Questions from Members of the Council
Question (a) from Councillor Heather to Councillor Watts, Leader of the Council:
The pandemic has highlighted the “digital divide” in the UK and in Islington. In schools, to assist children with remote learning, the Council has done its best to facilitate the provision of both computer hardware and connectivity to the Internet. Meanwhile the Tory Government’s strategy and record on digital inclusion is one of dismal failure. Their scheme to roll out computer devices to schools was paused in October 2020. And the UK will miss its latest target for the roll-out of full-fibre broadband by 2025 – just another in a long line of failures caused by relying on a strategy of private enterprise and completion to deliver the telecommunications broadband network that we need to assist digital inclusion and equality of opportunity.
The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the need for universal access to broadband services to end the digital divide. Working and learning at home saves lives. And only a publicly funded, owned and accountable service will get the job done and also boost other public services and the economy. Would you therefore agree with me that it is the right time to push for a Government policy more akin to the Labour Party’s publicly owned free full-fibre broadband pledge?
Thank you. As I said in my introductory remarks, the pandemic has highlighted and exacerbated inequalities that were already in our society. Digital access is one of the key inequalities that has been made worse by the pandemic. Throughout the pandemic the council has worked hard to tackle this issue; we have worked with local organisations and charities to supply laptops and tablets to families in need. We now believe that every family in need has either got a device or one is arriving very shortly. However, as you know, the reason we are now almost a year into a pandemic and still having to work on this issue is because it feels like at every stage we have been undermined by the government. Last summer we were promised thousands of laptops for families in Islington, schools placed orders with the DfE, and we were preparing for the laptops to arrive. Astonishingly, the Department for Education then cancelled all of those orders with no notice to schools or the Council. We then had to quickly secure laptops for children far too late in the day, while government ministers were claiming the scheme was some sort of success.
I agree with you, relying on private sector donations is simply not a way forward through this crisis. Laptops and data access are something that is clearly fundamental to all of our lives. They should be seen as a public utility like heating and electricity, not as some sort of luxury add on. I think there is a very strong view to say that public utilities should be provided by the public sector as ultimately that is in the public interest. Throughout the pandemic we have proactively worked with schools in trying to get more data and equipment; and the partnership of Islington schools has resisted efforts to marketise our schools and get them to compete, instead of working in partnership together. Our approach has paid dividends. We are almost there now, but the situation would have been resolved much quicker and much easier with proper government investment and support from the start.
Question (b) from Councillor Ismail to Councillor Champion, Executive Member for Environment & Transport:
Islington has a target of zero net carbon by 2030, What is the plan going forward and how is it going to benefit my residents who are on low-income?
Thank you. As you know, the Council declared a climate emergency in 2019 and we committed to the ambitious goal of net zero carbon by 2030. We published our strategy and action plan earlier this year that sets out how we are going to get there. The action plans focus on a number of themes; buildings, transport, planning, natural environment, green economy, and sustainable and affordable energy. The targets are incredibly important; carbon emissions have a detrimental impact on all of our residents, both for those who are on low-income, and those who are not. We also know that climate change impacts on people around the world. Our targets are ambitious and need a serious commitment by everybody. Unfortunately, achieving this target has been made harder by the government. We have seen nowhere near enough action from the government and their actions are now coming far too late. If the government is serious about helping us and tackling climate change they really need to step up now and do better. We need actions like retrofit programmes for homes that would have such an impact on people on low-incomes, an impact in fuel poverty, so we can provide warm homes to people. Not only that, but we have seen a decade to cuts to our budgets, so it makes it harder for us to do what we need. However, we have taken positive steps towards our target, and it is a priority across the Council. Since the Council cannot deliver the 2030 target by itself, the programme will focus on working with residents, businesses and partners on what we can all do to create a cleaner, greener, healthier Islington to benefit us all – especially the least well-off local people. Our fairness approach means we will target the issues affecting lower income households; for example by helping those in fuel poverty, improving energy efficiency in our homes, and work to maximise income.
Question (c) from Councillor Ismail to Councillor Champion, Executive Member for Environment & Transport:
Islington has frozen energy costs for 700 homes from the award winning Bunhill Heat and Power Network, which means that each household connected to the Bunhill network will make a saving of £321 less than the average costs for heating in London.
Can you demonstrate and confirm the savings Bunhill residents made in 6 years total and are they still making this saving?
The Bunhill and Bunhill 2 energy centres will provide cheaper and greener energy for local people. In terms of savings, from 2015/16 to 2020/21, a two bedroom flat connected to the Bunhill network will have paid £648 less for heating and hot water than the average London home connected to a gas supply. That’s £108 per year less. A leaseholder will have paid £957 less. The Council continues to provide a 10% discount on the standing charge for tenants connected to the Bunhill Heat and Power network. By providing clean and cheap energy for local people, we can reduce our emissions and make life easier for residents. Again, this is not made easy by austerity from national government. Despite this, we have continued to look after our most vulnerable residents and the least well-off.
Question (d) from Councillor Russell to Councillor Champion, Executive Member for Environment & Transport:
How many insurance company requests for tree felling in Islington have been refused by the council in 2015/16, 2016/17, 2017/18, 2018/19 and 2019/20 and how many trees have been felled each year?
Thank you. Trees play a vital role in tackling the climate emergency and helping us to achieve our ambitious target of net zero carbon by 2030. We have around 40,000 publicly managed trees in Islington and, as I said before, tree canopy of 25% that is better than the London average. Subsidence is a serious threat to our trees, and trees across London; the council always challenges insurance companies that call for tree felling and request the highest level of evidence, while demonstrating the value of trees in line with best practice and guidelines. We undertake a full tree inspection and take an informed decision based on case law and balanced against the financial risk to the council. Of the 40,000 trees managed by the Council, in the last five years we have lost an average of 14 trees per year to subsidence claims. To put this into context, we expect to lose around 400 per year due to end of lifespan or defects. But sadly it is frequently the larger trees that need to be removed.
With regard to tree work applications, the planning database doesn’t record the reason for removal or the total numbers felled. Officers could extract the information but it would take time to individually work through around 3,500 tree work applications over the past five years. However, to demonstrate that we are committed to this, the Council has made 12 new tree preservation orders over the last three years to stop trees being removed. The last five tree preservation orders were all to stop trees being removed due to subsidence claims.
Question (e) from Councillor Russell to Councillor Ward, Executive Member for Housing & Development:
2,700 of Islington’s 4,500 defective front doors were replaced with glass reinforced plastic (GRP) fire doors between 2014 and 2018, when serious defects in the GRP doors were exposed.
Last year you told me it will take up to two years before the 1,800 remaining defective doors and the 2,700 GRP doors are all replaced. Is the roll out of compliant front doors on track or has it been delayed by the pandemic?
Thank you for your question. Keeping people safe is a top priority for the Council. Sadly, the pandemic has delayed our fire door project considerably. Last summer our contractor furloughed their staff for a number of months and in this time no work was carried out. When it was considered safe to return to site, we had to devise new method statements to allow doors to be replaced safely, both for operatives themselves and for residents. That took time to put in place, required PPE and strict procedures that added to the installation time for each door. We also identified manufacturing problems that needed to be resolved. So sadly the pandemic has delayed our programme, as for a period the programme had to be paused entirely. However, we have still managed to replace 600 doors during the pandemic and are working to catch-up. However, it is likely that the overall programme will be delayed. I also have a breakdown of the number of new doors per block and I am happy to share this with you outside of the meeting.