Note: All italics in parenthesis are my own views, not Susanna’s.
You’ve been a Labour Councillor for 20 years, tell me about the high points and low points of your long political career.
Susanna Pressel: That’s so hard to answer- everyday I meet people who are so positive and so appreciative, but two of my successes were to bring about the new West Oxford Community Centre and the new playground in Jericho. Then I’ve also succeeded in changing street names- the Council wanted “Spitfire Road” (after the WW Two bomber) but I wanted Elizabeth Jennings Way, after the poet who died recently. I also managed to get the first street named after a non-white person: Bhandari Way. But what I loved most was being Lord Mayor. In that one year of office I was really proud of having carried out 626 engagements! I met the Queen and Prince Charles– I went to two garden parties at Buckingham Palace. I also met the Dalai Lama, who talked a lot to me and put his hand (in the nicest way) on mine. Fortunately I was driven around by a chauffeur- you can’t cycle in mayoral chains.
You are Austrian in origin?
SP: My father was Jewish (although I didn’t realize it till I was 18) my mother was Catholic and they moved to England in 1938. We lived in Surrey but I went to Somerville College, Oxford.
Mrs Indira Gandhi’s old college. But she was there only for a term- she couldn’t keep up.
Tell me about low points?
SP: undoubtedly the awful student housing near Port Meadow, on the former railway sidings (see my post on 7/6/2013- Portmeadow and the Scandal of the High Rise Barracks). It’s a long, complicated story: I wasn’t on the committee but this was a revised application that seemingly was much more environmentally friendly (for instance the buildings were very well insulated) than a smaller application that already had permission. On balance the committee thought that it was acceptable and they welcomed the fact that it would free up more family homes. When we saw the plans some of us were fooled by the pictures- the buildings looked quite low and spread out. It was hard to imagine the impact they would have on the view from Port Meadow. (The former Vice Chancellor gained some notoriety for not being able to apologize for destroying a heritage site. He has now gone to a Canadian university and the new VC is a woman).
But we in the city have a lot to be proud of as well: we set up the first Park and Ride scheme to reduce traffic within the city, our Transport Strategy works fairly well (except for provision for bikers! But maybe this is work in progress?); we are a truly multicultural city sensitive to gay rights, transgender people and different races. Here transgenders can use whichever toilets they prefer. You can define yourself in whichever way you choose.
How do you cope with stress? Do you have a strategy for successful teamwork?
I talk things over with my husband James, with other Councillors and within the Labour Party group. By the time I’ve cycled home I’ve usually managed to settle issues and possible conflicts in my head. I’ve also developed a thick skin over the years! One of my next battle is to do something about patio heaters in public areas- so bad for the environment. I want an even more environmentally friendly Oxford.
You’ll never retire, will you?
It would be a problem- I like to feel useful. That’s why I originally became a teacher.
What advice would you give an aspiring politician?
Join a party! I’ve been passionate about social justice since the age of 15. I saw a film about the Holocaust that made me determined that I would do something about racism and then soon after I joined the Labour Party. I was not active for many years, but eventually I did say they could use my name on the ballot paper in an unwinnable ward; and as I got more involved I became aware of people like some of the elderly city councillors from Rose Hill and Blackbird Leys who, single-mindedly, worked to get equal rights and justice for their constituents. When I knocked on doors (an unpopular task!) I met so many people who needed help, like the old lady who’d patiently lived with a leaking roof for three years. I think I was inspired by the idea of altruism and doing things to help other people.
It’s time to end the interview. We have some lunch and cycle to St Michael’s Church in town to listen to a fine recital of Dichterliebe given by one of Susanna’s constituents. After politics and public service her other passions are music and gardening. I’ve known Susanna for over 40 years, bombarded her with complaints about noise, anti-social behaviour, the vagaries of taxis and market traders which she has always dealt with patiently and sympathetically. Close up she is a deeply committed egalitarian socialist, running on high octane energy, immensely involved with people and living up to the altruistic calling of her teenage years. I might think Oxford City Council could take better care of our heritage city and its unique landscape, repair potholes more quickly, close down the ghastly nightclubs or move them to the industrial estate- maybe if there were a few more Susannas in the Town Hall we wouldn’t have so many grumbles.