It’s time to overhaul local democracy

That’s why I’m standing for election as an independent local councillor for Islington.

Martyn Perks

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Topics Politics UK

I’m standing as an independent council candidate in the by-election in the Bunhill ward of Islington, London on 6 May. The previous incumbent was Claudia Webbe, who resigned her council seat in March. She also sits as the MP for Leicester East and was suspended from the Labour Party after being charged for harassing a woman.

The mess that politicians like Webbe have made is one of the reasons I’m standing. Many local people are desperate for something new after so many years of being sidelined by town-hall politics.

A good example is the redevelopment of the infamous Old Street roundabout, situated on the edge of Islington. Ever since it was constructed, it has been a well-known eyesore. The idea of a redesign was popular, but since it was proposed in 2014 the local government has barely engaged the public with it at all.

It is now a mess adorned with ‘under construction’ signs. It is a broken roundabout, a fitting epithet for the politics that produced it. What was once an easy crossing from Holborn and the West End toward Islington and Kings Cross has been rendered unusable.

This all started six years ago, when Boris Johnson was in his last year as mayor of London. The project was part of his £1 billion investment legacy, intended to make London green. It also featured cycle superhighways and the continuation of Ken Livingston’s bike scheme – what became known as Boris Bikes. His successor as London mayor, Sadiq Khan, continued the environmentalist project where Boris left off. Khan famously pledged to ‘make London the greenest global city’.

Both of them are anti-car. In 2017, Khan’s walking and cycling commissioner reiterated the aim to eradicate all vehicle traffic from London’s roads, saying that the journeys we make should be good for our health. Whether or not cars are a problem is an important aspect of this debate. However, just as concerning is how politicians are using the cover of environmentalism to push through transport projects like the Old Street redevelopment, without believing they need to convince the public in any kind of open debate.

The original consultation process proved difficult. It lasted only two months, held at the height of winter between November 2014 and January 2015. Locals were asked for their opinions. In May 2015, Transport for London proudly announced there had been a ‘good response’. In total, there were 1,331 replies. This is pretty pitiful when we remember that the combined population of the boroughs by the roundabout – Islington and Hackney – is over 500,000 people. Far from being a ‘good response’, this was a PR disaster.

The four competition-winning design mock-ups for the redevelopment (chosen by a panel of judges chaired by Webbe) gave a sense of the motive behind the project. They were all pedestrian-focused, despite the roundabout being a very busy commercial highway.

Six years later and local, mayoral and national politics have changed totally. Khan has replaced Boris, Brexit has happened, Covid has decimated many local communities and businesses. And to cap it all, support for Labour has dwindled. It is remarkable that no one has made any attempt to use these changing times to ask the public for their opinions. Instead, the Old Street roundabout redesign remains an example of how the public were used as passive objects to ratify a scheme which had already been decided on.

But now, unlike in 2015, there is something very different developing. Growing sections of the public have found a new voice – and are less likely to put up with being ignored.

Take the growing opposition to Low Traffic Neighbourhood (LTN) schemes, which have been brought in during the pandemic. Islington became the first of many London boroughs to block off roads to stop through traffic last year. The pretext for many LTNs – or People Friendly Streets schemes, as they are sometimes known – is that we should encourage people to walk and cycle more. Backing has come in the form of a £250million grant from transport secretary Grant Shapps.

Using Emergency Traffic Orders – which did not require any public consultation – councils have gone about closing off roads. The effects have split opinion, often pitching cyclists, taxi drivers, commercial vehicle drivers and private car owners against one another. Understandably, in some traffic-heavy streets, some residents welcomed LTNs. But others suffered more congestion and pollution due to traffic being displaced to where they live.

One unexpected result of imposing LTN schemes has been that locals have become organised and have protested against numerous councils, stopping them from running roughshod over their lives. Large groups involving many thousands of local people have sprung up online and there have been street demonstrations, petitions and even court cases.

This moment has captured public frustration with the distant town-hall bureaucracy. Local politics has become a hot topic for the first time in decades. People can see that mainstream politics does not have any answer to these protests.

This all goes to show the resourcefulness of ordinary people, getting together and working out for themselves (without any official sanction) how to respond to their council’s draconian approach to democracy. All this organising has led to four independent candidates, myself included, fighting for election in Hackney and Islington on 6 May. These issues have brought all kinds of people together, in ways many would have thought unimaginable only a year ago. What we can be certain of is that many local people are itching to try something different.

Everyone wants to be listened to and represented. Only then, through new forms of solidarity and local democracy, can we begin to start addressing issues that matter to us on our own terms. The key battle lines are between them – who think they know what’s best for others – and us, who know what we need better than anyone else.

Martyn Perks is standing for election in the Bunhill ward in Islington, London. Find out more here.

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