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.’