Islington’s council leader Richard Watts talks to Haber about schools, the levels of hate crime and child poverty, and why his administration cannot be called a one-party state
Few politicians in North London could really admit to disliking kebabs, but happily Islington Council leader Richard Watts is not one of them.
“I love a kebab. I do visit. My favourite is Neo’s, but there’s a number outside the town hall where Labour councillors will be found on a regular basis eating kebabs,” he told Haber newspaper in an interview at his offices last week.
Islington’s Turkish-Kurdish community play an incredibly important role in the borough, he said.
“We’ve got two Kurdish councillors, we have big representation in some of our business groups as well and we are very interested for example in how kids of Turkish extraction do in our schools and so it’s an important community to Islington and we’re very pleased they are well represented on the council.”
Cllr Watts said the communities deserved their thanks, particularly considering the rise in intolerance and hate crimes across Islington since the referendum on Brexit.
“I think we’re very conscious that restauranteurs and small shop owners are particularly vulnerable,” he said.
“We’ve seen small business owners being picked on by the bigots and so I think as well as saying thank you for all your massive contribution to our borough, I think we also want to say we are on your side and we want Islington to be a diverse, tolerant and supportive borough for people of all backgrounds and all faiths. “
The communities originating from Turkey are one of many from around the world that live and work here. But despite this vibrancy, its council is struggling with money.
Rising council tax
All local government budgets are under strain as their funds from central government are reduced and council tax in Islington will rise by 5% this year.
Three-fifths of that increase will help cover the cost of adult social care, a growing concern for local authorities everywhere in Britain, with the remaining 2% paying for other services.
But Cllr Watts said the council tax rise would be met with a guarantee that there would not cuts this year to frontline services, from weekly rubbish collections and free school meals to everyone at primary school, to children’s centres and libraries remaining open.
He continued: “What matters to me is we’re still able to protect a lot of our youth services and our bursary for kids from poorer backgrounds who want to go onto college where the council gives them some money, so they’re not put off from doing things like science courses because they can’t afford a lab coat or an expensive calculator.
“There are a lot of Turkish-Kurdish families that have benefitted from that.”
Islington ‘still pretty deprived’
But there is no spare money left, he added, and there was no guarantee that all the services could be sustained after next year.
“The truth of it is for all the headlines about expensive cappuccinos, Islington is still a pretty deprived area,” he said.
“A 2% increase in our council tax base doesn’t raise us very much money. To give a flavour of this, the government is cutting us by £21 million pounds next year alone. A 2% council tax increase raises us £1.5 million.”
Islington notoriously has one of the highest rates of child poverty – the second highest in England when Labour were first elected to the council in 2010.
But Cllr Watts said that has fallen to fourth highest in the years since then because “of the work we’ve done to get more parents into jobs.
He continued: “So when I first became leader, I started the Islington Employment Commission. I know people needed jobs is a critical issue in our borough and the vast majority of kids in poverty live in a house where no-one works.
“Finding people jobs is the key to solving this problem.”
Turkish exams ‘incredibly important’
In addition to being Islington’s council leader, Cllr Watts has a national role chairing the Children and Young People’s Board of the Local Government Association.
He said it was “incredibly important” for children in Islington and beyond to learn foreign languages like Turkish, both because it provides a good qualification and is useful for businesses that might want to trade with Turkey in the future.
Turkish GCSEs and A levels faced being abolished in 2015 after the OCR examination board said there was not enough interest in the qualification. They have since been taken on by another provider, Pearson.
“I think in the main this country is not good at teaching foreign languages and therefore taking away further opportunities to study important languages like Turkish is not helpful,” Cllr Watts added.
And was it a mistake for the previous Labour government to abolish compulsory foreign language classes in secondary schools and make them only optional?
“I think in hindsight it probably was. You need to ensure there’s a diversity in qualifications and I think the truth is, the problem with British language teaching isn’t necessarily what happened at [the age of] 16 but what happened at 5.
“I’ve two kids in the Islington primary school system at the moment in a very diverse school, and a Turkish population in it, and they’ve started doing language tuition now for seven-year-olds upwards and I think that’s actually the point at which the country has to starting teaching.
“Young children’s brains are remarkable things, they find it so easy to absorb new languages at that age.”
‘Not a one-party state’
Since 2014, 47 of Islington’s 48 councillors have been Labour – with the single Green councillor defeating her Labour rival by just a handful of votes. How accountable is the leadership without an effective opposition?
“We’re conscious we have a lot of power. We’re also very conscious Islington is not a one-party state, even though we have most of the councillors at the moment because it’s only six years ago Labour didn’t run the council at all,” Cllr Watts said.
“We’ve done a lot of stuff there since the election, since there is only one opposition councillor to make sure we are directly accountable to the public. So I’ve started a public question time where three or four times year I’ll hold public questions where any member of the community can turn up and ask me anything.”
But, he adds cheekily, the Liberal Democrat opposition in place before 2014 was “pretty ineffective”.