It’s not easy being green
As chair of the environmental audit committee, Joan Walley is currently at the centre of one of the most ferocious debates in the commons. Here, the sustainability stalwart tells Jess McCabe where the coalition is going wrong
Joan Walley is ordering coffees from the café in Portcullis House, the brash, light-filled block in Westminster which houses the offices of most MPs.
Just as the barista is about to pour our drinks into paper cups, she stops him to insist on using proper cups. Not because reusable cups are more eco-friendly - as one might expect given Ms Walley chairs the environmental audit select committee. But because the cups are made in Staffordshire, the place of her birth and the area she has represented for 26 years as Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North. Indeed, in her first ever speech to the House of Commons, in 1987, Ms Walley declared: ‘The people of Stoke-on-Trent North are the finest in the country. Furthermore, they make the finest pottery in the world.’
Ms Walley gives such a straight-forward impression of good-natured Englishness, she might as well have stepped out of Wallace and Gromit. It’s an impression that could imply the politician - who is widely described in glowing terms - is a little bit too nice for the Westminster shark pool. But, in fact, Ms Walley is in the trenches of one of the toughest fights in the commons. The EAC, which she chairs, is a committee of cross-party parliamentarians with the job of holding the coalition to its promise to be ‘the greenest government ever’.
Sustainable Housing sits down to get to know Ms Walley at a time when the mantra of green government seems in danger of slipping entirely out of sight. At the time of writing, a massive Twitter protest was calling for the environment secretary Owen Paterson to resign, listing a tirade of complaints against both him and the government in general, under the hashtag #industrylapdog. With the code for sustainable homes about to be ditched, the struggle to build green, affordable housing is similarly troubled. So what can Ms Walley and her committee do to put the government back on track? And who is the woman leading the EAC in this uphill struggle?
Ready for action
The most immediate answer is that the EAC is preparing to carry out a fast, one-off inquiry into the government’s consultation on building standards.
‘It was always my intention that as soon as the consultation was announced, we would do a very swift, urgent, one-off inquiry into it, so we will be taking evidence on the Communities and Local Government department consultation on 9 October,’ Ms Walley says. ‘We are using the committee to do a very timely inquiry and we have been preparing to be poised to do it as soon as the government announced it.’
The 64-year-old’s office is pleasantly cluttered. Along with photos of her family, the shelves are packed with the blue-covered reports of the EAC, a testimony to more than a decade on the committee.
A large photo of a coal mine adorns one of her walls, and almost as soon as we arrive, the MP explains her choice of décor. ‘Chatterley Whitfield was the first colliery in the country to produce a million tonnes of coal, and English Heritage says it is as important as Stonehenge in terms of heritage,’ she says.
Unsurprisingly, this coal mine is located in the MP’s beloved constituency. Ms Walley has been championing a plan to ‘recycle that whole site from being a powerhouse of the past with its coal and mining, to being a powerhouse of the future with renewables’. It would feature biomass heating, wind turbines, ground source heat pumps and a combined heat and power plant. Unfortunately, the plan has run into a snag: it’s not yet ready to roll, and so it has missed out on key regional funding.
‘The amount of work that’s involved is so huge, and it’s going to be done over a phased period of time, so it doesn’t tick any of the boxes [to be eligible for funding],’ she explains with resignation. The fate of the coal mine perfectly sums up the failures of the current government, the MP indicates: it’s all about the quick wins.
She speaks slowly and methodically - exactly the qualities the MP believes are lacking from policy-making. ‘Leadership is about knowing what it is you’re setting out to do, and then making sure that every piece of policy is contributing to that in an integrated fashion,’ Ms Walley says. ‘Without that, you’re not going to get the leadership on [sustainability]. What you’re getting is almost knee-jerk decisions that come from different departments, with no thought at all as to what that might mean further down the line for the route we might need to be on.’
Perhaps it is not a surprise that Ms Walley is so keen on the merits of legislative process - as opposed to the current trend for making up policies on the back of an envelope. After more than a quarter of a century in parliament, and a stint as shadow environmental protection and transport spokesperson from 1990 to 1995, she is best known for her role on the EAC. Combing through the details of policies is the day-to-day work of the select committee: taking in reams of evidence from expert witnesses, carrying out inquiries, writing reports that hold the government to account on the big targets - and the minutia about how they aim to carry out their environmental objectives.
‘I think we’ve made lots of differences in lots of small ways,’ Ms Walley says - probably too modestly. Recently, for example, the committee recommended that government should have a strategy on the Arctic ‘to bring together the UK’s diverse interests in the Arctic’ - and called for a moratorium on oil and gas drilling. Although this was rejected, the coalition has since come around and said it will write a policy framework. ‘I don’t mind if they call it a policy framework,’ Ms Walley adds. ‘They might like to say they disagree with our recommendations, but maybe if we can work and keep the pressure on that policy framework, to all intents and purposes it’s going to be the same as a strategy.’
Andrew Warren, director of the Association of the Conservation of Energy, who has given evidence to the EAC several times since its launch in 1997, says: ‘[The committee] certainly has had a very substantial influence. It is proving more difficult given the diminution in interest from the mainstream media in climate change.’ Mr Warren insistently adds that Ms Walley has a tougher job than the committee’s previous chairs, and notes that she is ‘genuinely concerned both for the environment and the less privileged in society’.
The Stoke MP played a critical role in setting up the committee after Labour came to power in 1997, and was deputy chair for its first six years, when it was chaired by then Conservative MP John Horam. ‘Because the tradition in the House of Commons is that audit committees are chaired by a member of the opposition, she couldn’t chair it,’ recalls Mr Horam, who has just been made a life peer. ‘She wanted to be chair and had advocated [for the committee to be set up]. She was incredibly gracious when she realised she couldn’t be chair. She and I got on extremely well because we were both keen on having a good, rigorous environmental policy.’
During those six years when Mr Horam chaired and Ms Walley deputised, he says that the committee was often critical of Tony Blair’s government - even though it had a majority of Labour MPs as members. But the committee never had to vote on its own reports. ‘We always got a good consensus. That was down to her as much as me… Joan was not afraid to be critical of the Labour government,’ he adds.
The EAC was intended to serve much the same function as the public accounts committee - where the PAC holds the power to investigate public spending by any department, the EAC has the remit to address how each department performs on sustainable development. The committee definitely has range: the EAC is currently inquiring into the UK’s progress against its carbon budgets; protecting biodiversity in the overseas territories; has launched a general inquiry into the Department for Business Innovation and Skills; and is working on a piece of research on how the UK measures the well-being of its citizens, among other subjects.
‘I think frequently there’s this tendency for government to say, environment and sustainable development is about how government runs its estates, which, actually has got nothing to do with how it embeds sustainable policy-making into all its decisions,’ Ms Walley summarises.
Ms Walley sat on the committee since its launch, and was elected chair by the commons in 2010, after the coalition came to power. Select committees are cross-party, and Ms Walley is known as a loyal member of the Labour Party - indeed, she has voted against her party only a handful of times since 1997, when the Public Whip began tracking this data. Jonathan Porritt, former head of the Sustainable Development Commission, describes Ms Walley as a ‘Labour stalwart’. But she has managed to gain the respect of MPs on both sides of the aisle, a positive sign she will continue to be able to wield the powers of the EAC to shift government policy.
Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith, also a member of the EAC, says: ‘Joan is totally committed to the cause, and is in my view one of parliament’s strongest advocates for the natural world. She is a highly respected select committee chair, not least because she puts party aside during the inquiries and finds consensus. Parliament is a more effective place because of her.’
Born for the role
Unlike many MPs, Ms Walley’s commitment to environmental issues did not suddenly begin once she was given a green brief. ‘Oh no, long before that,’ she exclaims. ‘When I was little, I would always go out walking with my dad - and his knowledge of where the first bluebells were, or the first mushrooms were, where the birds were nesting. That was always just something that was part and parcel, that beautiful countryside of north Staffordshire. That’s always been with me.’
When Ms Walley was in secondary school, she recalls, she won a school award and got to choose a prize. She chose ‘a book about parliament’. But she didn’t yet want to be a parliamentarian. It was housing issues and homelessness which inspired Ms Walley to go into politics.
‘I was the first person in my family to go to university,’ she says. ‘I did social administration at Hull University [graduating in 1970]. And after that I came and worked in London with homeless alcoholics at the Alcoholics Recovery Project. That was very much about working with people who didn’t have a voice, and who were on the receiving end of a whole set of dysfunctional policies in terms of housing and homeless.’ This experience was ‘transformational’, she says.
And so Ms Walley went back to university for a diploma in community development in the mid-1970s, then she worked in planning for Swansea Council. It was here she became an active Labour party member, although, as she notes that ‘coming from an area like mine, it just goes without saying really’.
In 1981, Ms Walley was elected as a Labour councillor in the south London borough of Lambeth, before working for the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. A few years later she ran for parliament in her home constituency and was elected in 1987. Her first speech wasn’t just about the pottery industry - it also listed the many housing problems of her constituency in the 1980s, from poor quality homes for retired miners to absentee landlords.
Ms Walley has always been rooted in the concerns of her constituency - despite a reasonably star-studded career in the green side of parliamentary affairs, she says her proudest moment was ensuring after Labour came to power in 1997 that all the schools in her constituency were either rebuilt or refurbished, and lessons were no longer taking place in prefabicated classrooms. Diane Lea, chief executive of the Staffordshire Housing Group, describes her as ‘passionate about the availability of good-quality housing in Stoke-in-Trent.
But when it comes to her proudest moment on the committee, her answer is closer to the green home. In 2011, the committee intervened when the national planning policy framework was being drafted over the requirement that local authorities must have a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’, which means that planners should approve all developments in most cases, when a local area has not put in place a development plan. Following this intervention, Ms Walley says the wording was tightened. ‘It’s nothing like what it should be, but at least it’s better than the version that government originally brought forward.’
Even though many aiming for proper sustainability criteria to be applied to developments might be unsatisfied with that, Ms Walley sees the positive. ‘I think you have to be optimistic,’ she says. ‘Don’t give up, basically. Take for example the number of people who followed the Greenpeace women who climbed up the Shard [to protest against damage to the Arctic]… People who followed that did care about what’s happening… You’ve got to be
Joan Walley on…
‘You’ve got to look at the potential to contaminate water supplies, and what we can do to prevent that, and what you’ve got to look at [what it will do to] property prices. It’s an example of short-term profits at the expense of the long term.’
‘What you’ve got is a free-for-all. You’ve got developers wanting to develop in areas where they’ll make the most profits, with no regard to how we recycle brownfield sites or get investment in cities where we need it to be.’
Protection of nature
‘We’ve had cutbacks to the Environment Agency, cutbacks to [the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs]. You’ve got fewer people on the ground able to look at environmental protection that we need.’