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Islington Gazette elections hustings: Terrible turnout, good debate as parties squabble over housing and school policy

PUBLISHED: 11:51 24 April 2018 | UPDATED: 14:30 24 April 2018

The panel debates at the Gazette's local elections hustings at St Mary's Church. From left, Cllr Caroline Russell, Nick Wakeling, Editor Ramzy Alwakeel, Edward Waldegrave and Cllr Richard Watts. Picture: Polly Hancock

The panel debates at the Gazette's local elections hustings at St Mary's Church. From left, Cllr Caroline Russell, Nick Wakeling, Editor Ramzy Alwakeel, Edward Waldegrave and Cllr Richard Watts. Picture: Polly Hancock

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We held a local elections hustings last night. Sadly, barely anyone turned up. There was still good debate, though. James Morris reports from St Mary’s Church in Upper Street.

There was a terrible turnout for the Gazette's local elections husting at St Mary's Church. Picture: Polly HancockThere was a terrible turnout for the Gazette's local elections husting at St Mary's Church. Picture: Polly Hancock

Islington Council candidates clashed at the Gazette hustings on Monday night.

Reps from four parties fielding a full slate of 48 candidates on May 3 were invited to take part at St Mary’s Church in Upper Street. They were town hall leader Cllr Richard Watts (Lab), sole opposition Cllr Caroline Russell (Green), Nick Wakeling (Lib Dem) and Edward Waldegrave (Con).

Sadly, the hustings, organised by the Gazette and chaired by Editor Ramzy Alwakeel, suffered a terrible turnout of 46. And about half of those were party colleagues of Mr Waldegrave, Cllr Russell and Mr Wakeling.

“If this was a concert,” one audience member remarked to the red-faced Gazette reporter, “you wouldn’t book the bands again...”

At least the debate was good.

The most intriguing replies came from a question on budget slashes. By 2020, Islington’s budget will have been cut by 70 per cent since 2010. How would the candidates save money, and what services would they protect?

Mr Wakeling said the council was guilty of rolling out “rather silly pet projects”. He pointed to Angelic Energy, Islington’s cheap gas and electricity supplier. It’s a scheme in partnership with Nottingham City Council’s Robin Hood Energy company, and Mr Wakeling said it lost £8million last year.

He asked: “What’s going to happen if this company goes bust? This is the kind of waste and idiocy that we need to stamp out.”

Cllr Watts said Angelic Energy “makes the council money”. But Mr Wakeling replied: “Well, Robin Hood doesn’t make itself money. What happens to residents in this borough if this goes bust?”

The panel candidates at the Gazette's local elections hustings at St Mary's Church. From left: Nick Wakeling (Lib Dem), Cllr Caroline Russell (Green), Edward Waldegrave (Con) and Cllr Richard Watts (Lab). Picture: Polly HancockThe panel candidates at the Gazette's local elections hustings at St Mary's Church. From left: Nick Wakeling (Lib Dem), Cllr Caroline Russell (Green), Edward Waldegrave (Con) and Cllr Richard Watts (Lab). Picture: Polly Hancock

Mr Waldegrave said he would raise funds by selling off council houses: “Islington has enormously valuable assets. The current Labour administration is incapable of unlocking those resources.

“You look at the rows of Georgian and Victorian terraces, many of which are council homes. These are very badly maintained and not suitable for council tenants.

“There are people in the private sector who would pay a fortune for those and transform them into highly desirable residences. In that way we could fund the council’s vital operations.”

An angry Cllr Watts responded: “We are not going to asset strip our borough. What we are going to do is invest in council services so there are fewer critical social problems that cost us money.”

Cllr Russell added: “I am really shocked the Liberal Democrats don’t support Angelic Energy. I am utterly shocked by what the Conservatives are suggesting. Please don’t let the Conservatives anywhere near council housing.”

The biggest laugh of the night came from our question on improving Islington’s air quality. It was a chance for Mr Waldegrave to promote his party’s ambitious manifesto pledge of relocating all of Islington’s schools on main roads.

“All the Lib Dems have come up with is air pollution counters outside schools. That’s great but it doesn’t exactly do anything to help the children.

“We are the only party with a really radical solution that’s actually going to work – which is to move all primary schools away from main roads. This is absolutely achievable.”

Some members of the audience burst into laughter. Benali Hamdache, a Green candidate for Highbury East, had his head in his hands. Cllr Watts spoke after Mr Waldegrave. He laughed: “I can’t beat that, I’m sorry!”

A question from the floor at the Gazette's local elections hustings at St Mary's Church. Picture: Carline ChengA question from the floor at the Gazette's local elections hustings at St Mary's Church. Picture: Carline Cheng

After the laughter died down, the council leader said he agreed with Cllr Russell’s policy of changing attitudes of how people travel around Islington – and reducing local car journeys.

Asked what the candidates’ harshest criticism on the doorstep has been, only Cllr Watts gave a proper answer.

“The thing about being council leader is that you need thick skin. You are criticised for everything and absolutely rightly so.

“The stuff I find most difficult to answer is from people in overcrowded accommodation, saying: ‘I have been waiting 10 years to get re-housed.’ It’s conversations like that which underline our determination to build the homes Islington needs.”

Mr Waldegrave said someone swore at him. Cllr Russell said the Greens send out too many leaflets. And Mr Wakeling went off topic completely and bizarrely, talking about how Brexit is “not a done deal”.

With 47 out of 48 councillors being Labour, one man asked an important question about accountability of the council.

He said three ward councillors had ignored emails about a campaign in his neighbourhood.

Highbury East Cllr Russell, who has been battling the super-majority of 47 for the past four years, said: “There’s a problem with accountability when you have a massive unbalace.

“You look at the records of people who turn up to full council meetings and it’s not all 47 who turn up.

“It is worrying that with so many councillors from one party, it’s not that interesting for them. Some of them aren’t completely engaged and involved.

“I really hope at this next election, we get more of a balance on the council with more councillors from different parties.”

Mr Wakeling, whose 13 Lib Dem colleagues were wiped out in 2014, said: “Even Labour supporters recognise 47 out of 48 is unhealthy for democracy.

“People aren’t being listened to because the council doesn’t need to listen to them. It is lazy, arrogant and complacent.”

But Cllr Watts said: “I recognise we have a very big majority and I’ve done a range of things to increase accountability.

“I’ve introduced leader’s question time, significantly increased the amount of time for public questions at council meetings and reduced the level of signatures needed for a debate at council meetings.”

The Gazette would like to thank St Mary’s Church for kindly hosting our debate. It is fundraising for a major restoration project. For more, please see stmaryislington.org/heart-of-islington/

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