Local party leaders grilled at election hustingsKey issues affecting Barnet discussed at hustings exactly four weeks before local borough election
Local political leaders went head-to-head at a hustings in New Barnet on Thursday as they vied for votes ahead of the upcoming local election on 5th May.
Large-scale development, the environment and antisemitism were among the issues debated by leaders of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green groups during the event, which was hosted by Jewish Community Secondary School.
The event was held exactly four weeks before elections on 5th May, when all 63 seats on Barnet Council will be contested.
The opposition Labour group is hoping to overturn the Conservatives’ ten-seat majority on Barnet Council, while the Liberal Democrats are looking to increase their share from the current three seats and the Green Party is hoping to win its first seat on the council.
Headteacher Patrick Moriarty began the questioning by asking what more could be done to tackle antisemitism in the borough. He said that in 2021 antisemitic incidents had hit record levels in the UK, and there were 423 incidents in Barnet – by far the highest of any local authority in the country.
Labour group leader Barry Rawlings apologised for how the Labour Party in previous years had allowed antisemitism to “take root within it”, adding that there had been a “massive change” during the last few years.
He said racist graffiti should be removed quickly and that there should be no place for people who make racist statements in any political party. Cllr Rawlings said Labour would work with the Community Security Trust (CST) charity and ask them what else could be done to tackle antisemitism.
Lib Dem leader Gabriel Rozenberg said the rise in antisemitic incidents was a “London-wide problem”. He said he had heard from the CST that the Metropolitan Police Jewish Forum was not as effective as it should be, and trust between the Jewish community and the police had deteriorated.
Cllr Rozenberg added: “I think it is for us as Londoners to work through the GLA [Greater London Authority] and the mayor [of London] to get that forum of contact with the police into a much better shape than it is now.”
Tory leader Dan Thomas said part of the problem was people coming from outside of Barnet to “spread their antisemitism” and agreed that it was a “London-wide issue” that needed to be dealth with, adding: “Within Barnet, cohesion is very strong”.
Green Party candidate David Farbey said he thought the key was education, cross-communal work and interfaith work, which he said Jewish organisations were “leading the way on”. He called for the police to enforce the law “correctly and promptly”.
Tamara, a year ten student at Jewish Community Secondary School, asked what “specific plans” the leaders had to make Barnet sustainable and to meet net zero carbon emissions as soon as possible, and what role education of young people could have in their plans.
Cllr Rozenberg said it was “absurd” that Barnet Council had not declared a climate emergency, and the Lib Dems would do so “on day one” of a new administration. He added that a Lib Dem-led council would have a “zero-waste approach to food and drink”, “proper separation of recyclable waste” and a cycle lane network “throughout the borough”.
Cllr Rawlings said Labour would also declare a climate emergency “immediately” and ensure all policies were looked at “with sustainability in mind”. He added that Labour would set up a citizens’ assembly on climate change and biodiversity, which would include youth organisations, enabling residents to help design and monitor policies to cut emissions.
Cllr Thomas said the council had recently launched a framework for a sustainability strategy and invited everyone with an interest to take part in a consultation on the document. He said the borough already had the most electric car charging points of any authority in the country, and the council had recently secured a £1million grant to insulate homes.
Setting out the Green Party’s approach, David called for more home insulation and active transport. He said that electric cars still caused pollution, and people should think about car use. Later on in the meeting, he described low-traffic neighbourhoods as “part of the action that has to be taken in order to improve the climate in Barnet and across the country”.
Another questioner from the audience asked the party leaders to give their position on plans to build high-rise flats on tube station car parks, which she said were unpopular in the area where she lived near High Barnet Station. Transport for London plans to build flats on a number of station car parks, with Finchley Central and Cockfosters (in neighbouring Enfield borough) also earmarked for development.
Cllr Thomas said he was against the tower blocks and the loss of the car parks. “We are against, more generally, the urbanisation of the suburbs,” he added, pointing out that the council had designated the west of the borough, which contains a number of brownfield sites, as a regeneration zone suitable for taller buildings.
David said he was not in favour of the plan to close the station car parks “without providing a better solution for transport for Londoners”. Cllr Rozenberg said the Lib Dems were also against the plans and called for improvements to the public realm not to be tied to “the construction of tower blocks that are totally out of place with our communities”.
Cllr Rawlings said Labour would “look at a new planning document on height and density” that would stop inappropriate tower blocks from being built. He said he thought there could be “some building” at High Barnet Station, as a lot of the site is “light industrial and storage” and new homes are needed.
There was disagreement on council finances, with Cllr Rozenberg criticising Labour’s pledge to freeze council tax this year and ensure it is not raised by the maximum amount during the following three years. Cllr Rozenberg said that with inflation running at 8%, the plan would amount to a real-terms cut that would impact council services.
While the Conservatives have frozen core council tax this financial year, the adult social care precept was raised by by 1%.
Cllr Rawlings said Labour’s plans would be paid for by making “very simple management changes” and freezing councillor allowances, pointing out that the group’s budget had been signed off by the council’s finance officer. Describing council tax as a “regressive tax” that affects poor people more than other taxes, he said the plans would help those hit by the government’s cuts to Universal Credit.