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12 March 2021

Siân Berry on renting in London, generational guilt, and how the Greens have matured

The co-leader of the Green Party opens up about how life in the capital is shaping her third campaign for the London mayoralty.

By Anoosh Chakelian

A lot has changed since Siân Berry first ran for London mayor 13 years ago, but one thing remains the same: she still rents.

Her flat is on an A-road above a row of shops in Archway, north London. It’s her fifth home since moving to London in 1997, after graduating from the University of Oxford with a degree in engineering. When she tried for the London mayoralty again in 2016 and came third, she was the only candidate renting a studio flat in the capital.

This explains a lot about the evolution of the Green Party in England and Wales since Berry, now aged 46, became co-leader with fellow Gen X-er Jonathan Bartley in 2018.

Now on her third attempt to win the mayoral election, social justice is at the heart of her offer to Londoners, more of whom rent than own.

On a grey weekday towards the beginning of her campaign, we met on a quiet council estate in the borough of Camden, where Berry has been the only Green councillor for seven years. Impervious to the drizzle, she looked smart in a long black coat, Chelsea boots and a green and white patterned blouse. Her only eco-nod was a butterfly brooch on her lapel.

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“Jonathan dresses really scruffily – sorry Jonathan! – and totally gets away with it. Look at him, he always wears the same black shirt!” she laughed of her male counterpart.

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As a woman in politics, she is held to higher standards. “I could never do that, I always have to put on my jacket to look as smart as possible, for credibility purposes. People judge you on different things. But we’re both Greens, so we both suffer on that level of: ‘I will disparage you and call you names!’”

We met on this estate because one of Berry’s main policy proposals is for a “People’s Land Commission” – giving residents power over vacant or underused space. It may sound utopian, but as a London Assembly Member, Berry has already successfully lobbied the London mayor Sadiq Khan to give many residents of London estates the right to a ballot when their homes face demolition.

“If empowered, residents might use this space differently,” she said, walking me along a row of old garages currently used for storage. “If we asked people all around London what they would do with these spaces, we’d end up with the kind of housing people need.”

When developers have all the power, however, we get “the wrong kinds of homes: one-bed flats at very expensive rates”, according to Berry.

She has seen this herself in new apartments that have sprung up near her own flat. “I earn double the average wage in London, approximately, but I can’t afford those rents. So who are those flats for, exactly? I’m just hanging in there on my market rent that I can afford, but there is a need in London for low-cost, social rent, and more family homes.” (Berry’s London Assembly salary is £56,270.)

Housing is already familiar ground for the party – all Greens are haunted by former leader Natalie Bennett’s viral interview disaster when trying to explain how she would pay for the 500,000 social houses promised in the party’s 2015 general election manifesto.

Yet since Jeremy Corbyn’s departure as Labour leader, the Green Party – once dismissed as too bourgeois or hippyish by the mainstream left – has grown more confident in its focus on inequality. This, plus the heightened electoral salience of climate change (the environment was a top-three voter priority for the first time in 2019) has seen the Greens gain momentum. They had impressive results in 2019’s European and local elections, and are polling well.

“We are now over 50,000 members, and more people are joining us from lots of different directions; we’re attracting people from the Liberal Democrats – who are in decline and uninspiring – as well as Labour,” Berry said.

“In London, we’ve got a Labour mayor, Conservative government and councils that are unhealthy one-party states. We’re the only truly independent voice who can speak for the dispossessed and ignored people in the gaps.”

Campaign proposals in this vein include a London living wage of £14 an hour, piloting a basic income for Londoners, and deprioritising the policing of cannabis possession.

There are environmental policies too, of course. The main shift would be to a “15-minute city” concept: a more localised economic and transport model where every home can meet most of its needs within a 15-minute walk or bike ride.

“The low-traffic neighbourhoods method is great,” Berry says of controversial road closures known as “LTNs” that some London councils have been trialling. But while she’s a fan of the concept, the implementation hasn’t always been ideal. Khan’s mayoral campaign launch was recently derailed by protestors against these measures, even though they are Tory government policy.

“You can end up putting more traffic onto a main road if you don’t pick the right boundary road,” Berry said: councils should have consulted residents beforehand, and implemented each scheme borough-wide rather than cherry-picking a few streets.

“Otherwise, side roads in the next area are susceptible to becoming rat runs,” she said. “You also need to cut overall traffic with smart, fair road pricing.”

While the Conservative government has released a ten-point plan for addressing the climate crisis and Labour has its own idea of a Green New Deal, Berry thinks that the Green Party’s job “is to make them better”. She believes “realpolitik” is driving the main parties to go greener, but that they “are never going to do enough” to tame big business and change the status quo.

“Part of our job is to be there as an alternative for people to beat the other parties with,” she admitted. “But we’d rather be part of a more grown-up, collaborative politics. I am jealous of Greens in other countries.”

Indeed, green parties are part of more national governments than ever, including in eight European countries – and Germany appears to be heading for some form of coalition including its Greens in September’s election.

“There’s a genuine stature to the Greens that exists, and a maturity that you see in the Green Party here and green parties around the world,” reflected Berry. “Then also, naturally, I’ve got older and matured myself– so these things in my head are all tied up together. I’ve grown up, I’ve gained experience, and my party has too – and the Greens internationally.”

At the same time as the party has matured, fixing the climate crisis has become more urgent. Even right-wing British tabloids are campaigning for action. Extinction Rebellion protests in the UK and school climate strikes around the world have made it a front-page issue. This motivates Berry with a generational guilt.

“We love the young school strikers but realistically they’re not going to be running the government in time,” she said. “I’m not a parent, but I feel like a bit of a parent to a whole generation counting on us to get this done – and by us, I mean everyone in my generation, including the [Health Secretary] Matt Hancocks of this world. People my age are in positions where they can really change stuff.

“I’m in my forties now, I guess the age when you come into real power. I don’t want to be in that generation of 40-year-olds who had the last chance to act, and be the people who failed.”