Monday, 26 May 2014

Proportional representation for Islington!

As local authorities in Islington and other metropolitan boroughs ponder how to ensure effective democracy with no, or minimal, political opposition - is it time to bring in proportional representation for local government?
For example, in Islington we have 48 local councillors. On yesterday's results with PR this would translate into a small Labour majority: Lab 27, Green 9, Lib Dem 7, Tory 5.
What we actually got is what someone has described as 'the North Korea of London': Labour 47, Green 1, others zero.
Surely a change would be beneficial for everyone but particularly for local democracy, not to mention voter participation?

Monday, 28 October 2013

Council mustn't shirk it's public health responsibilities on air pollution

Highbury Greens are delighted to see that Richard Watts, the new Council Leader, recognises the harmful effects of air pollution on Islington residents’ health but was worried by his claim at the recent Air Pollution meeting that "Islington can not go any further on its own".  He was certainly right to say that the Mayor of London should do more to remove diesel vehicles from our roads, but there are plenty of actions that Islington Council can and should take, and his new administration should not shirk its own responsibilities.

A number of possible actions were outlined at the self same meeting by Public Health expert, Lucy Saunders of the Greater London Assembly, who described physical inactivity and air pollution as two of the top things the council could address to deliver the best health outcomes for residents on a range of issues from cancer, lung and heart diseases to obesity.  Summing up her workshop, she described  Islington's streets as "our biggest public health asset" and listed the following actions suggested by residents to increase physical activity levels by encouraging walking and cycling for local trips:

  • managing the borough's roads for the movement of people and not just traffic
  • reducing on-street parking year on year
  • running a "streets for people" health-check on all council policies 

The negative health impact from pollution and traffic danger is worse for those with underlying health conditions and people with low incomes, who often live on the most polluted roads. I'm glad Islington Labour have at last woken up to the health implications of air pollution and look forward to seeing action on this basic issue of fairness.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

All the fun of the fair comes at a price

So what do you think about events on Highbury Fields?  The Islington Tribune recently featured residents concerned about extensive damage to the Fields caused by compaction of the soil by heavy lorries, leaving deep cracks in the ground. I could see what people were concerned about.  It would be easy to twist an ankle if you stepped awkwardly on one of these cracks, which could clearly be dangerous to people running and playing on the grass.  

Highbury Fields is Islington's largest open space and is valued and enjoyed daily by residents across Islington.  Is it ok to close off large sections of the Fields for paid for events like funfairs which appear to cause long term damage to the park?  Fairs are enjoyed by many but limit the space available for children and adults to play and relax for free without pressure to spend money.

Whenever the council has consulted on events on Highbury Fields there's been a strong vote in favour of community activities like the Gillespie Festival rather than commercial events with huge lorries.

This weekend a funfair is due to arrive.  A funfair is an easy option, will presumably make money for the council, and almost by definition will be fun for some, but a cost of £10 for ten tokens, with some rides charging more than one token, will price many families out of the enjoyment. If Highbury Fields is "a resource for all those in the borough with no access to green space", as Cllr Richard Greening says in the Tribune 6 Sept, then perhaps the council could look into more affordable and inclusive options for next year?

Example of the deep cracks opening in the grass showing compaction damage.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Highbury needs more people-friendly streets not this Council "innovation"

Update 25th April letter of the week in the Islington Gazette.  Not online so content below.

The controversy surrounding the Drayton Park width restriction layout exposes  Islington Council's muddled thinking about managing our roads  and an apparent lack of any consideration for the safety and convenience of residents (Controversial Holloway road layout branded illegal – leaving Islington Council facing £1million payout. Gazette 18th April).

The Council's continued insistence that the layout was put in at "residents’ request" for safer roads is baffling.  There was no prior discussion with residents of the proposed measure either at the Highbury West ward partnership meetings or with the representatives of pedestrians and cyclists.  The council initially described the width restriction design as "innovative" and insisted "it would bed in" and "people would get used to it".

Ernestas Jegorovas, caroline Russell & Charlie Kiss at the Drayton Park width restriction.

Drayton Park is a wide sweeping and increasingly residential road.  A massive opportunity has been missed to upgrade the public realm, reclaim road space for residents and manage  the very real danger  presented by large lorries using residential roads with a lorry ban enforced by a camera rather than the current width restriction that makes cars swerve dangerously from one side of the road to the other, flipping over with alarming regularity.

The council need to decide if they want a speed control measure or a way of preventing large lorries from cutting through residential streets or both.  The current design does neither effectively and has been to the detriment of the amenity and safety of residents. It is hard to conclude other than that the Council wanted a revenue stream from confused motorists rather than a better designed street. Lorry bans can be enforced without width restrictions by erecting a camera to monitor lorry movements, fining any lorry drivers who ignore the ban.  Speed can be controlled by redesigning streets to feel like places for people rather than highways dedicated primarily to fast moving vehicles.

Islington has the least public green space in London, our streets should be valued as precious public space and every opportunity taken to widen the pavements to deter speeding and make space for planting trees, transforming the roads into a more pleasant place to walk and cycle for the 65% of residents who have no access to a car or van.  This has been a shocking and avoidable waste of council resources.  Highbury needs more people-friendly streets and less of this wasteful "innovation".

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Solidarity with the PCS Union Strikers!

I'm just back from the picket line at Euston Tower, joining representatives of the PCS Union and Unison on their budget day #M20 strike to protest against Government attacks on civil servants' pay, pensions and working conditions.

The strikers' demands are simple:  fair pay for all civil servants now, and no privatisation of key public services.

I was a civil servant myself for some years, as were others in my family.  People don't become civil servants to get rich - they do so because they want to serve the public and play a part in providing key public services.  Civil servants do hard work for less money than the private sector - 5 to 10% less pay for the same jobs, in fact.

The last government, under Blair and Brown, sought to undermine public servants at every turn.  They suggested that the private sector was in some way superior to the public sector.  That's an insidious, damaging and wrongheaded idea that, together with Ed Miliband's failure to support the strikers, does continuing damage to the public sector.

Now public sector pay and pensions, and working conditions, are under attack from the Con-Dem coalition.

At the PCS Euston picket line, 20 March 2013
We in the Green Party are clear: the private sector - acting for profit, lining the pockets of directors and shareholders - can never match up to the public sector, acting for the common good and in the public interest, when it comes to the delivery of key public services like running the NHS or providing welfare benefits advice to vulnerable people.

So today we say:  shame on this Government.  Shame on Ed Miliband for failing to support public sector workers.  We stand with the strikers in standing up to the Government and demanding an end to its failed austerity measures which threaten to send us into a triple-dip recession.  As the PCS Union has pointed out, a rise in civil service pay this year to keep pace with inflation could be more than paid for by serious action against wealthy tax dodgers.  

Good luck and solidarity to all the strikers today.  We hope that the Government - and the Labour party -are listening.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Why Clissold Park needs a Cafe for All (and why it matters!)

What does the Stephen Lawrence inquiry have to do with the recent row over the decision to award the contract for Clissold Park cafe to multi-million pound
catering company the Company of Cooks? At first sight, very little - but bear with me...

If, like me, you live on the Islington/Hackney borders, Clissold Park - and its cafe - may well be a big part of your life.

The park cafe is unique. It isn't just another eaterie (trendy or otherwise) catering for local residents who care to go there. It provides somewhere for those who don't have a garden to go in fine weather. Somewhere children can play outside without parents worrying about the traffic. And a sociable community space for those who don't get out much. Long-time residents will remember the endless chess games that used to take place on the cafe terrace over one small cup of coffee...

So when the Council recently carried out a £9m refurbishment using funding from the National Lottery, the future of the cafe was a hot topic for many local residents. What would be on the menu? What would it cost? Would it still be a place for local teenagers to hang out after school, for parents and carers coming in out of the cold after a long stint in the playground, or for pensioners popping in for a cup of tea and a chat?

Sadly, things started to go wrong when Hackney's Labour Council took the decision that only companies with an annual turnover of £1m or more would be eligible to bid for the contract to run the new cafe. This extraordinary decision to exclude local businesses has never been properly explained by Hackney Council. The suggestion that only those with this level of turnover are 'financially viable' or have 'relevant experience' is, frankly, insulting to smaller businesses. Smaller local businesses were rightly furious at being excluded in this way - and the decision set the scene for what was to follow.

Then came the award of the contract to Company of Cooks, who describe themselves as a "private and corporate catering company" who "cater for all events at prestigious venues for that special occasion". They do the catering, for example, at Kenwood House in Hampstead.

The reopened Clissold Park cafe featured "waiter service" and menu items such as "cumin roast carrot, cous cous, feta & spiced nut salad" and "orange and lavender cake" - with prices to match. A cup of tea was priced at £1.85: for comparison, a mug of tea in the nearby, and excellent, leisure centre cafe - Hoxton Beach Cafe - costs just £1. Gone were ordinary dishes at ordinary prices. Also disappearing were the dishes featuring other world cuisines - for example, the excellent Turkish food which had featured on the menu at the temporary cafe during refurbishments. And this in the London borough where the majority of London's Turkish community lives.

Many local residents could no longer afford to visit the cafe. And anecdotal evidence (which is all we currently have to go on) suggests the previous diverse mix of customers from all Hackney's communities has been replaced largely with those who are white and affluent.

This was, as GLA Candidate and Hackney Green Caroline Allen commented after visiting the cafe-

"A missed opportunity to have a real community cafe".

So - what went wrong? I believe the answer is actually quite simple. Hackney Council should have thought about who was currently using the cafe. It should have considered the needs of all sections of the community before awarding the contract for the cafe. It should have consulted the whole community (teenagers, older people, parents, those living in social housing, those from different ethnic backgrounds) about its proposals for the cafe. And it should then have required the contractor to provide something for the whole community in running the cafe.

This isn't just good sense - it's what the law requires. Under the Equality Act 2010, Hackney Council was obliged to assess, and then to have regard to, the diverse needs of the communityin taking decisions about how to run the park and the cafe. So far as the Green Party has been able to ascertain, the Council failed entirely to carry out these duties before awarding the contract in this case.

The legal duty concerned (the 'public sector equality duty') was introduced by the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000, following a recommendation in the Stephen Lawrence inquiry report. So now you know....

PS We've been campaigning since the cafe reopened in January, and it seems from recent announcements that we have made some progress. As you can read here and here, the cafe management have now made some moves to make the menu 'more inclusive'. This is welcome so far as it goes. But as far as we're concerned the most important thing is this: next time, the Council needs to take account of the needs of all its residents (young and old, rich and poor, black and white) before it makes important decisions of this kind. That is the way to ensure fairness for everyone - and we believe that fair is worth fighting for!

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Happy International Women's Day!

Shortly before Caroline Lucas was elected as the Green Party's first ever MP, the Fawcett Society ran a campaign called "What about Women?" highlighting the importance of women's issues in the runup to the general election. (See Green Highbury, 17 April 2010).

After two years of coalition government, there is, sadly, little for women to celebrate. An article in today's Guardian comments that

"This marks the first era in living memory that British women's freedoms
have gone into reverse, as women pay the heaviest price for government

Fairness and equality matter not just as important principles, but because a fairer society also means a happier, healthier, and more successful society. Groundbreaking research by the Equality Trust shows that improving equality leads to reductions in violent crime and mental illness; improved life expectancy; and better social mobility.

As the only party with a female leader, the Green Party has shown that we put our principles into practice.

Earlier this year, the Fawcett Society called a day of action to deliver a clear message to the coalition Government:

"Don't turn back time on women's equality!"

The vital work of the Fawcett Society and the Equality Trust, as well as Trades Unions such as Unison, to secure the rights of women continues. Indeed, it is now more important than ever. We in Islington Green Party are proud to support them ... and we'd like to wish all our readers a very happy International Women's Day!