Cosseted liberals do live in Islington, writes Ronan Bennett, but so do some of the poorest citizens of `New Britain'. On Tuesday, they face one more betrayal
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The Independent Culture
IT'S SAID that council meetings resemble Elizabethan theatre. But on stage tonight at Islington Town Hall the actors appear too bored with their lines to rise to the occasion. One scratches listlessly at a crossword, another rests his head in his hands, his eyes heavy and firmly shut. Who can blame him? The script is lacklustre and, though peppered with insults, is not nearly witty or vicious enough to be entertaining. Just low-grade, knock-about stuff. "We recognise that in the past we did make mistakes," admits the man in the lead role, Derek Sawyer (New Labour, new motto: "Firm but Fair"). "You're still making them!" a Liberal Democrat member shouts back. Sawyer is a quiet, even dour, performer. For a moment all that can be heard is the shuffling of his papers and the buzz of the speaker system. Then he looks up and starts off again in dogged pursuit of tonight's narrative: the council must be "modernised", change is coming, not everyone will like it - "but we are going to consult the people of Islington." To which the not-entirely-unpredictable taunt comes back: "That'll make a change!" Somewhere in the high-domed chamber there is a lone, ribald laugh. The sleeping member dozes gently on. Unlike the audience. They're awake, and spirited, because something of fundamental importance is happening in this most visible of boroughs.

Mention Islington to the average Mancunian, Glaswegian or Tynesider and chances are the image that will come to mind will be of affluent streets stuffed full of cosseted writers, actors, journalists, media darlings and other Champagne socialists. It's a view also present in the liberal press, where you can find any number of sneering references, dropped parenthetically into articles on subjects as diverse as Spanish politics and travel in Siracusa, to "Islington dinner parties", "Islington luvvies", "Islington feminists" and "the People's Republic of Islington", where, apparently, the residents "paint their doors Laura Ashley khaki", and on and on and on.

It's not that you can't find evidence for this Islington - on the contrary. Start in Exmouth market, at the southern end of the borough, where the old junk and curiosity shops are closing one by one to make way for chic new restaurants for prosperous young men in white shirts and designer suits. Head north to the Angel and walk along Islington High Street, past the Mall Antiques arcade. On the right is the Business Design Centre, where a ticket to the recent opening of Art99 cost pounds 35. Straight ahead is the new luxury Angel on the Green development (pretty small flats actually, but costing up to pounds 450,000 each). Continue on to Upper Street, past the themed Irish pubs, and you'll arrive at the Almeida theatre, where if you knew the right people you might have got in to see Ralph Fiennes, Kevin Spacey and Juliette Binoche. Then you'll come to Granita, famed as the restaurant where Blair stuck the knife into Brown and ran off with the Labour leadership. A little further along - next to the block which in a very different era housed the feminist and anarchist bookshops Sisterwrite and Rising Free - you'll notice a fancy new Belgian restaurant on the site where previously stood an Islington Council Neighbourhood Office, as compelling a metaphor for what's happening in the area as you're likely to find. Turn right into Barnsbury (where Tony Blair moved from Hackney as the family finances improved) or left into Canonbury and you'll come across some of the most desirable residences in London.

Trendy Islington obviously exists. But, less obviously, it exists side by side with another Islington. Not just down-at-heel, not just scruffy, but impoverished. The extent of the deprivation is not always immediately apparent because, Islington, by and large, avoided the kind of high-rise developments that disfigure Hackney and Tower Hamlets. (This is one of the council's often overlooked achievements.) In Islington, rich and poor live cheek-by-jowl. Not a stone's throw from the half-million-pound-plus houses of Canonbury are the impoverished and embattled council tenants of Tynedale Mansions; the Angel on the Green development looks across Essex Road on to Packington Estate, notorious for its social problems, high crime and vandalism. Further up Essex Road is the sprawling Marquis Estate, perhaps the bleakest council housing in the borough. Continue past Highbury Corner, where many seem to think Islington stops, up the Holloway Road and on to Archway and within minutes you're a world away from Granita and the Almeida.

THE PEOPLE who have come along tonight to watch the Modernising Islington show in the Town Hall council chamber are certainly not the kind you find in Granita. If there's any mileage in the theatrical analogy, it can only be here, among the spectators. Groundlings at the Globe never hissed villains so vehemently, applauded heroes so thunderously. This audience participates. This audience claps, stamps, cheers, jeers, sneers, heckles, mocks. Sometimes they walk out. Sometimes they're thrown out. Passions run high because there is - all appearances to the contrary - real drama unfolding here. The ruling Labour group's Modernising Islington programme involves decisions about people's jobs and lives, and the audience have real interests in the outcome of this particular production.

They do not like the play or the players. In fact, this audience loathes Islington council. As does just about everybody I spoke to who is unconnected with the organisation (and quite a few who are). Hardly a week - a day - goes by without denunciation in the press. Islington council is "a byword for municipal incompetence" (Spectator), run by "vandals" (London Evening Standard), responsible for "the highest council taxes in London for some of the worst services" (Guardian). And if this weren't enough, Leisha Fullick, the council's chief executive, last year described the council as "lacking in vision" and "badly lacking in corporate leadership". It is also "self-serving, disempowered and bureaucratic"; its staff "neither know nor care that the services they provide are well below the standard the public has a right to expect." So at best Islington council, by common consent, is a bunch of incompetent, ineffectual fools with a long history of failure behind them.

Financial failure in particular. A history of "poor financial decision- taking and management", the Fullick report said, has left the council debt-ridden. Much of the problem arose during the Margaret Hodge era (1982- 92), when the council implemented a radical and expensive programme that incensed the Conservative government - and, later, the Labour leadership. Derek Sawyer, who was elected to the council at the time Hodge became leader, points out that most of its policies - promotion of equal opportunities, race awareness and anti-discrimination - have passed into the political mainstream. More controversially, however, and certainly more disastrously, the council tried to raise extra revenue by playing the markets. It wasn't the only one. At the time local authorities all over Britain, hamstrung by central government restrictions on borrowing, turned to ... well, gambling. They were amateurs. "The City loved us," a former Hackney councillor told me. "We'd give them our shirt on Friday for pounds 10 and then have to pay pounds 20 on Monday to get it back." Islington became one of 80 local authorities in Britain sued by foreign banks for the recovery of monies owed after entering into a range of highly speculative ventures. The borough's finances were plunged into chaos. Margaret Hodge then left the council to take her expertise to City accountants Price Waterhouse (she is now an MP and, having reclothed herself in shiny New Labour garb, is minister for the disabled). Today, Islington council is in debt to the tune of pounds 5,000 for each of the borough's 181,000 residents.

Modernising Islington will, in the short term at least, hardly enhance the council's popularity. On 9 March members will cast their votes on council tax levels and a package of cuts totalling pounds 51m over four years; there will be pounds 20m in savings in the next financial year alone. The cuts are needed, the council insists, because of Islington's financial problems, a reduction in the borough's Standard Spending Assessment, the grant from central government (80-85 per cent of local authorities' revenue comes from SSAs). But there are also political considerations. Labour, which has held power in the borough almost continuously for 30 years, nearly lost control to the Lib Dems in last May's elections. Each side has 26 seats - there are no Conservatives - and now Labour depends on the casting vote of the Lady Mayoress. Keeping the council tax at present levels - a reduction in real terms - should prove popular with voters. Lowering it, which Sawyer says he hopes to do by the next elections, in 2002, should be even more popular. (Interestingly, however, the convention of low taxes equals a happy electorate received a jolt last month when the residents of Milton Keynes voted overwhelmingly for a 10 per cent hike in council tax rather than see services reduced.)

So something has to give.

ON A mild, damp November evening, those who, inevitably, will be called on to do the giving made their protest. From about 6pm they assembled opposite the Georgian terrace of Highbury Place. The lights in the elegant houses were on, the curtains pinned back, and demonstrators and police could look in and admire the cobalt walls, dark wood bookcases, cornices, chandeliers and high white ceilings. It's a fair bet that these homes are among the 765 in the borough which fall into Band H (properties valued at pounds 320,001 plus), and thus liable for pounds 1,824 annual council tax. If the residents of Highbury Place ever wonder where their money is going that evening they needed to do no more than glance down on the demonstrators gathering outside their doors. Here were the mental health workers who attend to the disturbed and confused; the teachers who keep the schools going; the carers who look after the incapacitated and frail; the librarians who staff cash-strapped facilities. There were also housing officers, social workers, trade unionists, school children, pensioners, and a sprinkling of those routinely dismissed as "agitators" (the credibility of this last lot is always witheringly derided: being politically motivated, it seems, their opinions aren't authentic). The demonstrators handed out leaflets, all variations on a simple theme: "Save Islington People's Rights", "Islington Youth & Play RIP"; "Don't Cut the Mayville Community Centre"; "Wanted! Derek Sawyer and Leisha Fullick for the destruction of jobs and services".

IT'S important to distinguish between the two camps who hiss at Islington council. While they dislike the council in equal measure, they do so for opposite reasons. Standing in the pit are the kind of people who were on the march: poorer residents and user groups supported by trade union activists (mostly from Unison but also the NUT and T&G), the "Old Labour" grassroots, council-funded voluntary organisations and the ever-present Socialist Workers' Party. They see this newly firm but fair council as turning its back on the disadvantaged and punishing them for its own past mistakes; that, in line with the priorities of Blair's remodelled party, Labour councillors in Islington are being firm with the vulnerable and fair with the well-to-do.

In the gallery, bums on cushions, are the political right. Unrepresented in the council chamber, they rely on the Conservative press to air their views. They approve, in the main, of Fullick and Modernising Islington, but doubt that the Labour group has the resolve to see the programme through. In general, they think residents' money is being wasted on too many idle and unnecessary local authority employees, on council tenants who won't lift a finger for themselves, on scroungers, spongers and asylum-seekers, and on barking ideologues who succeeded over the years in persuading a soft council to fund a bloated and self-serving voluntary sector (or "dependency sector", as Fullick puts it), especially organisations with daft, left- wing-sounding names: like, say, the Islington Women's Counselling Centre (which costs the council pounds 27,986 a year) and the London Gay Teenage Group (pounds 892). Straddling this rough dividing line are Islington parents who despair of getting a decent education for their children. With good reason: Islington schools are a catastrophe. Struggling to cope with large numbers of children with first languages other than English (it's not unusual to find schools in which more than 20 languages are spoken), they managed to get just a quarter of their secondary pupils five A-C grades at GCSE in 1997, almost half the national average; one in eight gained no GCSE passes at all. (The borough does score well on exclusion rates - double the national average, and rising.) By and large, if they can afford it, Islingtonians follow the example of Tony Blair, Margaret Hodge and Rupert Perry (a former Lord Mayor, now Islington's chair of education) and send their children to be educated elsewhere.

The kids who remain are part of a community that is culturally diverse (23.5 per cent of the population belong to ethnic minorities), and often very poor. In Islington you'll find people living in some of the hardest conditions in London. One in five homes has been assessed as statutorily unfit because of disrepair or dampness; 15 per cent have been judged unfit for human habitation. Homelessness is the highest in inner London; more than half of those in search of accommodation for rent (pounds 168.32 a week, on average, for a bedsit; pounds 242.68 a week for two bedrooms) have a net weekly income of pounds 125 or less. Unemployment stands at more than 17 per cent, almost 10 per cent higher than the outer London average; a quarter of the population is on income support. Well over a third of Islington's children live with adults who are not earning a wage.

In addition there are serious health and mental health problems. Levels of HIV infection are among the highest in the capital, asthma is a growing problem, while TB is common among those sleeping rough or in hostels. Drug and alcohol abuse contribute to the borough's high and increasing rates of psychiatric admissions. The crime figures are also up: in 1996 Islington had the second highest crime rate of north London boroughs; it ranked first in violent crime and robbery.

The social casualties of this degree of deprivation are legion. The winos who fuddle along Regent's Canal, the beggars who solicit around Finsbury Park tube are only the most visible. Hidden away in council flats and privately rented hovels are people going quietly loopy, children being neglected or abused, old people unable to feed themselves, isolated refugees, women in fear of domestic violence, unemployed and angry men at the end of their tether. The more you look at the problem of social deprivation in apparently affluent areas, the more you realise that the very bottom level of our society - much more extensive than most of us care to consider - is kept from falling completely apart only by the efforts of a miscellany of social, mental health and respite care workers, charity workers, day care workers, home helps and others. Most of these are funded directly or indirectly by the council. Priorities have shifted back and forth over the years, but since the time of the Elizabethan Poor Laws, one of local government's principal concerns has been with keeping the poor afloat.

And yet social workers are reviled. The question being asked is: does social work have a future? If the answer is no, then what happens?

WHAT happens, for example, to the 14-year-old boy who has pitched up with his grandparents at the Children and Families area office on Halliford Street? Upstairs the open-plan office is scruffy, airless and overcrowded. It is as far from the paperless office of the computer age as is possible to imagine. There are bulging files everywhere. The phones ring constantly. It's first thing on Monday morning and the duty team covering the Angel and Finsbury area, led by Gloria Hurren, are already up to their necks in cases which have accumulated over the weekend.

The first one they have to sort out is the 14-year-old. Since his father went to prison a year ago the boy has been living in Hackney with his mother. According to the grandparents, however, the mother hasn't been feeding him, so he got a paper round so he could buy food. There is also a suggestion that he had been hit by one or more of the mother's partners. At the weekend, his father phoned from prison and discovered the boy had been left on his own for a week. The boy, who is described as "sad, not streetwise", cried down the phone at his father, who then called the police. The police took the boy to his father's parents in Islington, who are willing to keep him but say they have no bed for the boy and, with the mother claiming the benefits for the child, none of the extra money needed to cope with an extra mouth to feed. The duty team - Geoff, Donna and Julie - now has to decide whether it's Islington or Hackney's responsibility.

Meanwhile, two Kosovan children, aged 12 and 13, have returned for a further visit. They were first seen last week by Donna, a down-to-earth young Australian with a special interest in refugee children. She found them emergency accommodation in a hotel. Privately, social workers say that while some of the hotels are reasonably well run, others are "appalling". One describes a hotel in King's Cross as "a tip - rows of beds in corridors and basements". "There's no way we would put an English 14-year-old into a hotel," Donna says. The two Kosovan kids are vulnerable and tiny. Through an interpreter, Donna asks how they're coping in the hotel. "Have you both got beds?" No, one of them sleeps on just a mattress. "We'll try to get them to give you a bed. Have you got towels? Soap?" Yes. Their answers are short, polite. They don't complain.

There is resentment in the wider community at the money being spent on refugees. The duty team say it is not for them to judge the rights and wrongs of letting refugees into the country (though they contest the view that the majority of asylum-seekers are bogus), and say simply that they have a statutory obligation to assist, and in any case what's the alternative? Turn the kids away to sleep rough and beg?

Back in the duty office, Geoff and Julie are following up old cases and dealing with new referrals, from the NSPCC, from the emergency duty teams, the police. They have decided that the 14-year-old boy whose father is in prison is Islington's problem. Now they have to find the money for a bus pass so that the boy can travel to school.

From reception comes a call. A woman, very angry, is screaming; she wants money. Julie knows the woman well. "She comes from a family with generations of history of dependence on social services. She's aggressive, demanding, probably using drugs." Julie goes to try to calm her down. There are panic buttons in the interview rooms. Drugs and drink are a big factor in the work they do, Geoff says. In a recent review they found that drink or drug problems featured in 85 per cent of cases. "Because of the cuts to voluntary groups," he says, "there aren't as many agencies around dealing with these problems as there were three or four years ago."

An ordinary social worker at the top of his or her scale will earn pounds 24,000 a year, which, as long as they have a

few thousand in savings, could just qualify them for a mortgage to buy a one-bedroom flat in Islington.

ALL over Islington there are Neighbourhood Offices, day care centres, nursing homes, lunch clubs, residential units for those with physical disabilities, learning difficulties, mental health problems, the elderly, the homeless, the young and unwanted. Last year Islington council spent pounds 76m on social services, about a third of its budget and more than any other London borough. The council is, rightly, proud of the range and quality of its services. Many of those I spoke to involved in this sector say that Islington council's policies have been "enlightened", "humane", "far-sighted". But they are now nervous. The cuts ordained by Modernising Islington are going to fall most heavily on social services and the voluntary sector: approximately pounds 5.6m will come out of the budget in the next financial year. Assuming councillors vote for the cuts package on 9 March, residential and nursing homes will close or reduce the number of beds; voluntary sector lunch clubs will lose their funding; and there will be a freeze on placements in sheltered housing schemes.

Paul Curran, Islington's new director of social services, does not believe the cuts will damage the services provided by his department. "In fact," he says, "I am confident we can improve them." So is Derek Sawyer. Nowhere near as dour in person as he seems in the council chamber, Sawyer, who has been a councillor since 1982, and leader of the council from 1992 to 1994, and again from 1997, says he believes that services can be maintained and improved by streamlining and greater efficiency. An hour talking to politicians, like talking to lawyers, usually leaves me feeling unclear about what has actually been said. Sawyer is far from glib, and he says he "worries all the time about whether we're doing the right thing", but still he manages to convey the impression that although the budget is shrinking no one is going to suffer. And it starts to sound convincing. But then I run into a friend who tells me his severely disabled neighbour used to get a council home help to bathe her five times a week. This has been reduced to two; she gets two baths a week. Then someone else tells me that in the geriatric ward at the Whittington hospital they used to have people to help patients eat. Now they're gone and the old people struggle with plastic wrapping they can't get off and chunks of meat they can't swallow. Someone else tells me another story, someone else another.

LET'S PAY a last visit to the theatre that is Islington council chamber. It's 13 January and there is a meeting of the Special Social and Health Services Committee to confirm the level of cuts. Among the likely casualties are two council-funded respite care centres. These centres take in for a night or two, sometimes for a whole week, those suffering from severe learning disabilities - autism, Down's syndrome, etc - in order to give carers a desperately needed break. The proposed closure of one centre at Lough Road, and the overall reduction in beds, is not going down well. Carers, almost all of them middle-aged or elderly women, have come along with their children. It's a sad but also strangely uplifting sight. There is anxiety etched into the faces, but also affection, patience, commitment. Beside me are three women in pink cardigans - Mrs Coles, her sister Sylvia Lindow, who is 49 and has severe learning difficulties, and her mother Mrs Lindow, who is 76. "We've always looked after Sylvia," says Mrs Coles, "We do what we can between us, me and my mum, but it's just so hard." They're here to protest against the moves to close Lough Road. If they didn't have respite care they'd, have to put Sylvia into hospital.

As the councillors make their speeches a West Indian man in the audience repeatedly interrupts. "Let us speak," he says, his voice high with emotion. There are cheers and claps, but the councillors plough on through their agenda. Mrs Coles nudges me and points to one of the councillors, another dozer. She shakes her head.

From behind comes the impassioned West Indian voice again: "Please let us speak." The councillors give way. He tells them he is 64 years old and has a 35-year-old son. "He is a man-child, he cannot speak. I appeal to you: think of what you're doing. We're keeping our kids for as long as we can. I'm unemployed. I haven't had a holiday in 16 years. We need your help. Cut something else instead."

But what? This is Islington's dilemma. When they tried to close some of the borough libraries the Evening Standard ran a campaign denouncing the proposal and the council. For certain "Old Labour" councillors it was a cut too deep. They would not vote for it and, given the 26-26 split, Sawyer was unable to push it through. So cut what? You can't touch schools for the same reason you can't touch libraries. You can trim here and there (saving a couple of thousand a year, for example, by cancelling the press office's papers - now all they get are the Standard and the local papers). But for really meaningful savings you need to wield the axe. Inevitably, it falls on social services. Leisha Fullick says simply, and not without a hint of regret: "Social services aren't a lobby."

This Special Social and Health Services Committee performance ended, like others before and since, with boos and hisses at the council. Critics point out, with some force, the short-termism implicit in the cuts. The drop in respite care beds will make it harder for dedicated parents to look after their children at home. If they go into hospital, it will cost the council even more. Similar arguments have been made about the loss of psychiatric beds at the Whittington hospital. If beds aren't available, people in crisis have to be referred to private hospitals such as the Priory (where Paul Gascoigne was treated recently) at a cost of pounds 1,000 a week. Julie, the Children and Family social worker at Halliford Street, puts it this way: "It is either having a fence at the top of the cliff or an ambulance at the bottom. Nowadays what we're doing is providing the ambulance waiting to pick up the bodies." The cost implications of such a policy seem obvious. But how much is Islington council to blame?

Many years ago, the residents of a house in one of Islington's loveliest Georgian terraces bricked several of their windows up - a tax avoidance measure (the 17th-century Window Tax). The windows remain bricked up and have today been painted white to contrast attractively with the weather- worn, dark brick - an architectural reminder of the perennial reluctance of the well-to-do to pay their taxes. For 20 years we have been told, first by Conservatives, then by Labour, that we can pay less, and less, and less, that "throwing money at things" doesn't work, that we can get more for less through efficiency savings, streamlining, downsizing, modernising. Islington councillors are politicians. They may not always respond to their electorate, but they'd be pretty stupid to ignore them completely. Derek Sawyer says that if the people of Islington told him they wanted to pay more council tax, he'd have to consider that. But, he says confidently, they don't. He will, he says, reduce council tax within the next three years. Islingtonians are going to get precisely what they pay for. And, more to the point, what they don't pay for.

Captions: Left: Disgraceland, a pub in Essex Road that has continually changed owners. Above: an estate agent in Islington's Upper Street

Above: a second-hand clothes shop in Essex Road. Below: the Japanese Canteen in Exmouth Market

Above: a building in Finsbury Park. Below: Crowbar Coffee cafe in Exmouth Market

Above: the Business Design Centre where, a ticket to the opening of Art99 cost pounds 35. Below: Exmouth Market