Breathe Easy on 17 November

This time next month Islington’s Breathe Easy group will be marking 17 November, World COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) Day, with lots of special activities at UCLH in Euston Road.

Drop in anytime between 11am and 4pm for free lung testing for all.

I’ve been supporting my local Breathe Easy group for a while now. It’s a really active self-help group, providing a mix of social events and practical support for people living with respiratory problems and their families. One of many examples of the ‘big society’ in action long before the Conservatives started talking about it….

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Will Islington Council take on RBS’ Angel offices?


The Royal Bank of Scotland is looking to move out of its offices at the Angel, Islington. The offices – controversial from the start because of the ‘dead space’ at street level – were built for the bank but then sold and leased back, according to The Scotsman. Their report goes on to say that RBS are trying to get out of the lease – and expecting Islington Council to take it on. RBS obviously like taxpayer bailouts.

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Useful insights…

An email arrives from Olly Kendall at Insight Public Affairs:

“As David Cameron and Ed Miliband prepare for their first clash tomorrow at midday, our briefing ‘30 facts for 30 minutes’ is a light-hearted look at that great British institution – Prime Ministers Questions – detailing 30 facts about the weekly political joust that you might not have known.”

My favourite of which is that Tony Blair wore the same pair of shoes to every PMQs, seeing more changes of opponent than footwear.

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What future for housing democracy under Labour?

Disappointing news that the Labour Council has rejected LibDem proposals to consider balloting tenants on the future of council housing management in Islington.

I should declare an interest as Homes for Islington (HFI), Islington’s ALMO, is my freeholder. As a leaseholder, I’ve had a generally good experience of them. The few pieces of work they’ve done on our relatively-modern property (repainting railings, upgrading communal aerial) have been carried out efficiently. The railings in particular were a good job well done, going from a rather peaky eau-de-nil to a glossy black, with minimum hassle.

However I also know of too many cases where the sheer size of HFI has left a small issue festering into a major grievance, because it was not dealt with promptly in the first place. As well as major concerns over the cost of major works, and the frustration leaseholders feel when presented with huge, mandatory bills.

No-one wants to go back to the state that Islington council housing had reached by the late 1990s. When I was first a councillor, Labour presided over squalid estates where postmen feared to tread. Tenants were desperate for a change and voted whenever they could to transfer out to housing associations. Money was wasted and there was no accountability.

The ALMO was supposed to achieve the best mix between getting the perceived better management of housing associations, while retaining secure council tenancy and rents. Most pertinently, it was the only option at the time for getting vital Decent Homes money out of the Labour government.

Now that’s been done, is there a case for taking the service back in-house when the ALMO ends? The arms-length structure has led to perceived buck-passing between HFI and the Council, made worse in the many council-owned street properties where Partners for Islington – the company contracted to deliver long-term management of decent homes works on period properties – is also involved.

If Labour are truly going to look at all the options, it seems strange to rule the in-house one out. And wrong not to let residents have their say. The LibDem council held a consultative ballot before bringing the ALMO in. Labour’s attitude to housing still seems to be “you may live in it, but we know best”.

I’d look at every option, but whoever the landlord is, my preference would be devolving more money and power to tenants & residents by setting up TMOs, housing co-ops and other forms of self-management, within a community housing framework.

The best-run, safest and most attractive estates in Islington are those with the most empowered residents. Not those who see their T&RA as a stick to beat the freeholder, but those who get stuck in and help run their estates themselves. You get better accountability, better value-for-money and residents who feel pride, not frustration, when they look around their neighbourhood.

For this to work the freeholder must devolve enough money and support to make the estate self-management viable, and there must be clear, simple and consistent demarcations of responsibilities between the different tiers. But it can be done, as shown by estates like the Half-Moon tenants’ co-op in Barnsbury.

This afternoon I’m joining the St. Mary’s Path Estate Tenants’ Association, and their landlord Islington & Shoreditch Housing Association (ISHA), to celebrate the great work they’ve done in providing positive activities for residents of the estate and the wider community, through having just such a good partnership.

Islington Labour please note.

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Facing the future – your chance to shape party policy

Liberal Democrats are generally proud of our democratic policy-making process, and the quality of its content – if sometimes also bemused by its sheer quantity.

Policy documents tend to have imposing but vague titles, inviting a bit of a guessing game as to their real subject, like “The Power to be Different” (local government), or a recent favourite “Are we being served?” (consumer policy).

One where the title definitely fits is “Facing the Future”, one of two policy groups on which I currently serve. The party usually has a general policy review after each General Election. This time we have the additional challenge of the coalition, making developing a distinctive policy programme for the next election more important than ever.

Our remit is not so much to come up with answers as to define the questions that our next round of policy papers should address. I’ve been particularly keen to include questions on responding to climate change, and on the social impact of new technology. Comments welcome by email, by 31st October.

And my other policy working group? It’s the one on information technology and intellectual property, set up in response to the emergency motion I proposed at the Spring 2010 conference, and ably chaired by Cambridge MP (and motion seconder) Julian Huppert. Contributions to the policy debate are welcome by email .
Comments should reach Julian as soon as possible, and no later than 31st October 2010. Fancy names not needed!

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iCope is here to help

During the General Election, the Liberal Democrats identified four areas of health policy to prioritise: cancer. maternity care, Alzheimers – and mental health. I am proud that the LibDems took this stand, as mental health services are ignored most of the time, with the occasional burst of publicity when something goes wrong. The stigma surrounding mental health is part of the problem, which is why the Time to Change campaign is so important.

Now NHS Islington has launched another good tool, iCope, a self-help website; it has lots of practical advice if you are anxious or mildly depressed, plus pointers to help with more serious conditions.

Islington has significantly higher levels of mental health problems than the national average, even without the impact of the recession. So anything that can help is welcome.

Internet self-diagnosis and online pharmacies may have given some ‘health’ websites a bad name. But given the stigma and social isolation caused by mental health conditions, I think making this king of self-help available online is great way to reach the many people affected.

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On your Marx for Fair Votes

The next Fair Votes campaign stall, organised by the North London group of Take Back Parliament, will be this Sunday 19 September at Archway tube station, from 1pm.

The station is just down the hill from Highgate cemetery where Marx is buried. So what might Karl make of Fair Votes?

Well, in the “Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League”, Marx said
“Even when there is no prospect whatsoever of their being elected, the workers must put up their own candidates in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces, and to bring before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint. In this connection they must not allow themselves to be seduced by such arguments of the democrats as, for example, that by so doing they are splitting the democratic party and making it possible for the reactionaries to win. The ultimate intention of all such phrases is to dupe the proletariat. The advance which the proletarian party is bound to make by such independent action is indefinitely more important than the disadvantage that might be incurred by the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative body.”

Not a big fan of barcharts and squeeze messages, one senses. With AV of course, such ‘split the vote’ arguments become irrelevant. Reformist or revolutionary, you can bring your dialectic to the Archway on Sunday.

For more information join the Facebook group, follow on Twitter, or email group organiser Martin Lake.

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