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Emily Thornberry looks back on 2017: ‘People are in tears about housing every time I hold a surgery’

PUBLISHED: 14:08 20 December 2017 | UPDATED: 09:18 27 December 2017

Islington South and Finsbury MP Emily Thornberry inside her Westminster parliamentary office. Picture: Polly Hancock

Islington South and Finsbury MP Emily Thornberry inside her Westminster parliamentary office. Picture: Polly Hancock

Archant

Well, there we are. In 2017, dare we say, Emily Thornberry has become one of the UK’s most popular MPs and is tipped as a future Labour leader. She’s been in the national spotlight for her frank TV interviews and sharp Prime Minister’s Questions performances. But we’re more interested in her day job, as Islington South and Finsbury MP. She talks to the Gazette about a year in her constituency.

Islington South and Finsbury MP Emily Thornberry inside her Westminster parliamentary office. Picture: Polly HancockIslington South and Finsbury MP Emily Thornberry inside her Westminster parliamentary office. Picture: Polly Hancock

The Gazette to Emily Thornberry: “What is the single biggest issue in your constituency?”

Emily Thornberry: “Ooooffff.”

It’s been an “incredibly busy” year for the Islington South and Finsbury MP and she is looking forward to the Christmas break. But first, we’re at Ms Thornberry’s Westminster parliamentary office to get her take on 2017.

Collapsed in an armchair, she takes her time to ponder the question.

“It’s probably housing,” she concludes. “Housing affects everybody, all young people. Whether you come from a rich or poor background, the children of Islington people can’t afford to live in Islington.”

Of course, the issue cuts deeper than home ownership. “We continue to have terrible overcrowding,” continues the MP of 12 years. “So many people are on the waiting list for social housing, so many people are in private rented accommodation that’s below standard and/or far too expensive.

“Understandably, given it’s the best borough in the world, everyone wants to live here and there’s not enough accommodation for everyone.”

Islington South and Finsbury MP Emily Thornberry inside her Westminster parliamentary office. Picture: Polly HancockIslington South and Finsbury MP Emily Thornberry inside her Westminster parliamentary office. Picture: Polly Hancock

So what, if anything, can she do? “What I can do as an MP is continue to have it as an absolute priority.

“Developers call me in, particularly if they are having a hard time with Islington Council. They think they can persuade me to take their side.

“In fact, what they find is that I’m even more hard-line than the councillors. Because it’s the people on the housing waiting list that come and see me.

“I have people crying every time I have a surgery. Every time.”

She calls for the redevelopment of Clerkenwell fire station in Rosebery Avenue, shut by her former constituent Boris Johnson in 2014.

“The fire station should be social housing. I’d like it to be a fire station, but if it can’t then social housing.”

But she admits: “Despite all the efforts of the council – they are trying to build wherever they can – it’s just so hard.”

Islington South and Finsbury MP Emily Thornberry at the launch of the Unity Project in New Unity, Upper Street, last month. Picture: Unity ProjectIslington South and Finsbury MP Emily Thornberry at the launch of the Unity Project in New Unity, Upper Street, last month. Picture: Unity Project

It’s not just finding the room to build social housing. It sometimes feels just as precarious for current tenants. Islington and Shoreditch Housing Association, for example, has proposed demolishing the St Mary’s Path Estate off Upper Street because of damp – even though tenants say it isn’t that bad.

Ms Thornberry isn’t happy, either. “St Mary’s Path is a beautiful little estate. There could be better use of some of the land, and I appreciate there are repairs that need to be done, but I’m concerned about what the plans are.

“We don’t want to lose the essential nature of the estate, and I certainly don’t want residents moved out of there and not being allowed to move back.”

If there’s another problem that has got out of control in 2017, it’s moped crime. Only weeks ago in Essex Road, four crooks on two mopeds snatched 24 phones in the space of an hour. What has gone wrong?

“You get certain gangs who develop an expertise. They get really good at this crime. A few years ago one of the big crises was bicycle thefts. There were some really expert bicycle thieves, acting in a well-organised gang.

“It’s the same with moped crime, and needs to be disrupted. The police need to be able to have information about key people within that gang. That breaks up the operation. Good police work is what we need.

“I’ve met victims of these crimes and although the crime only takes a moment, it makes them feel incredibly vulnerable afterwards. It can really undermine people’s confidence.”

Emily Thornberry at Sobell Leisure Centre on election night after holding her Islington South and Finsbury seat with a 20,263 majority. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PAEmily Thornberry at Sobell Leisure Centre on election night after holding her Islington South and Finsbury seat with a 20,263 majority. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA

But Ms Thornberry stresses the need for “balance” in police chases. “Of course perpetrators need to be caught. The problem is, you can have chases where everyone’s blood gets up. Recklessness sets in. It results in those being chased behaving in a reckless way, but also the police taking risks.

“We have had young boys being chased who’ve ended up being killed. There’s a balance to be struck. Police can always chase a suspect. The question is, at what stage is it reasonable for them to break traffic regulations? How is that decision made? Traffic regulations are there to keep members of the public safe.”

‘Cuts are not Islington Council’s fault’

Islington Council will announce its 2017/18 budget plans in the New Year. Ms Thornberry isn’t looking forward to her colleagues “getting it in the neck”.

By 2020, the town hall will have had 70 per cent of its government funding cut since 2010. In November, it had to have an emergency budget meeting to discuss a fresh round of cuts.

“I complain to the council about how dirty the streets are,” she told the Gazette. “They’re not as clean as they should be, but in the great scheme of things, what do you do as a local authority without money? Do you spend money on streets being swept twice a week? Or do you help an elderly woman who needs help to get up in the morning?”

She added: “What I find difficult, as MP, is I know it’s this government cutting back. But I also know the council is going to get it in the neck when services are cut back. And it’s not their fault. It’s the government’s fault.”

Emily Thornberry received an ecstatic reception during a rally at Islington's Union Chapel the night before the election. Picture: Carline ChengEmily Thornberry received an ecstatic reception during a rally at Islington's Union Chapel the night before the election. Picture: Carline Cheng

‘Ohhhhhhh Emily Thornberry’

What was Ms Thornberry’s highlight of the year in her constituency, aside from her emphatic re-election in June?

She laughs: “Aside from getting an over-20,000 majority? Probably the night before the election, when we [Ms Thornberry and Jeremy Corbyn] had the big rally in Union Chapel. We weren’t able to leave from the front because we were really worried about a crush.”

Thousands of people had crowded outside in Compton Terrace and Upper Street. “We didn’t want people to get hurt,” Ms Thornberry continued. “We had to jump into a van at the back! It was kind of odd. It was the last thing we wanted to do, but for the sake of public order, we had to.”

She bursts out laughing when the Gazette brings up the “ohhhhhhh Emily Thornberry” chant, to the tune of The White Stripes “Seven Nation Army”.

“I suppose my name phonetically is right for it,” Ms Thornberry smiles. “But it’s quite affirming. You battle away and it’s nice people recognise the contribution you try to make.”

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