Hackney hustings: Mayoral hopefuls clash as election debate touches on Hackney Today, women's equality and austerity
PUBLISHED: 19:27 01 May 2018 | UPDATED: 09:04 02 May 2018
Picture: Polly Hancock
Mayoral candidates clashed with each other - and the audience - over issues like women's rights, "selling off the family silver", and car ownership at the Gazette's hustings last night.
A full-to-capacity crowd at the Old Fire Station in Leswin Road, Stoke Newington, saw the panel of six hopefuls answer questions in a debate chaired by Editor Ramzy Alwakeel ahead of Thursday’s local elections.
Independent candidate Vernon Williams nearly came to blows with incumbent Phil Glanville when he accused his “Blairite administration” of selling off assets to developers.
Jane Holgate from community group Hackney Unites, which also helped organise the evening, had asked whether – if elected – candidates would grant the council-owned Old Fire Station a long lease. This would enable the board to secure grants for much-needed repairs, she said.
Alastair Binnie-Lubbock for the Greens, Hareni Iyengar for the Women’s Equality Party (WEP), Jack Sutcliffe for the Tories and Les Kelly from the Lib Dems said they would, while Phil said he would not be drawn into negotiating a lease on the spot.
Meanwhile Vernon answered: “We have seen over the 10 or 15 years of this Labour administration that they have smashed many of the community organisations that were existing, got the property and sold it off to developers.”
“We do not sell off properties,” chipped in an outraged Phil. “It’s simply not true.”
When pressed to give an example by an audience member, Mr Williams said he would write to them.
“You’ve insulted Labour activists and you say we are selling off the family silver, and you can’t prove any of it,” Phil came back.
Vernon had also wound up Labour’s candidate for Victoria Park, sitting in the front row, when he dubbed Labour activists “poodles”.
Barrister and single mother-of-three Hareni apologised in hindsight for her earlier comments that the council “could do more to generate prosperity rather than flogging off the family silver to developers”.
“I should have said have said putting the family silver into hock,” she said. “I give the example of those three fancy towers going up in Shoreditch Park. All of the space taken up with those would-be investors should be taken up by social housing.”
“How would you pay for the new leisure centre we badly need in that part of the borough and that school without government resources?” asked Phil, insisting the council still owns the freehold. Candidates were asked their key policy to deal with Hackney’s air pollution problem.
Jack, standing in for for Imtiaz Lunat, a local businessman who “sometimes has to put work first”, said: “We believe a free roaming scheme to allow residents to park anywhere in the borough would do an awful lot to reduce the amount of traffic going through.”
“I know that’s not the solution,” said Phil to laughter. He insisted the solution would come by looking “holistically at neighbourhoods” and introducing policies like “school streets” closed to traffic, which have just been implemented to encourage parents to ditch the school run.
Vernon said he would bring in a council-funded programme to train cyclists on using the road, but Phil pointed out the council already does this.
“OK, well, it’s certainly not working as well as it could and I would certainly improve on it,” replied Vernon.
Hareni said cutting private car use is a priority for the WEP, and families with children and the disabled should be the only ones with access.
Given Hackney’s grant from central government has already fallen by £120m since 2010, candidates were quizzed on how they would save money, and what services they would protect if the cuts continued.
Al mooted the idea of a voluntary wealth tax, or “the prosperous Hackney contribution”, whereby you would tick a box if you fall into a higher income bracket to give a bit of extra money to fund vital services.
Jack said a priority for the Tories would be getting rid of the Hackney Today fortnightly council newspaper, and looking at how much the council is paying its staff.
“If my figures are correct, 23 members of the council staff earn over £100,000 and the chief executive earns £176,000 and we believe that’s too high,” he said.
“When you oversee a budget of half a billion pounds, you want good talent,” said Phil. “You don’t do public services on the cheap.”
“The PM of England only earns about £140,000, so I don’t exactly buy your argument,” Jack replied.
Candidates were also asked how they would work with police to reduce knife crime, given the six homicide investigations launched in the past four months.
While Hareni blamed the violent epidemic on “crimes of austerity” which have hit single mothers the hardest, Jack denied it was down to police cuts.
Phil disagreed: “Starting with the position we have lost one in four police over the Boris Johnson era, that means police cannot do that community work and go into schools,” he said.
Les, standing in for Pauline Pearce who was attending to a family emergency, mooted the Lib Dems’ “violence reduction unit” as a solution – which the Labour party claims is very much like the existing integrated gangs unit.
Vernon shared his theory that violent crime has come about as a result of slavery, and “using a repressive method to oppress and control”, while Alastair blamed cuts to youth centres.
“Ever since I was a kid I remember the fear of feeling like I might have to carry a knife or go out as a teenager and luckily that didn’t come to fruition,” he said.
The rights of women came high on the agenda. A woman in the audience requested to ask a question on the basis only one other woman had done so, even though three men had.
“In the world of nurseries and school it’s women who are picking up the slack,” she said. “We are doing the unpaid labour. It’s all women on my school PTA who are baking the cakes, and raising the money. I’d like to know what you think as men how we can change the culture, so that men are helping to plug these gaps and raise the next generation?”
Hareni said the WEP would introduce free universal childcare.
Phil commended women for being “a lot of the glue that holds Hackney together” like the “matriarchs” who run TRAs in Shoreditch.
“It’s also what you do next and I’m worried about isolation amongst men, and how we can bring men back into the community,” he said.
The panel was also quizzed on the harshest criticism they have received on the doorstep when canvassing.
“It probably wont surprise a lot of you to know I’ve been called one or two things on the doorstep,” said Jack to laughter. “The central government has cut things, and there is a macro issue which is having an impact on a micro level.”