Catherine West clashes with Francis Wilkinson, centre, and Peter Beresford Ellis, right
Residents who oppose plans for 140 flats on their estate car park (see story below)
Published: 15 June, 2012
by ANDREW JOHNSON
COUNCIL leader Catherine West was involved in an extraordinary shouting match on Tuesday as tensions over controversial plans to demolish a school spilled onto the steps of the Town Hall.
The normally unruffled Labour leader lost her cool after a testy meeting of the ruling executive, which agreed to go ahead with plans to build housing on the site of Ashmount School in Archway when pupils move to its new £6million building in Crouch Hill Park later this year.
Her hackles were raised when a spokesman for opponents of the plans, Francis Wilkinson, said during the meeting that Ashmount was not a very good school.
Mr Wilkinson was representing Ashmount School Action Group (ASAG), which opposes demolition of the 1960s locally-listed building in favour of keeping it in educational use.
After his comments, Councillor West instructed an officer to read the results of a recent Ofsted report, which described the school as good, and said: “It’s often the case that people who live near a school don’t know anything about it.”
But her real ire was reserved for author Peter Beresford Ellis, a member of ASAG. He is the former chairman of the branch of the Labour Party to which Cllr West belongs, and they know each other well. His wife, Dorothy Ellis, had accused the executive of being authoritarian.
As ASAG mingled on the Town Hall steps Cllr West and colleagues left the building the argument began.
Cllr West, furious at the public attack on the school – where she sends her daughter – began shouting at Mr Beresford Ellis and Mr Wilkinson, condemning them for criticising Ashmount and Mr Beresford Ellis for preferring a private school on the site rather than housing.
Behind the scenes, Labour believe that the campaigners are really concerned about a housing estate “overlooking their back gardens”.
A row also broke out inside the Town Hall between opponents of another housing plan – to build 140 flats in a car park on the Kings Square estate in Finsbury (see above) – and backbench Labour councillor Wally Burgess. As residents stormed out, spokeswoman Liz Smithson told councillors: “I’ve had enough. That’s it.”
Cllr Burgess, who was sitting with the public said: “We’ve had enough too,” sparking a heated exchange.
by ANDREW JOHNSON
ILL feeling was kept barely below the surface at a bad-tempered meeting which saw Islington’s ruling Labour executive push through controversial plans to build housing on the site of Ashmount School in Archway.
Barbed comments flew between Ashmount School Action Group (ASAG), which wants to keep the site in educational use, and Labour politicians who run the Town Hall.
The school will fall into disuse in October when pupils move to a new £6m building in nearby Crouch Hill Park.
But before anything can be done education secretary Michael Gove must declare the old building surplus to requirements – a significant hurdle.
When a petition of 1,120 names was handed in it was accepted by Town Hall leader Councillor Catherine West even though the “theatre of petitions” was normally saved for full council.
Heritage groups and residents want to keep the school in community use. Labour, trying to tackle the borough’s chronic housing problems, wants to see family homes built on the site.
Education chief Councillor Richard Watts said there was no need for another primary school in the borough as there was spare capacity in existing schools.
“We believe the site is surplus to Islington’s needs,” he added. “The building is unsuitable for education, which is why it’s moving. If we do not sell the site then the taxpayer will lose out.”
Labour says the cost of refurbishing the school could be £8-£10m while ASAG says an independent report puts the cost at £3.5m.
ASAG spokesman Francis Wilkinson said there had been several expressions of interest from independent education groups wishing to use the building.
by ANDREW JOHNSON
IT emerged on Tuesday that nearby St Aloysius secondary school had been hoping to make Ashmount the site of its sixth-form college, writes Andrew Johnson.
Teacher Denis Doherty said that sixth-formers were being taught in a Methodist church because of a lack of space.
St Aloysius, one of the best performing schools in the borough, is applying for planning permission to build a sixth-form block at its present site in Hornsey Lane.
Mr Doherty said that a staff vote had encouraged school governors to formally apply for the Ashmount site, but they are reluctant to damage relations with the Town Hall.
“The [Ashmount] site would be perfect. It’s three minutes away,” he said. “We need a new building and two new labs.”
St Aloysius’ head Tom Mannion said: “It is the case that the Governing Body have continued to monitor the position of the Ashmount site. We have received updates on this. It is also the case that no approach has been made to Islington about the site.”
He added this was because they were aware Islington did not wish to retain the site.
If this changed they would reconsider, he added, but as things stood the governors would be pressing ahead with plans to building their own block.
“The Governing Body did not have formal representation at the meeting in either an official or unofficial capacity,” he added.
by PETER GRUNER
ANGRY residents stormed out of the Town Hall on Tuesday night after plans to “squeeze” 140 flats on the car park of their estate were approved.
The 12 residents from Kings Square in Finsbury were “appalled” that the council had not deferred the decision to develop the scheme to allow them proper planning and legal representation.
But Labour council leader Councillor Catherine West said there would be no point in delays as the scheme will be open to full consultation with residents.
They fear their estate will become a “sacrifice zone” under a plan to bulldoze dozens of garages in Central Street to make way for a potential six-storey development, which would pay for the rebuilding of nearby Moreland School.
Labour housing chief Councillor James Murray said there was a long way to go before the scheme reached finalisation and the council would work “every step of the way” with the residents.
He told them: “The government has slashed our funding but there is a desperate need for a new school and new homes. This scheme will pay for itself. But we don’t want to impose it on residents. We want to work alongside you and listen to what you want out of it.” But Lib Dem opposition leader Cllr Terry Stacy said: “Is it going to be six storeys or is that up for negotiation? People need to know.”
The estate’s tenants’ and residents’ association secretary Liz Smithson said after the meeting: “All we asked for was a four-week delay so we could get proper advice. They are taking away our green space and building another tower block.”
Bunhill ward Labour councillor Claudia Webbe said residents would benefit. “They will get a new school and local families will get nomination rights allowing them an opportunity to move into the new homes,” she added.
LONDON’S housing crisis is acute and the pressures on areas such as Islington are set to grow.
Islington’s Labour leadership is to be applauded therefore for trying to build more homes. Balancing the competing demands for open space, car parking, student flats and family homes is an unveniable task – but taking tough decisions is what councillors sign up for.
So it is unedifying to witness the niggling, testy and even patronising tone aimed at residents who raised legitimate concerns on Tuesday about a potential six-story block being built on their car park in Kings Square.
That they should then be insulted by a councillor from the floor is inexcusable. Whatever the angry residents might say, elected officials should take a higher ground.
Worse was the spectacle of the council leader engaged in a shouting match outside the Town Hall. It gives the impression that the argument over the future of the Ashmount School site has become personal – which can cloud everyone’s judgment. Hard debate is replaced with personal sniping.
If Labour wants to win its arguments it needs to do so with facts. These are not on the table. There is no audit of available space in the borough and so no overall plan. There is no audit of the Ashmount site, no idea of what can be built, and no clear idea of what the site is worth (a figure dependent on potential profits from private housing) other than a vague idea that the Town Hall needs to recoup £3m for the new school building in Crouch Hill.
The arguments have been fluid at best, changing over the years to suit first the Lib Dem and then the Labour council. That is what leads people to distrust politicians.