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!

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Highbury Roundhouse - Let's see what we can do!

A good turn out of concerned residents attended the Highbury East Ward Partnership meeting on Tuesday night to hear the latest update on plans for the Highbury Roundhouse. The planning brief for the proposed development is due to go to the Council Executive for approval next week.  Clearly the council has listened to comments submitted in response to their consultation, offering residents some comfort on amenity and the impact of the development on neighbouring properties, though many still have concerns.

However it is quite clear that developers are being given carte blanche to demolish the Roundhouse office building at 71 Ronalds Rd to allow them to go for new build (VAT free) rather than refurbishing the existing building which would incur VAT payments.  When questioned, the council claimed the building not being listed as justification for allowing demolition.  VAT incentives to demolish are clearly a national planning problem but if the council had a serious commitment to sustainability it would encourage the retention and refurbishment of a perfectly sound building.

Further, the council seems to have given up on its strategic aim to provide a recreational walking & cycling route from Highbury Fields, via Gillespie Park to link up with the Parkland Walk at Finsbury Park.  Even though it is currently working on this link through the Sustrans Connect 2 project at the other end.  While Whistler St residents and users of Olden Gardens have justifiable (but not insurmountable) concerns about design and security this should not be enough to justify cancelling what would be a major strategic benefit for the borough.  The proposed omission of this final link in the chain is a sad loss for Islington. Islington Green Party urge Councillor Convery to reconsider this before finalising the planning brief. 

While residents were relieved to hear that at last the Council has allowed the Roundhouse a lease, a major concern is that the Roundhouse has to raise nearly two million pounds by the end of this year.  This is a moment for all of us in Highbury who care about this precious community asset, to either dig deep in our pockets or get creative with fund raising ideas.  While the Roundhouse are already approaching numerous potential funders, a clear demonstration of community effort in raising funds will make a more persuasive case.  Highbury, lets see what we can do!

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Ward Partnerships - democratic accountability?

Local residents wishing to "play a role in influencing decisions and services in their areas" are invited by the Council to do so through attendance at regular ward partnership meetings with elected councillors in each of Islington's sixteen wards.  You may be interested to hear that one ward partnership appears never to have met, nine wards have no future meetings advertised and five of those have not met since September or earlier.

The council website states "Ward Partnerships have replaced Islington’s area committees and must be consulted by council departments on a range of issues that affect local residents including: planning and community benefit from developments; traffic and parking; road maintenance; utility works; crime and anti-social behaviour; environmental improvements; tree felling; litter, dog fouling and neighbourhood clean-ups."  

Islington Green Party congratulates those councillors who are advertising and holding regular meetings,  providing "a way for people and organisations in a ward to get involved, meet councillors, share their knowledge and to help tackle local issues".  But with half our wards having no future meetings advertised there appears to be a significant shortfall in local democracy in the system.  Over half our elected councillors should take urgent action to establish a programme of future meeting dates, advertising them widely to enable the community to engage with these important local issues. 

This was picked up by the Islington Tribune.  Councillor Convery seems unconcerned that meetings are not being held regularly in some wards depriving residents of the opportunity to "get involved, meet councillors, share their knowledge and help tackle local issues".