Jonathan Bartley to carry on fighting

2nd September 2017

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Despite the turmoil threatening environmental regulations worldwide, Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley is upbeat about the need to push for a ‘renewable energy revolution’, he tells Chris Seekings.

Political upheaval at home and across the pond over the past year has placed a large question mark over the future of environmental standards for two of the world’s biggest economies. Indeed, by the UK government’s own admission, it will be difficult to retain up to one-third of EU environmental law following the country’s departure from the bloc. At the same time, President Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement has left many wondering who will step up as leader in tackling the challenges of climate change.

Brexit and bold choices

Having rescheduled our interview a few times, the busy Bartley and I finally meet at a coffee shop in his local borough of Lambeth in London. Immediately, he is keen to express his disillusion with the country’s decision to Brexit.

“We have lost a real chance to lead the world, and I see us slipping down the league table,” he says. Quoting his Green Party colleague Caroline Lucas, he adds: “There is an ‘environmental-shaped hole’ in the Repeal Bill, and it’s unclear how we are going to get the protections that we need.”

Despite his pessimism, Bartley is determined to fight what he calls an “extreme Brexit” and believes the country’s decision to leave the EU does offer some opportunities for reform. “We want to see a move away from industrial farming,” he says. “This is a chance to rethink what we do with land right across the board, and about how we create resilient supply chains that produce the food we need.”

Bartley knows this process will require bold political choices to be made, and is not overly optimistic the current government will make them. But he acknowledges that the outcome of June’s general election gives parties such as his more of an opportunity to hold Theresa May to account. “It does take a willingness of politicians to work together, but there are question marks about how high up Labour’s agenda the environment is,” he says.

Homing in on housing

I put it to Bartley that many believe Brexit could help tackle an issue that is close to his heart: the housing crisis. Here in Lambeth there are more than 23,000 people on a growing waiting list for social housing. So does greater control over immigration provide a solution to the problem?

“No, I reject that,” he says. “This isn’t about supply and demand, but about a broken housing market. It is about a huge increase in rich foreign investment, and in the buy-to-let market, which has made housing a speculative commodity.”

He believes that removing subsidies to buy-to-let landlords would help to tackle the problem at its root, freeing up funds for a potential 500,000 council homes. “But local authorities are under extreme assault in terms of making cuts, and many are on their knees – you have a weak ability to fight to make things less centralised, so they go upwards rather than downwards.”

Bartley argues that planning and resourcing decisions should be devolved to local authorities, giving them the power of rent controls, rather than caps, to address the housing issue. “They are the ones that know what is happening in the area where the demand is, and where the prices need to come down,” he says. Additionally, he suggests that a network of community banks, funded through the government’s share in the RBS, could help provide resources for smaller developers and land trusts. “These local banks can fund innovative projects, opening up new avenues for property development,” he adds.

I ask Bartley what he thinks about building on the green belt, for which the Campaign to Protect Rural England say there are 425,000 new homes planned. “It isn’t necessary,” he says. “There are plenty of brownfield sites that we can be building on, but it is about the kind of houses we are building. Continually, we see affordable housing targets missed, and local councils not being strong enough with developers.”

He refers to other initiatives such as replacing council tax with a land value tax, so that developers cannot simply sit on land, wait for the market to rise, and then pass it on to someone else. Allowing this, he says, just discourages building, as owners already have an expensive asset under their control.

Concern for old and young

I am keen to know where Bartley stands on intergenerational fairness, and what can be done to tackle the problem. While accepting that there is a problem, he says it is not the fault of older generations, but of politicians.

“Public sector debt has burdened younger people, and it is a lie that we can’t look after both our older and our younger generations,” he says. “We now have a two-tier system around the minimum wage, and a two-tier system around housing benefit, where young people are being treated as second-class citizens. It’s not acceptable and doesn’t have to be this way.”

Bartley’s daughter, an aspiring primary school teacher, wants to go to university, but in doing so, would be saddled with debts close to £40,000, he says. “She’s never going to have a load of money to pay that off, but by imposing tuition fees and scrapping the maintenance allowance, that is the reality,” he says. In addition, he highlights the irony in governments trying to deal with the deficit, but at the same time, cutting corporation tax down to 19%. “That is a colossal amount of corporate welfare we are giving away, rather than taking, with our young people footing the bill,” he says. “But it should be corporations that are paying for things such as tuition, because they are the ones benefiting from university education.”

I suggest that young people are perhaps treated disproportionately badly as they do not come out in significant enough numbers to vote, an argument that Bartley doesn’t accept. “I encourage young people to vote, as they will have more of an impact, but we have a broken electoral system,” he says. “A few hundred thousand voters in marginal seats determine the outcome of elections, and until we get electoral reform, we are not going to get fundamental change to the system.”

Unsustainable growth

I tentatively ask whether the Green Party are guilty of letting the environment slip down its agenda in an effort to appear more than a one-issue party. “No. Next question!” He laughs: “No, I still knock on doors and get asked ‘what are your policies beyond trees and climate change?’, but the Green Party has always had a wide range of policies, it just sees all issues through the lens of climate change.”

He is passionately convincing about initiatives his party supports, such as the introduction of a four-day working week, and a basic universal income, constantly making the link to our “unsustainable” levels of consumption and growth. “We don’t want people to just be economic units competing in the global marketplace, endlessly pursuing the quest for illusory growth, which we know is ravaging the planet,” he says.

But then why do many people not seem to buy into this? Is there climate change scepticism in the UK that we are not recognising? “You still get the occasional person burying their head in the sand, but there is more awareness in this country,” he says. “It is important to communicate a clear vision, and make the links: to austerity, to the economy, and to every area of policy, which was why a lot of people joined the party in 2015.”

With Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity message proving popular in June’s general election, I suggest that some people might now find it difficult to differentiate between Labour and the Green Party. Bartley rejects this. “What we are seeing from Labour, quite rightly, is that we need to redistribute the economic pie, but they haven’t accepted that it is an old stale pie, well past its sell-by date,” he says. “You can’t build more roads and expand airports, and say you are going to tackle the pollution crisis. You can’t invest £110bn-£210bn in Trident nuclear weapons, instead of making an investment in the economy, and you can’t sink a £30bn subsidy into Hinkley Point and have a renewable energy revolution.”

This brings me neatly on to the controversial nuclear plant, which EDF recently announced could be as much as £2.2bn over budget, and 15 months behind schedule. So what is Bartley’s opinion of Hinkley Point? “I think it is a 20th-century technology,” he says. “Why would you want to lock yourselves into a bad deal that is already more expensive than offshore wind and makes us insecure, when the alternative is a renewable energy transformation?” The latter, he says, will potentially create hundreds of thousands of jobs and regenerate coastal communities, while Hinkley will have to be decommissioned after a few decades, creating only 800-900 long-term jobs.

For this “renewable energy revolution” to happen, Bartley acknowledges that the government needs to provide enough certainty to businesses looking to invest in the technology. Citing plans for a tidal lagoon in Swansea, he says: “Tidal is fantastic, because you can hold the water and release it when you need it, not just when the sun is shining or the wind blowing.” Six of these lagoons down the west coast could provide as much energy as Hinkley, he claims, with one of them having the potential to power the whole of Cardiff. “Business wants to invest as they know that it has such a large life span, but they need that security and certainty,” he adds.

I suggest there still might be some people in emerging economies, such as India and China, who see climate change as a ‘first world problem’, and are perhaps not as concerned about things such as recycling. After reminding me that India had just planted 50 million trees in 24 hours, Bartley reiterates the need to “join the dots for people”, highlighting the links to climate change, sustainable economies, jobs and energy creation: “I don’t know if we are winning or losing that argument, but it needs to be won, and international co-operation is key.”

Saving grace

Our conversation inevitably leads on to Trump. After musing over the president’s previous claim that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese, I ask Bartley how big a setback he thinks the US pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement is. “What is a saving grace with Trump is that he has galvanised people around climate change”, he says. “When he said he was going to withdraw, you had states, cities, and mayors from right across the US saying that, despite Trump, we know it makes sense and we are sticking with it.” He says it is important that the US meets its obligations, being one of the biggest emitters of carbon dioxide globally, but adds: “I think the global climate movement is bigger, and will move on in spite of Trump.”

Talking of presidents, I am interested to hear what Bartley thinks of French president Emmanuel Macron’s ‘make our planet great again’ initiative, which aims to attract the top climate scientists to France. “I thought it was bold channelling Trump’s phrase, and I think Macron has a vision, as far as the great challenges we face.” But he is concerned that Macron is also starting to disappoint, adding: “Let’s move on beyond the soundbites and political posturing, and make it a reality.”

Amidst the doom and gloom of Brexit and Trump, Bartley admits the situation looks both bleak and dangerous. However, he says it is encouraging that the renewable energy industry is still making progress, and reiterates the need to carry on fighting. “In every time of upheaval, you have to look for the opportunities,” he says. “We must have that ‘whatever it takes mentality’, and recognise that global warming doesn’t stop at the border.”

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