s day job is at Sussex Wildlife. The newly appointed mayor then spoke briefly of the challenge of change over the last year, his gratitude to the staff and colleagues, and, addressing his daughter, how we need to make the town fit for her generation—a point perhaps lost on her.

Cllr. Janet Baah proposed Imogen Makepeace as Deputy Mayor, something a long time overdue and in the previous administration unnecessarily resisted by a group of Liberal Democrats who took offense at her stand on some issues important to her (and the Greens).

We then had a succinct, well-choreographed full council without grandstanding, points of order, or interruptions that plagued us over the previous four years. This bodes well for the future. We’re going to get on, know when to step forward, share our duties, and do the town proud. 

In a moment of reflection, I dwelt on the history of the Town Hall, built in the early 18th century as a hotel and staging post. Through the window, I could see 1613 emblazoned on the building. Lewes goes back, of course, to the Norman Conquest and the castle on our hill above the lowest fording point over the Ouse. Matthew returns to the river, its place in the community, why the town is even here, and how we must return the river to the heart of things instead of exploiting it as a dump. 

Given his career involvement with sustainability initiatives as well as his regional interest in the restoration and protection of the River Ouse through organisations such as Love Our Ouse and the Rights of Rivers, Matthew Bird is a touchstone for environmental issues in Sussex, not just in Lewes and Lewes District. When he appeared on the Town Hall stage to offer a toast, he put on a ‘Coat of Hope,’ the creation of artist Barbara Keal, the very coat that had wended its way from Newhaven to Glasgow for Cop26 in November 2021. The newly appointed mayor explained what this coat of hope represented and what meaning it would bring to his tenure, stating that due to the drought last year, events that were predicted to happen in 2030 had already occurred in 2022. 

“We are unprepared, but it is within our power to find local solutions,” he explained. “If any town can show the way, it’s Lewes.” 

Despite his overarching theme of climate change, Matthew quickly turned his attention to the people of Lewes. He warned those attending Mayor Making to be “aware of pockets and people who struggle to stay afloat,” noting that 600 families rely on food banks and require our assistance. He stated that rather than supporting individual charities, he would direct the mayor’s fund to food banks. He then expressed concern about the number of closed shops and other unused buildings in town and how these spaces could be used by collaborating with the Lewes District, the Chamber of Commerce, and younger people. To conclude, Matthew returned to the environment and a topic near and dear to his heart—the significance of the river—emphasizing that sewage was only a small part of the pollution problem. He spoke passionately about the Ouse, saying that “it is the reason why the town exists” and that rivers are “entities in their own right.” 

For the following hour or more, I moved around familiar faces and was introduced to some old ones, from Lewes Priory to the Pells Pool, Lewes Urban Arboretum, and others. I have some new acquaintances and may have some tasks and challenges for the next four years: Finance Committee, Buildings and Assets Committee, Outside Bodies: The Railway Land Wildlife Trust and Lewes Priory Trust 

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