Friday, 28 April 2017

Positive thinking

Matthew Spencer’s career as an environmental campaigner has taken him to Central America’s cloud forests and back. Now, as director of think tank Green Alliance, it’s his job to put pressure on Westminster to make sustainable decisions. He tells Jess McCabe why, despite a tough economic climate, he is optimistic

Matthew Spencer does not at first glance look like an unrepentant enthusiast. Brow furrowed, a serious expression on his face, the director of think tank Green Alliance only outs himself as unremittingly buoyant when he opens his mouth.

‘Our job is to keep this sense of transition [to a low-carbon economy] alive and well, with good ideas and debate,’ the 49-year-old says eagerly, explaining Green Alliance’s ethos as the main think tank seeking to influence Westminster politics on environmental issues. ‘So that’s one way we judge our success. How fresh and interesting is it? Are there new voices coming in?’

Walking down noisy Buckingham Palace Road in central London to meet Mr Spencer, at first I miss Green Alliance’s unassuming front door, crammed between a café and a restaurant. A glance into the offices suggests semi-controlled chaos, as stacks of papers threaten to overwhelm desks.

But there is hardly any time to notice as I am quickly bustled into the think tank’s meeting room, and straight into a picture of studied calm - white, minimalist walls decorated with glassy corporate awards and the framed covers of reports published by the organisation, the carpets are prominently labelled as being made from recycled materials. It’s like the proverbial duck: on the surface, calm nonchalance, just beneath the surface, frantic paddling. Mr Spencer finally emerges wearing khaki chinos paired with formal brogues, the tumbled impression continuing.

When Mr Spencer got the job in 2010, the coalition was fresh in post and David Cameron was hugging huskies and there was an unprecedented cross-bench agreement on the urgency of tackling climate change. It might have seemed like one of the easiest lobbying jobs in Westminster.

Three years later, the political tide has turned, and Green Alliance’s raison d’être, ‘to ensure UK political leaders deliver ambitious solutions to global environmental issues’, suddenly seems much more challenging. As Sustainable Housing went to press, Mr Cameron was arguing during prime minister’s questions that it is time to review green levies - likely to include watering down the last remaining subsidy in England for making homes more energy efficient, the energy company obligation.

‘The last thing you want to do if you want to deal with the cost of living is to remove, to undercut the pot of money that’s available to lag roofs and improve the building fabric of our older buildings,’ he says, unimpressed. ‘You have to help the poorest and those in the leakiest homes.’

Driving debate
Green Alliance has a major programme underway aiming to change the political debate, by encouraging all three political philosophies represented in Westminster - conservative, liberal and social democrat (otherwise known as Labour) - to think properly about how environmental problems can be solved.

Mr Spencer opines: ‘You find there are loads of ways of approaching housing, or localism, or industrial policy, or energy policy, from the different political traditions. And there’s nothing distinctly left or right about our environmental challenges.’

Housing looms large in many of these debates, and has been a focus for the think tank since its 25th anniversary in 2004. At that point, Green Alliance set out in its mission statement for the future that it was about to ‘turn our political antennae to the bits of government responsible for land use, planning and housing’. To further explain this direction, it added: ‘Leave it to the market and we’ll get more Lego houses on greenfield land. So we’ll encourage policy-makers to aim high and adopt new technologies for zero carbon homes built to the highest green standards.’ This ambition led Green Alliance to launch a ground-breaking programme on greening tower blocks.

‘Most environmental groups and environmental thinkers accept we need new homes,’ Mr Spencer elaborates. Green Alliance is still a fan of the zero carbon homes target - under which all new homes built from 2016 are meant to be carbon neutral - a policy which has recently been shaken up by the coalition to allow developers to ‘offset’ carbon emissions from a home by installing renewables elsewhere, or retrofitting existing homes to reduce emissions.

‘The elegance of zero carbon regulation is it made sometimes unpopular new development more acceptable,’ Mr Spencer says.

Beyond the green deal
Now, Green Alliance is poised to produce an analysis of what comes after the green deal, looking at how to kick-start a nationwide energy efficiency refurbishment programme. ‘Local authorities with the housing sector do know how to generate the effective, big energy efficiency programmes.

Economists don’t,’ he sums up, hinting that the proposals may involve a role for social housing.

‘Energetic’ is the word that Jonathan Johns, climate and renewables consultant, repeatedly uses to describe Mr Spencer, who he has worked with at Greenpeace. ‘He was very open and receptive to ideas and running with them,’ he explains.

John Alker, director of policy and communications at the UK Green Building Council, a membership body for people working in green building, adds: ‘Green Alliance [is] incredibly politically astute, which I think Matthew has to take great credit for. He strikes me as very modest, but has really taken the organisation from strength to strength.’

Syed Ahmed, director of consultancy Energy for London, says: ‘He’s a deep thinker compared with a lot of people in the [sustainability] field. He can look at issues at a high level in the round. His job demands it and he rises to it.’

‘I don’t see my job as saving the planet,’ Mr Spencer bursts out. It is his loudest moment of Sustainable Housing’s hour-long interview. ‘My job is to do my bit to make life better,’ he adds, his voice returning to his usual timbre.

So it might be a surprise that Mr Spencer’s roots in the environmental movement go deep, back to his childhood in west Cumbria - he still retains a hint of the accent. ‘Anything wild was interesting to me. I just liked being out in the wild,’ he recalls.

Developing this interest, Mr Spencer decided to study environmental biology at Liverpool University, graduating in 1987. ‘It’s my passion. So becoming a biologist and understanding and researching woodland in the UK, and the tropical forests of Latin America was my ultimate ambition when I started.’

During his 20s, Mr Spencer made this work. He took temporary jobs in conservation in the UK, with stints as a forest ranger, at the Woodland Trust and Groundwork Trust. When he raised enough money, he travelled to Ecuador to spend a few more months studying cloud forests.

‘That experience taught me there are some really big challenges to human well-being, as well as to the natural world, that don’t get resolved through research,’ he says. ‘I became more and more interested in campaigning. I saw people campaigning to protect the Amazon rainforest from oil exploration, and I saw how quickly we were losing some of the Andean forests that we were studying.’

Campaigning work
At this time, he helped set up a charity, called the Río Mazán Project, and all its efforts went into conservation of cloud forests. Simultaneously in Liverpool, Mr Spencer cut his teeth running the successful campaign to save the Sefton Park Palm House, a dilapidated Victorian greenhouse for tropical plants that had been shattered during World War II.

‘I knew which way was up, but I hadn’t [run a campaign] professionally,’ he explains. ‘The big break was getting a job at Greenpeace [in 1994], initially as an atmosphere campaigner, but very quickly it became a climate campaign with a lot of work in renewable energy.’

Doug Parr, now chief scientist and policy director at Greenpeace, worked with Mr Spencer at the time. ‘He was keen to do things, make thinks happen on renewables,’ he recalls.

Mr Spencer was at Greenpeace for nine years, eventually as campaigns director, ‘working on everything from the Kyoto climate protocol in Japan [which ushered in an international cap on greenhouse gas emissions] to campaigns for offshore wind’. He was also involved in the launch of Juice, a green electricity tariff which was a collaboration between Greenpeace and Npower. ‘I did all sorts. It was a fabulous time,’ he recalls.

Upon leaving Greenpeace in 2003, Mr Spencer says: ‘It felt to me like we’d won many of the big directional arguments about the need to tackle climate change, the need to support renewable energy.’ And so for six years, he ran Regen SW, an organisation set up to cajole businesses and local authorities in the south west to plan and execute a greening of their general policy approach.

He also developed the proposal for Wave Hub, securing £30 million funding from the regional development agency, which was built in 2010. ‘It’s a £30 million extension lead out to sea, off St Ives, which is available for wave farms to test and experiment,’ he says. However, no projects have plugged in so far. ‘There’s an issue with timing, and how quickly that facility will get to full use, but it’s the right thing to be doing,’ he comments.

‘So I then got itchy feet. I wanted to get back to the national scene,’ Mr Spencer explains, continuing the story of his career so far. What followed was four years at the Carbon Trust, as head of government affairs. ‘And then this job came up, and my predecessor [Stephen Hall, now head of the Geneva office of Oxfam International] asked if I would be interested. I just couldn’t think of anything nicer to do. Because running a think tank which is non-partisan, but driven by an environmental mission gives you a huge canvas to work on. It speaks to what I care about. And I think it’s the biggest challenge of our age, you know.’

One of the reasons that challenge is greater, the Green Alliance director argues, is that the debate has become more advanced. ‘We’re out of the foothills, into the mountains of what we’re trying to achieve. Green policy is no longer about a flavour enhancer to an existing policy, it’s often at the centre of a housing policy, an energy policy or indeed an economic policy.’

As debate around environmental policy becomes more polarised - the influential Conservative Home blog recently posted a call for ‘Labour’s green taxes’ to be scrapped - Mr Spencer maintains that finding conservatives to contribute to a recent series of pamphlets on green policy was easy. ‘No, no. We didn’t find it hard at all, to find conservative thinkers who wanted to refresh their approach to environment starting from their values,’ he insists.

Green Alliance also makes available top scientists and policy experts to MPs of all parties, to help them figure out their policy positions.

Plenty of opportunities still exist, he says. Low carbon and public transport projects make up 70 per cent of the UK’s infrastructure pipeline, he points out, and however quiet some of the parties have been of late, all are publicly committed to the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Meanwhile, he adds, the game isn’t just about central government anymore: Green Alliance has its eye on what local government is pioneering in fields like housing and transport. ‘We do have local government with significant new freedoms, exerting those and pursuing green municipalism,’ he argues. For example, Birmingham Council’s early embrace of the green deal. More freedom for local authorities to borrow and spend would assist in this project, he adds.

The crack in Mr Spencer’s armour of positivity might, however, be the one issue that started him on his career. ‘Politics has stopped temporarily being interested in nature,’ he concludes. ‘It’s really about the quality of life, and the quality of our experience. How often do we get surprised by a glow worm when walking in a field? It’s a qualitative question, it’s not something you can value or set targets very easily for.

‘Qualitative issues are harder to deal with in public policy, and tend to get neglected in a recession when it appears that all life is about is getting those GDP numbers back up again.’

Finally, the director cracks a smile: talking about making life better leads straight on to his big hobby, a cycling club that takes rides up into the mountains. If that sounds like a busman’s holiday, Mr Spencer grins as he says: ‘Well in my spare time I go to the places where I started, which is love of the environment and nature.’

Towering above the crowd

In 2012, Green Alliance published research on the ways in which energy efficiency policies have overlooked tower blocks, instead favouring work on street-level homes. Now the think tank is working on a follow-up report, which looks at the role of district heating in high rises.

‘Everyone assumes tower blocks are too hard to make sustainable, or that their residents are less interested in this agenda,’ says Mr Spencer. ‘We have found strong interest from some resident groups and some real solutions that can be applied to tower blocks.’

Green Alliance also produced an online tool kit for residents, with tips on how to bring tenants together and inspiration from tower blocks that have already implemented green projects.For example, when the Parkhill Estate Tenants’ and Residents’ Association took over running its three blocks in Havering, east London, it carried out an energy audit and found funding for work such as replacing and insulating roofs, installing solar panels and giving energy-saving advice.

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