Lack of scrutiny in one-party council is ‘broken system’

One party borough doesn't work - councillor

Friday, 25th March — By Charlotte Chambers

Caroline Russell IMG_5201

Caroline Russell in 2017

ONE of the few opposition voices at the Town Hall has warned that Islington has a “broken system” where democracy struggled to survive.

And with council elections now just six weeks away, Caroline Russell, the sole Green councillor since 2014 and at one stage the only non-Labour representative in the council chamber, warned that the ruling party’s almost absolute dominance was unhealthy for the borough.

“One opposition councillor – which has been me for the last eight years on my own – cannot scrutinise every scrutiny committee,” Cllr Russell said. “I cannot scrutinise everything. Local democracy was not made for sole opposition and the system is very broken.”

In 2019, Labour councillor and prison governor Gary Poole became an independent councillor after tearing up his Labour Party membership, citing his anger over anti-Semitism allegations and how they were handled.

In 2020, former Mayor Rakhia Ismail also became an opposition councillor when she defected from Labour to the Conservatives. This still leaves only three opposition councillors out of 48 in total. Cllr Russell said she felt that council officers were likely to respond quicker to members of the giant ruling Labour group, than to her.

Describing how she had been trying to investigate a series of legal cases currently being pursued against Islington by tenants who allege their homes are falling into disrepair, Cllr Russell said it took fellow councillors and Islington lawyers over a month to reply to her.

She said: “Just yesterday I got a formal response from council lawyers and that’s not ok. For a councillor to ask scrutiny questions and not get responses is not ok. “I think council officers forget they work for all parties and not just Labour – that’s unsurprising when you’ve got such a huge majority of Labour members.”

Describing what she felt was an “extraordinary lack of accountability and transparency,” Cllr Russell said measures brought in to improve accessibility, including  the use of petitions and open meetings where members of the public are invited to comment freely, had not really tackled a lack of scrutiny. These strategies were introduced by Labour in recognition that a one-party borough needed to be held to account – and if not by opposition politicians then by the public.

But Cllr Russell said: “I don’t think they [the measures] have been successful enough. I think they [Labour] need to do much, much more deep community engagement. “I always brought community groups into the Town Hall with me – so I’ve shown people how to do petitions and how to ask questions. “The council have only started broadcasting the meetings since Covid – that could’ve happened years ago.

“The lack of accountability and the lack of transparency is really extraordinary. “It’s getting better but it shouldn’t take a pandemic to get the meetings live cast.”

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