Islington’s sole opposition councillor silenced on Fabric deal in ‘nasty call’
'This is an important issue for free speech and because there’s only one opposition councillor'
28 November, 2016 — By Koos Couvée
Green councillor Caroline Russell: ‘I was told I cannot ever comment on Fabric in any context’
TOWN Hall chiefs were forced to apologise to Islington’s sole opposition councillor this week after a council lawyer told her she was banned from commenting on the deal struck with nightclub Fabric.
Green councillor Caroline Russell opposed Islington Council’s decision to revoke the club’s licence in September following two drug-related deaths and welcomed the news this week that the Farringdon club would be allowed to reopen under strict new licensing conditions.
However, hours after the deal was announced, she received a call from a council lawyer saying she was not to make any public comment on the matter.
Fabric and the council have come to an agreement that neither party will disclose any further details about their agreement beyond a statement released on Monday.
But Cllr Russell, who was not party to any of the negotiations, said it was “extraordinary” that an opposition councillor would be told not to comment.
“I was just about to tweet that this was a sensible decision, that’s it’s really good they’ve changed their mind so that Fabric can reopen,” Cllr Russell told the Tribune.
“But I was told that the council has signed a deal on which neither Fabric nor the council will comment further. I was told I cannot ever comment on Fabric in any context. It was a nasty call.”
Cllr Russell said she was even told the ban extended to her speaking out in her capacity as a London Assembly member, including in her role at the economy committee, which includes monitoring London’s night-time economy.
A spokesman for the council defended the decision initially when contacted by the Tribune. And Labour councillor Paul Convery also took to Twitter to back it, saying all councillors had been asked not to comment “because licensing is quasi-judicial and the council is a single corporate body”, adding: “Members are members.”
However, moments later the Tribune received a phone call from Town Hall chief Richard Watts in which he explained that Cllr Russell had been contacted by a “junior litigation lawyer” who was “no expert” in the workings of the council and had “overstepped their brief”.
Commenting, Cllr Russell said: “It’s a very swift climbdown and quite clearly it’s the fact that it was an unsolicited call from legal is really worrying. It shows a complete and shocking lack of understanding, both of their legal powers and of my situation as the sole opposition councillor.
“This is an important issue for free speech and, because there’s only one opposition councillor, it’s important that I made a fuss. It’s not right that someone in legal is trying to warn off councillors from speaking.
“I think it’s just indicative that they’re in a situation where it’s 47 [Labour councillors] to one. Perhaps they lose sight of that kind of independent approach. But officers are meant to be neutral and work with all councillors.”
She added: “The irony is that I would’ve said that I was glad about this sensible decision.”
Cllr Watts added: “Our most senior lawyer has spoken to her [Cllr Russell] and clarified what the legal advice was, which is that she can say pretty much what she wants. She doesn’t speak on behalf of the council and therefore is in no meaningful sense bound by the agreement with Fabric. I’ve apologised to Caroline for this misunderstanding, and we have taken steps to correct this as soon as possible.”