I finished work at lunchtime today to go and take part in a Question Time panel at City & Islington College’s Centre for Lifelong Learning at Finsbury Park.
Part of the College’s sustainability week, the Question Time was on the theme of sustainability, with speakers from all the main parties plus Stephen Taylor from Islington Friends of the Earth. It was an extremely enjoyable event. Like the BBC version, it was filmed, which was fun. Unlike the TV version, the questioners were not political plants, but asked open-ended questions; as as one questioner said “I don’t already know the answer to this”. As panellists we explored the answers rather than made digs at each other. And because all the questions were on an environmental theme, we could develop lines of thought as we went. The students were from at least 4 continents, adding a suitably international feel to a global topic. No apathy here.
Questions ranged from should the UN limit family size (no) to can we sell the need for action on climate change to people with more pressing problems (yes). I think the answer has to be to make the connection between changes that help us and that also help fight climate change. Energy efficiency saves you money; leaving the car at home makes you fitter; shopping locally boosts your community. The UK is blessed with huge opportunities to harness renewable energy. And our current building boom is a fantastic chance to lead by example on sustainable development.
The Centre for Lifelong Learning is itself a good example of this. The original building was Finsbury Park School, one of those familar redbrick London schools. Similar ones, Ambler School and Gillespie School, still flourish nearby. Finsbury Park merged with Ambler and the site closed as a school in 1964. It later became part of Islington sixth form college. In 1993 it merged into City and Islington College (candi). Then around 2001, the college chose the site for the lifelong learning centre. They could have demolished the old building and started again. Instead they took the front off, extended it with a very good modern frontage – which makes it part of Blackstock Road rather than set back – and retained the brick arches and high ceilings of the old school as the framework of the building. It looks spectacular inside and works really well.
It’s a sustainable building too in that it includes shared use. As well as the college, the site includes Islington’s new N4 public library. Roll back to 1988, I was at library school further along Blackstock Road at Highbury Grove, in what was then North London Poly. Nearby was Islington Central Library on Holloway Road, well placed to serve the residents of Highbury. But no library at all for people down the hill in Finsbury Park – and this in a small borough which has ten libraries compared to just six in the whole of Kensington & Chelsea. It’s wonderful to see this bright and well-used library in what was a really neglected area. Fantastic though it is, the library had a controversial start; it replaced the small but well-loved Arthur Simpson library on Hanley Road, further along Stroud Green Road, much to the anger of its loyal users. The fact that the old library did not comply with disability access, and that its relocation enabled the fantastic new facility in one of Islington’s most neglected centres, was no comfort. Going for the N4 library was the right decision; but I do understand those who would have liked both.
The extent to which we can ‘have it all’ was a recurring theme in the QT debate. Jeanette Arnold (Labour) said we shouldn’t make people feel guilty about their gadgets; James Humphreys (Green) said we are consuming far too much stuff that we don’t really need, and it’s got to change. Yes things do have to change, but we should do so in a way that excites people about the fantastic opportunities we have; for renewable energy, for micro-generation, for tackling fuel poverty, getting fitter, supporting local shops, encouraging stronger communities – all the things people that matter to people who may not have the environment top of their agenda. Climate change is real; it’s happening now; and it’s man-made. We have not yet missed our chance to tackle it; and the solutions are man-made too.