Archive for Neighbourhood

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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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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Refuse and recycling collections over Easter…

… are the same as usual.

Thank you Islington Council!

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Another busy week – Amnesty, Oxfam, the Packington, and more

Once again, I’ve been too busy to update my blog for a bit. Not for lack of news or views, but lack of time to share them.

So here’s another quick roundup:

I’ve been busy lobbying away on the Digital Economy Bill, including signing a letter to the Guardian and speaking to the Open Rights Group anti-disconnection rally.

I spoke at a public meeting on asylum and immigration issues, organised by the local Amnesty International group. I am a longterm supporter of Amnesty International – I used to host letter writing groups in my home – and I am a Friend of the Refugee Council. During my time as deputy leader of Islington Council, and one of my most enjoyable roles was carrying out the citizenship ceremonies to welcome new citizens to the borough and hearing their very different and often moving stories. So I am keen to support the Let Them Work campaign.

It’s shameful that asylum seekers are kept in poverty, even criminalised, instead of being allowed to work; meanwhile the dehumanising bureaucracy takes years to process their cases while costing us all a fortune. By working asylum seekers, many of them highly-educated, could support themselves and their families, put their skills to service in society, and pay taxes. Jeremy Corbyn MP, who spoke as well, completely agrees with the LibDems on this: unfortunately his Government does not.

I’ve continued my programme of visits to locally-based charities with a interesting meeting with RNID; several members of my family live with hearing loss, and I suffered severe (thankfully temporary) hearing loss for some months a few years ago, so RNID’s work is close to my heart. They do excellent, practical work championing hearing tests, and pressing for sensible access measures, like ensuring that inductive loops actually work. More dramatically, research they are funding could lead to a cure for noise-induced hearing loss.

This week I’ve been popping back and forth to Westminster too. On Saturday I was at the Scout Association’s ‘Virgin Voters’ event, meeting first-time voters and young citizens to hear their views. Top priorities were affordable transport and student funding, as well as concerns about cleaning up politics, climate change, and jobs, that voters of all ages might well share.

On Wednesday, I started the day in Westminster, chairing a meeting for Oxfam on climate change. It’s easy to despair in the face of the challenge of climate change. Communities in some of the poorest nations are already living with droughts or floods – or, in the case of Pakistan, both. Oxfam’s projects there show how you can tackle poverty and work with the grain of local people while tackling climate change too: very inspiring.

There have been celebrations this week, a welcome chance to unwind after canvassing: on Saturday, I joined the Zimmers party for lead singer Alf Carretta’s birthday. On Tuesday we were marking 50 years of the Islington Society. On Wednesday night, the party was for Bob Gilbert, the much-loved green guru of Islington, who is taking early retirement from the Council to be a fulltime Dad and writer. And on Thursday I was celebrating the completion of phase 1 of the Packington estate. Beautiful canalside flats, all for local tenants from the old Packingon Square, a great achievement by the residents in partnership with Hyde Housing and Rydon.

Thursday also marked the end of an era, with the last Islington Council meeting before the local elections on 6 May. There are many good councillors retiring, including my colleagues Lucy Watt, Ruth Polling and former leader James Kempton. But the real sadness is the death of Councillor Donna Boffa, just a week ago. She was an amazing woman, who, in her short life, did what all politicians should aspire to do: make a difference. My tribute to her will be online soon.

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Fire at Tabernacle Street, EC2

Reports of this major fire down in Bunhill on the City fringe have been coming through all morning.

Richard was diverted on his way to work, texting me to report “Luckily was walking in as City Road closed but still had to double back and divert to get past. They have blocked off a huge area”.

A friend reported smelling smoke from inside the Barbican.

Student journalist John Stevens has lots of frontline reports and photos up on twitter and the Islington Now website.

And now an offcial notice has come from Islington Police:

Islington Police are in attendance at a fire on Tabernacle Street , EC2.
We were notified by LFB at approximately 4:50 this morning (11th March 2010).
It is understood the fire started at the Sosho Restaurant before spreading to neighbouring buildings.
There are no reported injuries at this stage.
It is too early to say re the cause of the fire; however officers from Islington CID will liaise with the LFB Fire Investigation Unit.
A number of roads are closed in the vicinity: –
Tabernacle Street is closed
City Road from Old Street to Finsbury Square is closed.
Worship Street – partial closures are in place.
There are closures in the block around Tabernacle Street , Paul Street and Bonhill.
We understand that the fire is now under control.”

Good news at least that no-one is hurt: bad news for people trying
to navigate the area for a while to come.

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Whittington campaign in the Gazette

The Islington Gazette has printed my piece on the Whittington march:

Hospital march was a truly moving experience

THE Whittington march was something special. To march alongside so many people from across north London, united in defending our local hospital, was truly moving.

Congratulations to Islington Council, the cross-party Defend The Whittington campaign, and everyone who helped make the march happen. The passion and anger of ordinary people made it huge.

It’s absolutely clear that lslington people value The Whittington and don’t want our A&E and maternity services to close. It’s much less clear who will take the decision on The Whittington’s future.

It’s absurd that while, locally, Labour MPs pledge their support, nationally their Government does nothing to intervene. We need to change the system to give us a locally accountable NHS that will improve our health services, not undermine them.

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Marching for the Whittington

As LibDem campaigners, we are used to pounding the streets in all weathers for a cause we believe in. Still, yesterday’s Whittington march was something special.

It might have, literally, been a damp squib given the heavy rain that started pouring just as people were due to assemble at Highbury corner. Add in Archway tube being closed and Arsenal playing (albeit away) and there were plenty of excuses for people not to turn up. But that would be to underestimate the passion local people feel about the Whittington, and the way the campaign to save it has gained genuine across-the-board support.

That support is something we’ve certainly found on the doorstep. On Monday I was at Downing Street handing in the first 2,000 signatures from our Save the Whittington petition. The petition is still open for signatures, and given the 5,000 folk on the march, there’s plenty more to come.

The people I met on the march were an amazing range. Yes, there were some of the usual suspects, ‘rent-a-trots’ who go on a different demo every week. Much more there were ordinary folk from Islington and beyond who use the Whittington and don’t want to see it downgraded. There was David, currently a cancer patient at the Whittington, poorly, but determined to march. There was Pat who has had three generations of her family get treatment there. And Julie who works with health charities and can’t believe the powers that be could ever consider running down our hospital.

Liberal Democrats were out in force, from Lynne Featherstone MP and Islington Council leader Terry Stacy at the head of the march, to local teams from Islington, Camden, Enfield and Haringey marching behind them. So many communities will be affected if the Whittington plans go ahead.

The local Council, the cross-party Defend the Whittington campaign, and some amazing publicity from the Islington Tribune (who were on the march with a bus and a band) made the march happen. The passion and anger of ordinary people made it huge.

But what none of us can do is make it clear who who decides the fate of our hospital. We only know the Whittington is under threat because of leaked documents. Despite a decade of talk about the new localism and making public services more accountable, the opposite seems to be happening with our NHS. Community Health Councils were abolished and a complicated quangocracy reports only to the Secretary of State.

As the Save Finsbury Health Centre campaign notes, “What our campaign has really been up against, however, is an entirely unaccountable system of healthcare governance…. Worse still, even after our elected local representatives have investigated an NHS decision in such detail they have no direct power to change it. Perhaps if they did and the non-execs on the PCT board were themselves directly elected, the executive officials would not feel so free to ignore public feeling, population trends, geography, transport and real costs.” That’s equally true of the Whittington.

All local politicians claim to want to save the Whittington. What Labour MPs won’t say is that their colleague, Andy Burnham, is the one politician who could do that tomorrow, if he wanted. Instead all we get is buck-passing from his juniors.

Only the Liberal Democrats are pledging to change the system to give us the locally accountable NHS that would improve our local services, not undermine them.

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