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Islington healthy streets hustings: Audience none the wiser after toothless panel debate

PUBLISHED: 15:38 17 April 2018 | UPDATED: 15:38 18 April 2018

Last night's Islington healthy streets hustings at Christ Church Highbury. Picture: Polly Hancock

Last night's Islington healthy streets hustings at Christ Church Highbury. Picture: Polly Hancock

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Islington has foul air, poor cycling infrastructure and some dangerous pedestrian zones. So last night’s healthy streets hustings should have been a chance to find out more from local elections candidates. James Morris was baffled by the outcome.

Last night's Islington healthy streets hustings at Christ Church Highbury. The panel, from left: Ed McGuinness (Con), Kate Pothalingham (Lib Dem) chair and Islington Gazette Editor Ramzy Alwakeel, Cllr Caroline Russell (Green) and Cllr Claudia Webbe (Lab). Picture: Polly HancockLast night's Islington healthy streets hustings at Christ Church Highbury. The panel, from left: Ed McGuinness (Con), Kate Pothalingham (Lib Dem) chair and Islington Gazette Editor Ramzy Alwakeel, Cllr Caroline Russell (Green) and Cllr Claudia Webbe (Lab). Picture: Polly Hancock

“That was fascinating. One was a competent politician. One was a theatrical caricature of a politician. One was a Neighbourhood Watch candidate. One knew nothing about Islington. I’ve actually come away disappointed that’s all Islington has to offer.”

Brutal comments from an audience member after last night’s Islington healthy streets hustings at Christ Church Highbury.

And certainly harsh. Councillors, and candidates, are by and large people who sincerely want to change their communities for the better, often with little to no thanks or remuneration.

But the assessment will probably ring true for the 60-odd people in the church. As a whole, the panel offered few answers.

Last night’s debate, organised by Islington Living Streets and chaired by Gazette Editor Ramzy Alwakeel, was held to assess the next council’s environmental policy after May 3.

Taking part was Ed McGuinness (Con, standing for Highbury West), Kate Pothalingam (Lib Dem, standing for Highbury East), current sole opposition Cllr Caroline Russell (Green, Highbury East) and current environment leader Cllr Claudia Webbe (Lab, Bunhill).

Part of the problem was that all candidates had an advance preview of Islington Living Streets’ three questions. So no one was tested. They spewed rehearsed answers. The audience’s eyes glazed over.

Last night's Islington healthy streets hustings at Christ Church Highbury. Picture: Carline ChengLast night's Islington healthy streets hustings at Christ Church Highbury. Picture: Carline Cheng

The second part of the evening saw questions submitted from the floor on topics such as the Highbury Corner works and whether more consultation is needed, rat-runs around Drayton Park and Baalbec Road, a lack of cycle routes between the north and east of Islington, and whether the borough’s 20mph speed limit is enforceable.

In his answers, Mr McGuinness repeatedly returned to Labour’s “unfair” £104 annual charge for bike storage and repeated the Conservative commitment to move primary schools away from main roads (see page 4). Asked whether or not this had been costed, he said only that it was a “medium-term” project.

Ms Pothalingam focused on Labour’s perceived lack of consultation and engagement with people over big projects like the Archway gyratory.

Cllr Russell voiced the need to improve conditions for cyclists and pedestrians, for example by reducing local car journeys.

And Cllr Webbe repeatedly said a Labour Islington Council would work with the Labour mayor of London to improve air quality – an approach that, on occasion, garnered audible dissatisfaction from the more rowdy audience members.

One of the only questions that saw every candidate get off the fence was the Highbury Fields barbecue issue.

The Lib Dem, Green and Conservative candidates all said they should be banned.

Cllr Claudia Webbe is Islington's current environment and transport leader. Picture: Polly HanockCllr Claudia Webbe is Islington's current environment and transport leader. Picture: Polly Hanock

Ms Pothalingam said: “What about those who want to relax in clean air? I would encourage picnics, not barbecues.” Cllr Russell said: “As the only opposition councillor I have been unable to reverse this decision. I have a huge number of people with health problems who hate coming to Highbury Fields.” Mr McGuinness added: “I agree – we should encourage picnics.”

But Cllr Webbe defended the policy. “Those with gardens are in a minority,” she said. “Our decision to allow barbecues is fair.” She even added: “Actually, it’s not a health issue.”

One of the most interesting questions came from a “Nicola”, who asked how women would be consulted about transport changes. Most of the responses, though, were indicative of the quality of debate.

Mr McGuinness: “It’s a really serious issue and we need to have insight from every woman, every girl, every person who travels on our transport. We should implement those 100 per cent.”

Ms Pothalingam: “How many times have people in this room helped a mother or father down the steps at Highbury Corner Tube? Our stations aren’t fit for purpose. If we make them accessible to women, we make them accessible to everyone.”

Cllr Russell: “If you look at people cycling, they are overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly under 50. We have a very small group of people comfortable cycling on our roads. We need to change that and that means we need to talk to women.”

Cllr Webbe: “We have to do more than improve cycling. Making our streets safe for pedestrians and families is what we need to focus on. That means pleasant environments that we can all enjoy.”

A recording of the debate is at bit.ly/islingtonhealthystreets

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