Andy Atkins is the environmental campaigner who gets results. The Friends of the Earth chief tells Jess McCabe how his journey from dodging dictators in Chile to rescuing bees has convinced him that housing can save the planet
One day about 28 years ago, Andy Atkins was driven blindfolded to a house in Santiago, Chile. It was the middle of the Pinochet dictatorship and the young worker at the Chile Commission on Human Rights was there to collect video evidence from the underground resistance.
‘The door opened, and there were the four most wanted people in Chile,’ Mr Atkins recalls. ‘They had made an amazing pot of the local brew for me, they had cake. I was just this very young human rights messenger really.’ Maria Antonieta Saa, ‘one of the most wanted women in Chile’, later to become a leading senator once democracy was restored, drove him back into town so he wouldn’t break the curfew imposed by the Pinochet regime, despite the risk of her being caught.
‘I asked, why are you doing this? [She said], “I’m not going to let them control my life.” That early experience, with people like that, doing such courageous things for their own country, shaped me.’
At 52, in a fashionable grey suit and expensive-looking shoes, sipping an Earl Grey tea, Mr Atkins seems a million miles away from that risk-taking human rights activist of the 1980s. We meet amid the modern comforts of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, around the corner from London’s Savoy hotel.
But it would be a mistake to judge Mr Atkins by appearances. Despite the more genteel surroundings, this is a man who has kept that early passion for change through his career - and used it to good effect.
Mr Atkins is in his fifth year as executive director of Friends of the Earth in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. And, unlike the other big environmental groups, housing is a conspicuously high priority for FotE.
So why has FotE decided to make a bigger issue than most out of sustainable housing? Does Mr Atkins believe current government policy is a help or a hindrance to its goals? And how did a human rights defender become passionate about bricks and mortar?
FotE has certainly been vocal about housing during Mr Atkins’ tenure. Its recent work includes a successful campaign for a minimum energy efficiency standard for the private rented sector - last year the government adopted exactly such a policy, and by 2018 it will be illegal for private landlords to let homes with the lowest energy performance ratings.
The campaign group has also carried out research on the links between fuel poverty, energy efficiency and climate change.
Andrew Warren, from the Association for the Conservation of Energy, says: ‘More than any other group, they are prepared to get involved in the details as much as the broad picture.’
Sustainability consultant Rory Bergin describes Mr Atkins as a ‘good, strong voice’ from outside the housing sector.
Mr Atkins explains the group’s rationale, which underpins its interest in energy-efficient social housing, almost as soon as we sit down. ‘We care passionately about nature, and we care passionately about people as well, and we don’t see a contradiction,’ he says.
But Mr Atkins is far from content with government’s strides to transform the housing stock. On the green deal - Westminster’s main tool to improve the energy efficiency of British homes, which involves residents taking out loans to pay for work like insulation - he is circumspect.
‘We would like the green deal to be a runaway success. Our concern is that all the indications - and it’s in its early days - are that there are at least certain sectors of the population it’s unlikely to help. It’s very much designed for the individual house owner. What about all the social housing? What about people in the private rented sector?
‘It’s clearly not adequate either in terms of cutting energy inefficiency and therefore cutting carbon emissions, or in cutting fuel poverty. At the very least there needs to be a raft of other policies.’
Overall on environmental issues, Mr Atkins doesn’t believe the government is acting fast enough - despite its ambition to be the ‘greenest government ever’ - and says both the coalition and Labour opposition are too wary of regulation. ‘Churchill didn’t say: if you want to fight you can, if you don’t want to, don’t bother,’ he points out.
Mr Atkins says his friends would describe him as conciliatory, and a bridge builder. And FotE has indeed been building those bridges to keep the UK on track to meet its carbon targets. Yet Mr Atkins doesn’t disguise his generally poor view of the coalition.
‘Very often environmentalists and others get accused of being theological, having beliefs they will pursue despite evidence, but I think this is one of the most fundamentalist governments we have faced for quite a long time,’ he states. ‘We’re worried about Islamic or Christian fundamentalism. I think we have a politically fundamentalist government which is pursuing certain ideologies that are really damaging people in this country.’
Some of the examples, Mr Atkins suggests, are scrapping regulations and standards for no reason other than they are regulations and standards, and the government’s refusal earlier this year to set a ‘decarbonisation’ target, which would require electricity generators to reduce the carbon footprint of the country’s energy supply.
Even so, Mr Atkins adds, this isn’t a reason to stop trying: ‘I think they will move even more slowly if we stop expecting anything.’
FotE is currently in the midst of deciding what its next big campaigns will be. Although he can’t give specific information, Mr Atkins says one proposal relates to residential energy efficiency. But preaching to people about the impact of drafty, inefficient homes on climate change isn’t necessarily the right approach, according to the FotE head, who favours a more practical discussion.
‘Whether or not people believe in climate change, we think they have a right to a warm home, we think they’ve got a right to health, we think that with better government policies they could have a much better home, much better health.’
In fact, Mr Atkins has first-hand experience of living in Britain’s inefficient homes when his family moved to the UK from Australia in 1971 when he recalls living ‘in a series of freezing vicarages. My brother always slept with a woolly hat on… I was too proud to do it’.
His father was an Anglican minister and he was brought up on the hoof, travelling the world. Some of his formative memories were of his childhood on an island in the Torres Straights between Australia and Papua New Guinea. ‘The house was literally built on the head of the beach, on a tropical island, with two white families and all the rest were indigenous families. I was the youngest of five white children on the island. When you grow up in that environment, and you’re looking out at the blue tropical sea, you’re kind of there with the elements.’
His parents also regularly discussed poverty and justice. After imbibing this at the dinner table, it is no surprise that when Mr Atkins went to University College London to study geography in 1979, he designed a degree in international development studies for himself, before such a curriculum existed.
Mr Atkins’ subsequent career in international development work most recently includes seven years at the Christian charity Tear Fund, where he set up a campaign on climate change. ‘I was just coming across the evidence, over and over again, that the development work we were doing was in danger of being undermined by environmental factors,’ he says.
The move to FotE was the natural conclusion. Day-to-day, Mr Atkins’ job at the charity involves some lobbying of government, ensuring that FotE’s 168 staff keep working to the organisation’s goals, and also a broader effort to mobilise swathes of the general public on environmental issues.
It’s hardly a surprise when Mr Atkins says he spends much of his time travelling around looking at projects. ‘I find it difficult to sit in an office all day and read policy papers,’ he says, before adding that he gets the impression some colleagues find this ‘weird’.
Now, one of his big priorities is to ‘mobilise people’, at a time when it seems that climate change and environmental issues are falling down the political and news agenda. Recently, this includes a successful campaign about bees, which Mr Atkins names as one of the things he’s proudest of contributing to at FotE. As well as successfully campaigning for the government to set a national bee strategy, it also encouraged the public to plant wild flowers. Just like making homes warm and comfortable places to live, the bee project helped improve people’s lives.
When asked about his personal carbon footprint, Mr Atkins reveals he cycles everywhere. ‘Since I was about nine actually. I now understand it to be the environmentally correct thing to do, but I always did it. And my dad before me. It was just part of our culture.’