Can Caroline Russell, Islington’s one-Green opposition, hold on in Highbury East?

Can Caroline Russell, Islington’s one-Green opposition, hold on in Highbury East?

Jarod Lawley is a second year journalism student at City, University of London.

I met Islington councillor Caroline Russell for the first time at a transport hustings in Highbury’s Christ Church. She had made a very strong case that cycling and liveable streets were of utmost importance to her. It was therefore a relief to see her come whizzing down Upper Street the next day on her pushbike – she cannot be accused of inconsistency.

Russell is the only councillor in her borough representing the Green Party and the only one who does not represent Labour. For the past four years she has been the council’s one-person opposition – hard work for sure, and the upcoming election on 3 May offers absolutely no respite.

“It’s definitely a very hard fought election” she tells me over a cup of tea in the Workers’ Cafe in the heart of the borough. Her ward, Highbury East, is a three-way marginal and one of the most fiercely contested in Islington. Her fellow ward councillors are, of course, both Labour, and in 2014 she defeated the third Labour candidate by just eight votes and the Liberal Democrat who finished fifth overall by just ten. Neither of those rival parties are going to let the Green incumbent hold on without a fight.

There is a strong possibility that Labour could take over Islington completely this time, as the green vote has been squeezed in many strong Labour boroughs since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader. However, Russell warns of the effects that this dominance could have on the community: “Local government was not made for one party states and it was not made for single-councillor oppositions.”

Under the present conditions, “Labour can do what they want”, says Russell, who has lived in the Highbury area for 26 years. She has tried her best to make a difference and claims that this has been noticed: “People say to us on the doorstep that the Greens are very hard-working and that we’ve done a good job of holding the Labour group to account.”

One of Russell’s big objectives for Islington is to make the council a better landlord. Nearly 100,000 homes in Islington are part of the social housing stock, yet she contends that disrepair and neglect are letting down many residents. She believes that the housing repair service in the borough is badly run. “Condensation, damp, black mould – these things are bad for people’s health, and Islington has been off the ball,” she claims. “Having 47 out of 48 councillors doesn’t keep you on your toes”. However, Russell also acknowledges the stress that all councils have been under due to funding cuts from national government, which she describes as “devastating”.

Another issue the Greens are putting at the forefront in their campaign is the idea of “breathing cities”. Russell wants to make Islington a friendlier place for pedestrians and cyclists, describing this as “a social justice issue”. It is a particularly poignant one in Islington, where illegal levels of air pollution blight the population, particularly those who suffer from respiratory problems. Russell has a picturesque vision for how Islington can be better: “Green up our streets, take more space from traffic and give more space to people”.

She also hopes that this would will help solve Islington’s childhood obesity issue, with eight out of 10 local children reported to be failing to get their daily recommended hour of exercise. For a borough which lacks the playing fields for sport that other areas of London have, the Green view is that exercise should be integrated into daily journeys by means of walking and cycling. However, Russell believes that for this to happen, Islington’s streets need to be safer: “Traffic speeds being too high are not inevitable, we can slow them down”.

Although Greens are seldom short of creativity, Russell says her proudest achievement is the pragmatic one of getting a zebra crossing installed at Highbury Barn, something she had campaigned for since 2003. “Managing to get something practical like that to happen is fantastic,” she said. “Whenever I see someone I know when using that zebra, they always thank me for it!”

If re-elected, Russell’s aims for the next four years are clear: to tame the traffic, create more liveable streets, and to improve the condition of Islington’s estates. “If I can make the council be a better landlord, I will really feel like I’ve achieved something,” she says.

Thanks to Jarod for this debut piece for On London. Follow him on Twitter.

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