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“It’s disturbing”: Wera Hobhouse on the UK’s crackdown on protesting

The Liberal Democrat MP and climate campaigner speaks about Incubate Britain, her hopes for Cop26 and Boris Johnson's environmental record.

By Oscar Williams

In August 2004, shortly after her election as a Conservative councillor, Wera Hobhouse travelled into Rochdale for her first council meeting. The dramatic events that followed would shape her early British political career, triggering her defection to the Liberal Democrats and the start of her journey to becoming one of the UK’s most vocal champions of climate action.

Hobhouse had become involved in politics as a student at the University of Munster in the late 1970s and then as a Greenpeace activist in her 20s. But as the council meeting started, she could scarcely have imagined that her time as an environmental campaigner in 1980s West Germany would serve her so well as the new Tory representative for the northern village of Norden.

Shortly after proceedings began, however, a group of gas mask-clad activists stormed the room. The previous Conservative council, the campaigners revealed, had approved the development of 650 homes on a site in Spodden Valley that had been home to Turner Brothers Asbestos, the original and largest asbestos factory in Britain.

Nearly a century earlier, a worker at the site had become the first recorded person to have died as a result of asbestos exposure. With toxic asbestos dust lying dormant under the site, the campaigners warned that the development’s approval had set in motion what could become an ever larger public health crisis.

“Coming from Germany, which has a pretty strong environmental political record, I was immediately surprised that something like this was even being considered,” Hobhouse tells Spotlight via Zoom from her constituency office in Bath. “The whole thing would have been churned up. Why was there no consideration of public health issues? It just staggered me.”

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The source of the problem, Hobhouse soon discovered, was a woefully inadequate approvals process for new developments. While the principle of the “polluter pays” had been adopted by the OECD more than 30 years earlier, the council had taken at face value the developer’s claim that the site was asbestos-free, allowing them to carry out the work without paying for the toxic waste to be safely removed. “I had visions,” Hobhouse recalls, “of television programmes years later saying, ‘why did the council ever allow this to happen?’”

She struck up a close partnership with the campaigners and eventually “became one of them”, crossing the political divide and joining the Lib Dems so that she could take on the Conservative councillors that had approved the development. The campaign lasted six years, culminating in an investigation that forced the development off the table, says Hobhouse. The site is still derelict today. “But it’s better than if we had created a massive public health issue further down the line. Asbestosis is a terrible, terrible illness, which would only have come to light 20 or 30 years later.”

A former radio journalist, artist and language teacher, Hobhouse became the Liberal Democrat lead for Rochdale council and then, more than two decades later, the party’s parliamentary candidate for Bath. She won the seat in 2017 and retained it two years later. One of just 12 Liberal Democrats MPs to have been elected in 2019, Hobhouse was appointed the party’s spokesperson for climate change in the same year. Although her portfolio changed at the end of 2020, she remains a prominent voice in the environmental movement, issuing calls for a ban on fracking and airport expansions.

Speaking to Spotlight in the weeks leading up to Cop26, Hobhouse says that some recent UN climate conferences have been wasted. However, she is not entirely unsympathetic to the negotiators’ predicament: “If it’s difficult to come to some sort of understanding in a local council,imagine how difficult that is nationally, and how much more difficult that is internationally.”

But Hobhouse is not pessimistic about efforts to tackle climate change. She credits “particularly young people in Extinction Rebellion, and all these groups that are currently causing mischief and causing politicians to say ‘how can they?’” for raising the profile of environmental issues.

When Spotlight presses Hobhouse on her opinion of Insulate Britain, the campaign group that has blocked roads and motorways in recent months, she says: “Of course, the safety of our police officers is absolutely paramount – I do believe it is important. And, of course, [by] causing disruption the protesters have to think about whether that actually costs lives. And, where ambulances have been disrupted to a point that somebody didn’t get into hospital on time, of course that’s hugely irresponsible and that shouldn’t happen.

“But the whole point of protesting and being heard is disruption. That’s the point.” And though Hobhouse reiterates her sympathy for the police, she adds: “But I think we need protests, and the fact that the government is clamping down on the right to protest is very disturbing.”

Hobhouse’s greatest fear ahead of Cop26 is that there will be a lack of leadership from the US and China. “They are the ones who can make the real difference. The worst thing that happens is, of course, that one blames the other for inaction when really this is a global human issue. It’s a UN issue; it’s a UN climate summit.” She is furious that the government is funding its $2.6bn pledge to a climate finance pot for developing nations through cuts to the aid budget. “It’s robbing Peter to give to Paul. Now, that is not leadership. That is cynicism.”

Hobhouse has called on Boris Johnson to provide an end date for fossil fuel extraction, but is still waiting for an answer and accuses the government of “dithering”. She says she is not “anti-business” and believes companies will “jump on any of the opportunities and incentives and disincentives that the government will provide to say ‘this is where we are going’”.

“I’m not saying everything that the government does is rubbish and I recognise it’s a challenge,” says Hobhouse. As her time as a councillor in Rochdale proves, politicians at all levels can deliver for voters if they serve as a critical friend to industry. “There has to be the idea that the government is important, and not to say ‘we will leave it all to private business’.”

This article originally appeared in our Spotlight policy report on energy and climate change. To read the full supplement click here.

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