Four of Islington’s five council-backed ‘smart benches’ to be ripped up because of phone snatch fears

Happier times: Cllr Claudia Webbe tests out one of the smart benches near Islington Green in January

Happier times: Cllr Claudia Webbe tests out one of the smart benches near Islington Green in January. Picture: Simon Way - Credit: Archant

Four council-backed “smart benches” with built-in phone chargers are to be torn down – because no one thought to get planning permission and the police fear they could be crime magnets.

The Met says people could get their phones snatched while they’re charging. And conservation groups, neighbours and even Transport for London have complained they don’t fit in with the streets and are getting in people’s way.

Accordingly, when retrospective planning permission was sought at the end of July, the town hall turned it down for all but one, and gave Milos Milisavljevic – CEO of the City firm that built the benches – three months to get rid of them.

It’s something of an embarrassment for the town hall, whose environment chief Cllr Claudia Webbe called the benches “pioneering” when they were rolled out in February – apparently unaware that her own department hadn’t been asked for sign-off. Cllr Webbe even posed for photos on one of the benches and the town hall helped distribute a press release by partners Cancer Research UK about them.

Cllr Webbe called the move “disappointing” and said Islington would try and “learn lessons”. But she also vowed the benches would be back once a suitable location could be found for them. In turn, sole opposition councillor Caroline Russell (Green) accused the town hall of being “incompetent and wasteful”.

In written submissions, police warned: “Some concerns are raised over the safety of those using [the smart benches] and the vulnerability of the benches to criminal damage.

“Islington suffers from a huge number of motorbike and pedal cycle enabled thefts. The concern is that for benches positioned close to the road it is an opportunity for thieves travelling past to snatch phones and iPads being charged at the smart benches.”

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They said the benches should have been installed further away from roads and in the direct line of CCTV cameras, adding mandatory arm rests should have been included to stop people sleeping on them.

Meanwhile a report by planning officers referring to a bench by Islington Green said: “The smart bench by reason of its size and inappropriate design in the context of its historic setting presents a form of visual and street clutter.

“The smart bench fails to preserve and enhance the heritage assets including the Angel Conservation Area and the setting of the listed buildings.”

Neighbours echoed their concerns, adding the structures were “ugly” and bigger than the regular benches they had replaced, and saying the adverts on them for Cancer Research UK were too prominent.

Other benches in Ferntower Road, off Newington Green; Essex Road; and Old Street were also refused retrospective planning permission.

But a second bench further down Essex Road, near the New North Road junction, will be allowed to stay because the pavement around it is wider, and it doesn’t look too out-of-place by the five-storey block above the shops – even though it is “more modern than typical street furniture”.

Cllr Webbe – who sometimes sits on Islington’s planning committees as a substitute member – said: “Naturally we support the principle of Strawberry Energy’s smart benches, which offer people the chance to charge their mobile phone and use wi-fi for free, and donate to such a worthy cause, all thanks to solar power. They also gather valuable local data for us on air quality.

“We are happy that Islington was chosen as part of the trial and we worked closely with Strawberry Energy on bringing the benches to the borough. We are disappointed that four have since been refused retrospective planning permission, and will look to learn the lessons from this in future.

“We are working with Strawberry Energy on finding alternative suitable locations for the benches.”

Cllr Russell told the Gazette today: “Providing places for people to safely charge a phone while they are out and about sounds like a good idea in theory especially if there’s free wi-fi available too.

“But failing to consider the crime risk during the current epidemic of phone snatching and not checking in advance that the benches would get planning permission in the chosen locations is simply incompetent and wasteful.”