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27 April 2017updated 12 Jun 2018 4:14pm

Jonathan Bartley on Hinkley’s inefficiency, a renewables revolution and how the Green Party can be the UKIP of the left

The Greens' co-leader talks election strategy and why the environment is not an isolated issue.

By Rohan Banerjee

Is the Green Party a single-issue party? “While we view all issues through the lens of the environment,” the Greens’ co-leader Jonathan Bartley admits, “I think we’re much more than that.” His answer carries a hint of frustration; it’s not the first time he’s been asked this.

The Green Party of England and Wales currently has a solitary representative in the House of Commons – Bartley’s leadership partner Caroline Lucas has served as the MP for Brighton Pavilion since 2010 – but the dad of three insists: “Under a fairer [instant-runoff] voting system, we’d have around 24.” The maths checks out. The Greens took 3.8 per cent (a raw figure of 1,157,613 votes) in the 2015 General Election, which proportionately would translate to 24.7 seats. It’s worth noting, however, by the same token, UKIP would have 81.9.

The 2017 election, announced surprisingly by Prime Minister Theresa May in April, is likely to be fought on issues relating to the European Union, immigration and sovereignty. How, then, can the Green Party elevate its own core policies, which relate to the environment, energy and climate change, up the agenda? Bartley says: “Well of course we have policies regarding those things as well, but by no means can we afford to think of energy issues as unimportant. In terms of how you convey that to people, you’ve got to take a joined up approach. Environmental issues aren’t isolated – where you’ve got issues relating to unemployment, the renewables sector can provide a whole range of job opportunities; where you’ve got issues about budget planning and investment, you’ve got to consider how public money could be better spent. Right now the government is investing a lot of money into energy that simply isn’t sustainable, cost-effective or even efficient.”

Bartley hones in on Hinkley Point C as a particular bone of contention and believes that the Conservatives’ faith in the construction of Britain’s first new nuclear power plant in more than 20 years has been grossly misplaced. “If you look at the money that’s being spent on Hinkley, some £30bn, it’s just totally uneconomic. We can create a centralised, job-poor nuclear option, which locks us into an expensive deal for decades, or we can invest in a decentralised, job-rich, clean energy renewables revolution.”

The popular criticism levied against renewable energy is that it can’t generate the same level or quality of power. According to Bartley, this simply isn’t true. “Honestly, there are low carbon energy sources which could meet our annual electricity demand six times over. Six tidal power stations down the west coast of Wales could supply as much as Hinkley. We’re an island nation, so why are we not using the resources afforded to us naturally?”

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The government has forecasted that the Hinkley project will create between 20,000 and 25,000 jobs during construction and 800 to 900 permanent jobs once in operation. Is Bartley confident that a shift to renewables could match or better those figures? “I’m saying that not only can you preserve jobs within the energy sector, but transition them and create thousands of new ones in renewable technology.” Quoting the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s Energy Trends 2016 report, Bartley continues: “There’s already precedent too. Taken in combination, offshore wind, tidal and wave energy currently support around 22,000 jobs and add £2.2bn to the UK’s national income.”

The UK’s decision to leave the EU has been delivering curve balls across the political landscape ever since the referendum last year. The European Carbon Trading Scheme, the flagship policy agreed by the bloc aimed at cutting carbon emissions throughout the continent, is one of several elephants in the room. The UK is committed to providing around £1.7bn in funding, without which it is not yet clear how the scheme will survive. Equally, without EU regulations being imposed, where is the incentive to improve the UK’s environmental standards? Bartley rues that the environmental discourse surrounding Brexit has been “conspicuous by its absence” and wants to make sure that environmental regulations become “enshrined” domestically. He adds: “The air pollution standards in London were pushed forward because of the deterrent of EU fines. Now, who holds us to account? This is why the Green Party wants to see an Environmental Protection Act, as well as a Clean Air Act.”

The need to “democratise” the energy market, Bartley says, is obvious. “We’ve got to move away from the reliance on the ‘Big Six’ [energy companies] and decentralise. The Green Party wants to legislate to separate large energy generators from suppliers. Power prices would continue to be set according to the wholesale market where we expect the majority of electricity to be traded.”

Is demand-side response central to the Green Party’s vision? “We’re looking at it in terms of both demand and supply. Crucially, we need to stop energy waste and improve efficiency of use – we must do better with less. We’d look to incentivise provision of capacity at times of peak demand. It’s about cutting demand and creating a long-term plan to make new homes that are low and zero carbon, primarily by super insulation. Every home should be able to generate some sort of its own electricity, either through solar, wind or whatever it might be. The improvements in battery technology are increasing exponentially and community heating and municipal heating projects should be happening in every town. Places like Germany have got some incredible energy communities and distribution networks. People need to see what it’s like to have control.”

Bartley’s and indeed the Green Party’s aims are nothing if not ambitious, but the reality check pertains – with just one MP, how much can you really expect to achieve? Bartley, who attended the same independent boarding school as UKIP grandee Nigel Farage, draws another comparison in his answer. “The fact is we’ve got a first past the post system and so you’ve got to be tactical and target. You start with the councils and then go for the seats where you’ve got the most support. We’ve made considerable progress in Bristol West with Molly Scott Cato and we’re hopeful down there. You make a difference in politics with movements. UKIP managed to do it with the Leave movement, and despite having fewer MPs than us, have affected national politics in a huge way. The Green Party’s movement has the potential to do the same.”

It is there, though, the comparison ends. Bartley clarifies: “The difference is that while UKIP’s movement was a right-wing coup, based on building walls and not bridges, ours is a clear message to Westminster about the benefits of being greener.” He goes on to quip: “It’s like Tony Benn said – ‘I’m leaving the House of Commons to concentrate on politics.’ You shift agendas with movements and that’s what we intend to do.”