Catching up with Steven Agnew (Green Party) #ae11 #lg11 #ndo11

The Green Party has six Assembly and twenty two council candidates standing for election on May 5. I spoke to Steven Agnew a few weeks ago in the party’s constituency office (and headquarters) in Bangor to ask about Green Party policies and priorities for the Assembly and local government, local sourcing, and their stance against reducing the number of local councils and their hopes for election results.

Steven Agnew once echoed Kermit the Frog when he said “it’s not easy being Green”. Particularly when lots of parties are keen to show a green tinge to their policies. The DUP have a verdant spectrum from Sammy Wilson to Edwin Poots through to Jim Wells, while the Alliance have a Single Transferrable Surname with ex-Green MLA Brian Wilson’s wife Ann standing in North Down and Sinn Fein introduced a plastic bag tax. Are the other parties stealing the Green Party’s credentials?

I think a lot of the rhetoric has been stolen but I still don’t believe that the other parties fully understand it. I still think they see the green issues as solely the environment and something you can tack on at the end of a manifesto as “here’s the environmental bit”.

Where I think the other parties fall down is in joined up thinking. So you might have the plastic bag tax, but when you’re planning massive new road building schemes there’s a sense of not getting it. Sammy Wilson’s brought in the Green New Deal in the recent budget, but actually used it as a smokescreen for environmental cuts elsewhere.

So it has to be throughout the policy. It came up at a recent hustings, where an environmental group organised it, and they were doing the policy points from each party. And they said it was very easy to do until you got to the Green Party because it was throughout our manifesto. They said “we’d have to put in your whole manifesto” so they ended up just putting in a link. That’s the point. The environment isn’t separate from health. The environment isn’t separate from transport. It isn’t separate from the economy. These things are all joined up.

What are some of the ways that the Green Party does join all those policy areas up?

The Green New Deal is the obvious example. Other parties have started talking about the Green New Deal but we believe we’re the only party committed to fully delivering it. If you take the insulation scheme. We very much believe all policies should be benchmarked against whether they should be good for the economy, good for the people, and good for the environment.

The Green New Deal insulation scheme sums that up because if you insulate somebody’s home, it’s obviously good for them because they can afford to heat their home over the winter, so it has a social benefit. It’s good for the economy, because you need people to fit the insulation so it creates jobs. But there’s an added benefit that the vast majority of our energy is imported. So if we’re using less energy, that’s less money we’re sending out of our economy. We spend about £2 billion a year on energy. That’s £2 billion a year literally up in smoke but out of our economy. And then it’s good for the environment because if you’re using less oil, less gas, you’re creating less carbon emissions.

That’s the kind of policy that we’re looking to see throughout government that meets those three criteria of good for the economy, good for people, good for the environment.

Asked about health policies, Steven Agnew pointed to the need for preventative health measures.

In terms of how we live, that aspect of health isn’t really looked at enough. That’s why it would concern me that people are talking about getting rid of the Health Promotion Agency. We need a health system and not just a sickness system where we just treat illness. We need to promote good health.

We do need to look as well at how much we can provide care in the community, particularly when you look at older people. Studies have shown it’s not economically the way to do things to bring lots of people into hospital. It actually works better to treat people in their home. You don’t have the huge capital costs.

We do have to start looking at how we can treat people better in the community rather than this centralised [approach] … if we centralise too much we move the health care away from the people and to me that seems counterproductive. Good health should include things like stress. And if you’re making it more stressful to go into hospital – you’re taking them away from their families and their communities – I don’t see how that benefits people. You need to look at people on the whole and not just the acute illness.

If the Green Party does return one or more candidates to the Assembly, what kind of legislation would they push for?

We have three key priorities. The Green New Deal I’ve mentioned, particularly the insulation scheme because it is something that has been costed. It is something deliverable, and we’ve got business community buy-in to do it. So there are plans there. Let’s forget about the pilot that’s proposed. We already know from it having been done in the Republic of Ireland and being done in Kirklees in England where the Green Party introduced it at council level. It does create jobs. It does reduce fuel poverty. It does help tackle the climate. We know that, we don’t need a pilot. Let’s fully deliver it.

We do think we can manage our budget better to minimise the cuts. I know it’s easy to just say well Westminster’s handing us down this budget. But one of the things we’d look at doing … I mentioned roads before. £790 million budgeted for new road schemes. That to me is nonsensical. When oil is getting increasingly more expensive, when we should be prioritising public transport. As we saw this winter, we can barely maintain the existing roads we have. So we’d be saying, let’s just take that out of the equation.

Asked what the golden ratio of public transport to roads spending would be, Steven Agnew suggested 2:1 in favour of public transport.

Currently we spend less than 20% of our transport budget on public transport. I’d love to say that that’s because we’ve got such a great system we don’t need to invest much in it. But anybody’s who has travelled around Europe has seen what a good public transport system looks like and it ain’t here.

And the third priority?

Opposing any rise in student fees. I’ve a £16,000 debt from university. I’d hate to [look] back and think “those were the good old days”. The idea that we could have students leaving university with essentially a mortgage-type size of debt just seems to me incredible. We can freeze fees for now. It will cost. But it will cost in the region of £180 million over the term of the Assembly. In overall terms of Assembly budget that is not a huge figure. Especially when you look at the fact that we’re proposing to cut Corporation Tax and take £300 million out in one fell swoop with nothing guaranteed. If we can guarantee people’s education and continued wide participation in university education I think that’s something worth investing in.

Councils have very different responsibilities. What are Green priorities at a council level?

Looking at recycling rates is an obvious one. If you speak to people within recycling, we’ve got the low lying fruit. We’ve hit 30%/35% recycling rates, but there’s countries in Europe that are hitting 70%. One of the things we need to do is to look across the board. I think NILGA [Northern Ireland Local Government Association] has a responsibility here in looking at best practice across councils. Some councils are doing better than others. But we have each council doing their own separate thing in their own way. Let’s start looking at best practice and rolling it out across the board as much as possible.

But other things that are coming up in my own constituency. 20 mph speed limits in built-up residential areas. I just think it’s good common sense. Bangor’s littered with speed bumps. They’re great but what you find is people go over the speed bumps [and then] speed up and that creates a noise nuisance as well as the danger that comes with it. I just think it’s common sense. We need to slow down a bit. Often we’re just rushing to the next gridlock anyway. So I don’t think it’s going to have a great detrimental effect in terms of journey times, but just really making our town centres safer.

That’s another issue locally. In terms of planning … we need to start planning with our young people in mind. We’re planning towns and cities as if young people don’t exist. Okay, there’s play parks for the very young.

There’s the old cliché that children should be seen and not heard. I think we’re moved towards children should be neither seen nor heard. If they sit in all day and play on consoles we go “look at them, they’re obese, they’re lazy, unlike my generate who used to get out and make our own fun”. You see kids out on the street. They’re constantly being moved on. They’re constantly being accused of anti-social behaviour. Where there is genuine anti-social behaviour it needs to be tackled because there are cases of people’s lives being made a misery. But sometimes I see young people being castigated for just being young people. I think we have to remember they’re as much a part of our society as anyone else.

That is as much about how we plan our communities. We’ve a masterplan here for Bangor. My simple question is: where are the young people. And nobody could answer me that. Where’s the space for young people.

In terms of lowering our carbon footprint, what’s the opportunity for Northern Ireland to increase the amount of locally grown food, locally produced clothes based on materials that can be locally sourced, local energy. Are there examples in Northern Ireland of where we’re good at this?

There’s the transition town movement looking at growing a lot more locally. In Hollywood, they’ve done surveys to see what people would think about having apple trees instead of just generic plant-tree-here and maybe have a local juicing service. A bit of community buy-in to this, let’s make it community orientated rather than turning up at said shop and get your pre-packaged product that’s the same in Hollywood as it is in Bangor as it is in Belfast. Let’s get a bit of local pride.

Energy is a big one. There’s so much we can do, everything from the big scale wind farms [using] the manufacturing skills we have here right down to growing of willow, energy crops. Energy is an area where we have huge potential. For once the weather’s on our side. We have the wind, we have the coastline. We have so much that we can utilise in terms of our natural resources that it’s a no brainer for me. Something like 98-99% of our energy is imported. Just throwing money out of our economy when we can produce energy here. I don’t think there’s enough recognition of what we can do … I think there’s a lack of political vision.

While the Green Party supports aspects of the Review of Public Administration (RPA), they are strongly in favour of retaining local democracy through local councils.

The original RPA – there were so many good ideas and they’ve all gradually fallen by the wayside. About aligning our council areas and our health boards and our education boards. It hasn’t happened. And I think now the upfront costs that are required to reform the councils as well as the fact of the loss of local democracy, I don’t think now the costs justify the benefits.

We would keep our 26 existing councils but look for efficiencies within that. They’re already doing that. If you look for example at ARC21 where we have councils working together to manage waste. I think efficiencies can be found through that way without loosing the local democracy. When I go canvassing in Hollywood [I hear] “that there council, all they care about is Bangor”. So if we join with Ards, how are the people in Hollywood going to feel, how are the people in Donaghadee going to feel? They’re going to feel even les in touch with their council.

If it’s called local government, then it should be local.

The Green Party lost out badly in the Irish elections. Does the party face extinction across Ireland?

I’m optimistic, I’m confident about North Down. I see you smile. Of course I’m going to say that. But if you think back … no one was predicting we’d get in in North Down. We weren’t even on the political radar in 2007. Our profile has increased so much, getting Brian [Wilson] elected, putting to bed that myth of “why would you vote Green, it’s a wasted vote”. We got Brian elected and I don’t think there’s anything unique about North Down that you could have a Green seat there but you couldn’t have one in South Down, East Belfast, South Belfast. I think these are all areas where we have very strong groups, strong candidates.

I am optimistic. I’m going in hoping that not only will we keep our seat in North Down, but we’ll increase our seats. What’s key is to get that basic council level. We’ve got three councillors at present. Doubling or trebling that I don’t think is outside the realms of possibility.

Would the Greens be disappointed if they didn’t double their number of councillors?

Yes. I’ll be perfectly honest, I think at least doubling our number of council seats and building those bases where you can build for Assembly seats in the future. But I’m confident that will happen. We’re going into this [election] in a much stronger position than we did in say 2005 where I still had to introduce to people what the Green Party was when I knocked on doors …

At the next set of elections there are likely to be fewer constituencies. The number of MLAs per constituency may also reduce from 6 to 5. Wouldn’t that put the squeeze on the Greens as well as other smaller parties?

It’s acknowledged within the party that this is our opportunity now. All this progress we’ve made. This is our real litmus test. It has to translate into seats. The European election was great. We trebled our vote in the space of five years. People say it was a small base. Any party’s going to be pleased trebling their vote in five years. Now we have to turn it into seats. Is it focussed in enough at a constituency level to bring candidates over the line. So this is our opportunity.

The Green’s won’t fight against reducing the number of MLAs per constituency as it will be bring about “better governance for Northern Ireland”.

I haven’t heard from any other party [talking about reducing MLAs] is that if we’re going to make major radical changes to the Good Friday Agreement, it was the people’s agreement, we have to ask them if it’s okay. I think that’s very poignant to me. It was the first time I ever voted. I think I turned eighteen the year of the referendum and I voted for that agreement and we were told it was the people’s agreement.

So yes I do think we need changes. Yes we need to agree what those changes should be. But once we’ve agreed at a political level what we think the changes should be, we have to go back to the people and ask them are you okay with us changing your agreement?

Finally, I asked how Steven would seek to transform someone’s vote and sell what the Greens have done and what they want to do?

In the last four years the Green Party has provided an effective opposition. We hear a lot about the importance of opposition and I think, absolutely we need that, and that’s why we need a strong Green voice. Never was that better articulated than when Sammy Wilson was the environment minster. Had we not been there, who would have been there to challenge him and his bizarre views on climate change.

In terms of going forward, we have so many parties in government. We need a strong voice outside of that. If the Greens aren’t in the next Assembly, that will be every party in the government. That’s not good for democracy. We need a Green voice in there to act as an opposition to oppose things like the proposed rises in student fees, to make sure that the Green New Deal – whilst everybody’s now talking about how good an idea it is – to make sure we’re there, to make sure not only is it implemented but it’s done properly. We’ve seen with the plastic bag tax how you can take a good idea and destroy it. That’s unfortunately the legacy of this Executive and we want to make sure that doesn’t continue in the future.

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