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Agenda item

Questions from Members of the Council

Minutes:

 

Question (a) from Councillor Clarke to Councillor O’Halloran, Executive Member for Community Development:

 

Congratulations to Cllr O’Halloran on becoming the Executive Member for Community Development. Islington has a proud record of supporting the voluntary sector with its grants programme when other boroughs have gone down the route of commissioning.  Islington has also managed to sustain its many community centres throughout this period of massive government cuts to its budget. 

 

The Voluntary sector and our community centres are both important assets in our community, can Cllr O’Halloran confirm that we as a council will continue our commitment to fund the Voluntary sector and our support of community centres?

 

Response:

 

Islington’s voluntary sector and our community centres are at the heart of our ambitions to be the best council in the country at early intervention and prevention. We are proud to have perhaps the most vibrant and dynamic voluntary sector of any local authority in the country, It’s a fantastic privilege to work with the many fantastic voluntary and community organisations across Islington and see the important role they play in the lives of local people every day.

 

The sector reaches parts of the community that statutory services can’t, providing an extensive range of services that enable residents to thrive, give and connect.

We firmly recognise the value of providing core grant funding to voluntary and community sector organisations that are key strategic partners of the council.

Core grant funding is hardest type of funding for any voluntary sector organisation to obtain. The council’s commitment to core grant funding has helped create resilience in the sector and enabled the sector to bring in £18 million of grant funding into the borough in 2018.

This council has faced unprecedented financial pressures, by 2020 the government will have cut our core funding by 70%, with a further £50 million of central government cuts by 2022. Despite these challenges, we remain fully committed to core grant funding for Islington’s voluntary and community sector, including community centres, and are working across the council and with Islington CCG to renew financial commitments that are required to ensure that core grant funding remains a key part of our approach to supporting Islington’s voluntary and community sector. I anticipate that our new VCS Partnership Grants Programme will be launched later this year.

 

Supplementary question:

 

Thanks very much. It is a great achievement that we have a vibrant voluntary sector supporting and enriching people’s lives. It is important to remember that previous administrations sold off community assets that cannot be replaced. Can we have reassurance that community facilities will not be sold off by this administration?

 

Response:

 

Thank you. I’m really proud of this council. We have protected community facilities, children’s play areas, libraries. This council is leading the way. Some councils don’t have a strong voluntary sector or don’t work with them; we do, and I can assure you that we will do everything we can to support them. We will not sell off our assets, in fact we are bringing services back in house. I’m happy to talk to anyone about this after the meeting.

 

Question (b) from Councillor Heather to Councillor Ward, Executive Member for Housing & Development:

 

It is of great concern to me that since the year 2000, Land Registry data, as reported by the Islington Gazette, shows that 3,136 council houses bought under Right to Buy in Islington by former tenants have been re-sold at a collective profit of £861million.  Tenants who purchased publicly funded and owned council homes made an average profit of £153,260 each. Forty-nine properties were bought from the local authority for less than £20,000 and later re-sold for a combined total of £11.7m.

 

This may be within the law, but it is wrong and immoral when we have over 14,000 households in Islington on the council’s housing waiting list and the council has lost 70% of its funding from central government since 2010. And that is why the law on right to buy needs changing.  To his credit, Cllr Diarmaid Ward, Islington Council’s executive member for housing and development, is on the record as opposing the current right to buy laws as they have hampered our council’s ambitions to deliver council homes and genuinely affordable homes in the borough.

 

Given the critical nature of this issue for the council and its residents, can I ask if we can step-up our campaign to reform the wrongs of the Right to Buy laws?

 

Response:

 

Thank you for your question. I couldn’t agree more. Right to Buy is in urgent need of reform. It is absolutely scandalous that when we face a housing crisis, the government is still offering massive discounts to people to sell-off vital council homes. What’s even worse is that the receipts from these sales are so tied up in government red tape that we simply can’t offer replacement homes. We can only use those right to buy receipts to fund a third of the cost of building council homes. We have to find the other two thirds ourselves. We have made repeated representations to the government on this issue, as have many other councils across London and elsewhere across the country, and we will keep doing so. Let’s sit down and talk about how we can combine our efforts to make the government see sense on Right to Buy.

 

Supplementary question:

 

Thank you Cllr Ward. I want to respond to Cllr Clarke’s point, on the selling off of community assets. There has never been such a bigger fraud perpetrated on the people of this country than the Right to Buy, flogging off community assets with subsidies is totally and utterly immoral. As you’ve already mentioned, not only are our assets sold off, but the income can’t be spent in full on replacing housing. We need to get rid of the Right to Buy, that’s for sure. I do welcome the article in the Gazette on this scandalous issue. It highlighted that some properties are sold to former tenants and are then sold on very quickly for enormous profits. I think that shows there could be something that needs looking into. I want to ensure no stone remains unturned in making sure we are looking into that, to make sure that there is no impropriety. Congratulations on raising that we need to look into this, but is this council doing everything it can to look into this issue?

 

Response:

 

Absolutely. All instances of housing fraud, including Right to Buy sales, are investigated very thoroughly. We see this for what this is, theft. Theft of public assets. Theft of genuinely affordable secure homes for local people. Our housing fraud team work in partnership with the conveyancing and valuations team to keep a close eye on Right to Buy sales. We have indeed challenged and stopped sales when we have identified fraud. In fact, there have been four criminal convictions over the last five years, and also 33 properties have bene recovered in the last five years as a result of this.

 

Question (f) from Councillor Russell to Councillor Una O’Halloran, Executive Member for Community Development: 

 

Does this council recognise non binary identities in all its work?

 

Response:

Thank you Cllr Russell for your question. Islington is a wonderfully cohesive borough that has always celebrated the diversity of its residents. In recognition that Islington’s diversity is one of its greatest strengths, we take very seriously the right of all people in Islington to feel recognised for their unique identity and to feel included and valued in the scope of council services, and wider community. We are doing some work currently to make sure that inclusion of non-binary identities is referenced in all of the council’s various documents and policies. I know that there is always more to learn and I am very happy to meet with you and discuss any suggestions you would like to make to help Islington Council be even better in the future.

Supplementary question:

 

Thank you Cllr O’Halloran for that very constructive answer. I’ve been told that standard letters and forms used by the council do not allow people to specify their use of pronoun or title. It also seems that some officers are not being supported to understand the importance of preferred gender pronouns or titles. Genderqueer people have told me they do not feel respected in interactions with the council. I welcome your offer of meeting, and wonder if you were prepared to set a timetable to update the forms and letters, and provide appropriate training to officers where this is needed.

 

Response:

 

Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I’m quite happy to meet afterwards to look at specific examples and in due course I’ll get back to you with a timeline. I’d be more than happy to.

 

 

Question (c) from Councillor Poyser to Councillor Hull, Executive Member for Finance, Performance & Community Safety:

 

Would councillor Hull like to support me in congratulating Islington Council, Haringey Council and TfL for co-operating in the construction of anti-suicide measures on Hornsey Lane Bridge this month?

 

Response:

 

Thank you for your question. I’d like to echo your comments and I am very pleased to say that construction of the measures began on schedule. Officers at Haringey Council are confident that the works will be completed on schedule too, with the costs of the scheme being shared by the two local authorities and Transport for London. Once installation is complete, the scheme will be kept under review to ensure that the measures are effective at reducing the number of incidents on the bridge.  I would particularly like to thank the Police, Fire Brigade and ambulance services. All three services have worked very constructively with the two local authorities to agree and finalise the design. By taking this action the council is demonstrating that it is on the side of those who, for whatever reason, feel the need to take their own life. I sincerely hope that the actions we have taken will give at least some people in such awful circumstances pause for thought, as evidence from elsewhere suggests it should. I am aware that there has been some limited criticism of the measures we are taking, particularly on aesthetic grounds. One person wrote online ‘life is temporary anyway, but beauty is forever’. Another compared the installation to a Nazi concentration camp. Let me just state, unequivocally and on the record, that these are sentiments for which I have zero sympathy and even less respect. We have done the right thing. Those fences are there to protect people in the very darkest of places. It could be any of us and we should be proud of the steps we have taken to save lives and I will defend them to the hilt. 

 

Supplementary question:

 

I would just like to add my personal thanks to the Junction ward councillors, Haringey councillors, Jeremy Corbyn MP who has campaigned on this issue for 15 years, Catherine West MP who was on a demonstration recently about it, doctors in the Whittington A&E who have responded to suicide attempts for many years, psychiatrists from the suicide prevention group, local vicars and others from the community, council officers from both Islington and Haringey and particularly Karen Sullivan, our Director of Planning and Development, whose intervention in establishing CCTV has saved many lives. I would just like to ask if Cllr Hull has any more words for those people who feel these are the wrong measures, even though they have negotiated for 15 years in consultation with the Police, Fire Brigade and other experts.

 

Response:

 

Thank you. I’d just urge local residents to put themselves in the shoes of the local mothers and fathers who have to open their door to a man or woman in uniform to be told that their son or daughter is dead. I urge local residents to read the research on this difficult subject which suggests that it making it harder to commit suicide at a given location can prevent someone from committing suicide at all. I am sure if local residents engage with this issue with their head and their heart then they will back the measures. It is the right course of action to take.

 

Question (d) from Councillor Turan to Councillor Burgess, Executive Member for Health & Social Care:

 

I am very honoured to be the Mental Health Champion for our beautiful Islington and would like the opportunity to thank Cllr Janet Burgess for her hard work in helping to make Islington a fairer place.

 

According to the recent Islington CCG report, Islington has a higher prevalence of Serious Mental Illness (SMI) which is 1.5% compared to London (1.1%) and England (0.9%). Islington also has higher rates of hospital admission for mental ill health. It is anticipated that levels of mental ill-health might increase over the coming years due to a challenging economic environment, which I believe are significantly due to the politics of austerity by the government. What is Islington council doing to improve the determinants of mental health?

 

Response:

 

Thank you for your question. You are right about the prevalence of poor mental health in Islington. The council has a range of measures to tackle the problem; from prevention and building up resilience, to support for people living with mental ill health. We know that housing is an important determinant of mental health and that is why the council’s priority is to build more social housing and to improve services for those in social housing. We have a range of supported accommodation and other services for those with long term mental health needs that impact on their day to day living. The Income Maximisation Team help residents to access financial support and we also provide support to those in debt. The Islington Carers Hub provides advice, support and information to carers, including those who care for people with mental health needs. Violence, emotional and sexual abuse can have a significant impact on mental health, we provide dedicated support through a support and advocacy service, we commission the mental health recovery pathway which incorporates reablement, psychosocial services, day opportunities and a recovery café. We have three mental health day centres. We support residents across the health and care system through the social prescribing approach which relies on a link worker engaging with residents to facilitate access. Services such as Age UK, Help on Your Doorstep and SHINE also provide support. We know that poor mental health can start early on in life, so we have services for children and young people, including through Bright Start. We have commissioned a pilot involving two social prescribers working with a school, four or five GP surgeries and the Long Term Conditions service to understand how social prescribing can be used for that age group. We know that employment can be key to building resilience so we are working with employers to provide work experience and advice to secondary school children and we commission mental health working and employment support schemes to help those with mental health needs get back into work. We train staff to support people with mental health needs through our Make Every Contact Count programme. We commission mental health first aid training. Manor Gardens provides training for individuals who wish to become mental health champions. We will be developing a new strategy for mental health provision which is a key priority of our People directorate. Cllr Turan, as our Mental Health Champion, you will be involved in supporting that.

 

 

Question (e) from Councillor Russell to Councillor Ward, Executive Member for Housing & Development:

 

Two years after the Grenfell Tower fire, are you confident that the council has resolved all outstanding issues of fire safety in council homes in the borough? 

 

Response:

 

Thank you for your question. As a responsible landlord, we undertake regular Fire Risk Assessments of all our housing blocks. Following the tragic events at Grenfell Tower, we decided that we would undertake Fire Risk Assessments of all of our 126  blocks of six storeys or more every year, rather than every three years, as legally required. The Fire Risk Assessments for all of these 126 blocks are available on the Council’s website. We have invested significant funds in the installation of wet rising mains to the two tallest housing blocks in the borough, upgrading communal and front entrance doors, installing emergency lighting and interlinked fire detection and warning systems, and a range of other fire safety work. The Hackitt review of building regulations, the Grenfell Inquiry and the Metropolitan Police investigation are all likely to recommend changes to the fire safety regime that councils and other landlords operate within and we continue to closely monitor developments in this area. We are also in regular contact with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government about their testing programmes. We continue to work hand in hand with the London Fire Brigade and are currently jointly trialling Premises Information Boxes with them in some of our most complex blocks. Resident safety is, and will continue to be, our top priority.   

 

Supplementary question:

 

Thank you, that is very reassuring. I wanted to ask about fire doors. How many are still non-compliant in properties for which the council is responsible, and when do you expect them to be replaced?

 

Response:

 

Unfortunately, that’s not information I have to hand. We met before to discuss fire doors and I’m happy to meet again to talk through this. We are working very closely with the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government on this issue.

 

Question (g) from Councillor Mackmurdie to Councillor Ward, Executive Member for Housing and Development:

 

How is insourcing of all possible housing services progressing? What options are being pursued to speed this up?

 

As Councillor Mackmurdie was not present, a written response was sent, as follows:

 

It was great to see the report by Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE) published last month showing Islington Council has one of the biggest insourcing programmes in the country, with over £400m of services being brought back in-house since 2011 which include many of our housing services.

 

Following the insourcing of the repairs service in the summer of 2014, we have been actively considering where it is possible and prudent to pursue further insourcing. In summer 2015 we insourced the handyperson scheme, which undertakes minor works for those in receipt of care packages, carers and their families in Council-owned, housing association-owned and private homes across the borough. In 2017 we insourced the allocation of sheltered housing from Circle 33 into our Housing Needs team. We took the drainage function in-house in spring 2017, recruiting staff and procuring specialist equipment and vehicles in order to provide a better, more responsive service in this area. We are currently in the process of recruiting staff to undertake the cyclical testing of water temperatures in the Council’s water tanks (mainly in communal roof spaces of housing blocks but also in community centres, caretaker lodges, etc.). This function is part of the Council’s control mechanism against legionella.

 

We are proud that the vast majority of housing services are now delivered in-house, but continue to seek opportunities for further insourcing.  We are currently considering whether it is possible to undertake some of our voids re-servicing work in-house, although we have to carefully balance capacity issues in this area so as not to adversely affect either day-to-day repairs performance or our voids turnaround times.  

 

Our largest insourcing project work currently underway is to prepare for the insourcing of the PFI2 contract, subject to a formal appraisal of its options for delivery of services in the future and demonstrating that bringing the homes back under council-management will provide good services and value for money for residents, will take place in the summer of 2022. This will involve taking on the management and maintenance of over 4,000 street properties and represents a significant increase in the scope of our direct services.

 

The council is also engaged in buying back ex right to buy properties from private owners to directly manage as much needed temporary accommodation. Thank you for the question.

 

 

 

 

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