Joe Levy Interview – Green Party candidate for Exeter MP

Interview conducted by Jack Ainsworth and Ella Lucas

How does the Green party in Exeter intend to address and reform the economic and social inequality in Exeter, particularly given the student population and large numbers of those who are homeless.  

The first thing I think is really key is to do with financing, this ties in with the student population quite a lot, luxury student developments are going up in the city all the time, but I have yet to meet a student that wants luxury developments to be built. A big part of the problem with this is not only that they are luxury developments but they get a discount on something called the community infrastructure levy, this is a 50% discount. We found that in the St David’s ward alone, around £1m of revenue had been lost by undercharging these developments. We want to see an increase on these developers because we believe they are exploiting students and they are exploiting local communities, and the easiest way to pass the buck is to blame students and its not the students fault, the students deserve affordable accommodation and quality accommodation and I think a big part of that is getting the finances sorted and holding developers to account. It’s very easy for the council to say it’s out of our hands, its national legislation and we know that’s not true. 

There are certain policies that have been introduced elsewhere, Sian Berry, the co-leader of the Green Party, she put forward a renters charter and I would like to see the establishment of a renters charter and a renters union. I am a trade union activist and I am really big on workplace representation, but I would really like to see that apply at home as well. I have been the victim of a number of dodgy landlords, I know a lot of students have spoken to me about issues with mould and dehumidifiers and stuff which you may think is quite small but impacts your studies and your health and this is such a widespread issue. If it is affecting people’s health it is affecting their work, it’s affecting their quality of life, and having an organisation that properly works with people is really key.

I think a big element of inequality in Exeter and the food poverty in Exeter is about the way that the central government works. Universal credit is one of the biggest causes of people going to food banks and the rise in foodbank use that we know is not just in Exeter it is everywhere, therefore it is hard to address without a national level of reform. Nonetheless, I would like to see the council end the public spaces protection order they’ve imposed that unfairly criminalises the homeless population, the wording is so woolly that a law enforcement officer could interpret it quite loosely.

We need to be looking at antisocial behaviour more compassionately, whilst local residents are negatively affected by this behaviour the answer to solving it is not to shift the behaviour into other areas. It is no coincidence that the areas where this behaviour is shifted to are slightly more deprived areas or areas where there aren’t loads of tourists.

I was very cross about the closure of public toilets. The council claim to not have the funding but they are spending tens of thousands on consultancy fees for their development projects so I would rather they didn’t spend £80,000 on the Exeter Live Better scheme, I would rather they spend it on infrastructure.

With the labour party occupying a lot of similar positions to the Green Party regarding economic and social policy, how can you appeal to student voters in this constituency where there is an entrenched labour following?

We are very concerned with the nature of student housing, we are keen to be advocates of students and giving students a better name within the city. We have done a lot of work in St David’s explaining to residents that it wasn’t students fault that these developments are going up. We have seen a positive change in the residents’ perception of the student body and focusing their attention to developers. 

I am pleased that Labour’s policies are shifting in our direction but it is only happening because we are an electoral presence so they are doing that in response to losing seats to us. In St David’s we won 55% of the vote there, but if we want to keep up the pressure there we can’t give up because Labour haven’t got there yet. On one hand they are saying they have declared a climate emergency but they’re approving new car parks and proposing free car parking on Thursdays. How are they going to address our air quality levels in the city if they are doing that? 

I think there is a distinction between what people imagine a political party to be and how they manifest themselves at a local level. I respect other councillors and am always happy to work with other parties where we have common ground, but I often find that locally they want to shut out other parties. They are changing the constitution of the council which means that other political parties in Exeter will have less of a say on the executive, so that means that all those people who voted green or lib dem, their voice is going to have less of an impact at the local executive. I think whatever your politics are, that’s wrong. 

I think it’s great that Labour are embracing the green new deal, I don’t think their deal is up to scratch. The fact that they’re still saying in the 2030s for zero carbon and it does not cover all sectors is not enough. The Green’s deal is about every sector, not just energy, we have to be on the same level with transport, agriculture and industry. Labour are still supporting airport expansion, if they want to be on board with the Green New Deal they need to embrace it fully. I know the student body cares about the environment as I was part of it very recently and its one of the things that gets raised with me quite a lot.

I think The Green Party has been consistent on higher education for many years. Labour has come around on tuition fees but it took a lot of pressure from us and from others to get to that stage. In terms of me as a parliamentary candidate, I have worked in the higher education sector for several years now and I was a student before. I understand the debt, I was in the first year to pay the £9,000, if they want someone who genuinely understands what it means to be a student in Exeter, that’s me. I was working at SID for 3 years, in terms of empathy, you can’t get much more than that!

On a local level, how would The Green Party change the habits of the city, and change our infrastructure to suit the party’s Green Party Green New Deal?

Exeter is growing incredibly fast, congestion is increasing, the air quality levels are dangerous in a number of places. In Heavitree there is levels 10 points above the illegal level and about two thirds of monitoring sites across the city register dangerous or illegal levels. We need to be reducing traffic flow into this city, we want to introduce a workplace parking levy, that would mean businesses above a certain size would be charged on the number of car parking spaces they offer. So rather than making individuals pay, it is the businesses that would pay. That money can then be reinvested in sustainable transport such as the electrification of our bus network.

Because Exeter is such a centralised city, but all the growth is to the East, people are being funnelled into a small space, with roads that aren’t designed to cope. Exeter’s main bridge system was designed to ease traffic, but now is one of the most congested parts of the city. 

In terms of leisure centres, I think it’s great the council are building a new leisure centre but I don’t see why it needs to be such an expensive one in the city centre. They should be putting that money into local leisure facilities so people can walk and cycle, instead of driving to these facilities.

We should also be encouraging local businesses to flourish. We wanted a covered marketplace, something that Exeter has been missing since after the war, we have so many amazing producers around the city, often very affordable. If we keep importing produce from the outside we’ll never be meeting our targets.

If you wanted students at this university to know about one of the Green policies for the upcoming election, which one would it be and why? 

Universal Basic Income. I think that for anyone who is going out into the world of work, quality of life should be a priority, and we need to change society to prioritise that. Students go to university because they wish to study what they’re passionate about and what you want to do with your future as well. We should not be starting students off in a world where that future is like a factory. Whatever you are passionate about in your studies, often the world of work doesn’t reflect that and I would love to create a society that doesn’t do that. I get that people say this sounds idealistic but actually we are facing multiple crises and we have nothing to lose by trying idealistic options that we know we can afford, because we’ve costed them. It’s not just about making the current system work, if people want to vote for something that is genuinely transformative and will actually make people’s lives better not just for the duration of the people in this government but beyond that, I think that is a really good one.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and why you believe you are able to fulfil the role of MP for Exeter and what are your personal ambitions for Exeter after your potential election?

I moved to Exeter 7 years ago to study Archeology and Anthropology, and became involved with the Green Party in Exeter, as I became greater concerned with the environment and social justice. I wanted to stay in Exeter and be part of the community and so worked as an admin member of staff at the SID desk. Getting into the role of a parliamentary candidate started behind the scenes, but when the previous candidate did not want to run again, it was suggested that I become the parliamentary candidate for the Greens and from here I developed an idea of what kind of candidate I wanted to be. The work I’ve done at a community level has informed a lot of what I do for the Green Party. I’ve done a lot with tackling food poverty and youth engagement,  as well as working on the protection of green spaces, to get Exeter engaged with the local environment.

A key aspect of the Green Party manifesto is aimed at supporting sustainable and renewable energy as well as ending the populations dependence on Carbon. Where is the funding for the £100bn a year pledge coming from to ensure the regular use of renewable energy is viable for the population?

The politician answer is that we can’t afford not do this because of the current climate crisis.

In terms of costings, we have a tax and fiscal policy working group who work out costs. There is two things: savings and tax revenues. We are about reinvesting savings, which includes scrapping trident, which would save about £2.2 billion. Tackling poverty would also make savings of £10.6 billion. It takes 30 years for this to take effect, but we need to invest now so that long-term change can take place. Increasing corporation tax is a large part of this to redistribute wages in the economy. 

A climate emergency has been declared and reforms suggested by the Green Party include limiting the amount people fly, using electric vehicles and encouraging stay at home work. Do you think that people are truly prepared and capable of changing their lifestyles to the extent that the Green party want?

I have every faith in people to change. Often people are forced by necessity, but when this occurs it is too late, it is about letting people adapt to changes before it becomes too late and proving them with the opportunity and tools to do so.

The Green Party manifesto includes introducing a Universal Basic Income (UBI) to be given as an unconditional payment regardless of employment status. Is this not discouraging and a disincentive for those seeking employment?

UBI is about how we value people in general. One of the contentions I’ve had with Labour is that they’re a party of work. I don’t think that inspiring people to work is the right model, increasingly economists and social researchers are moving away from the idea of work being the central tenant of how we manage our lives. With automation, there is going to be less work to do. So we need to work out how we can ensure that people are not just working to survive, but to live good quality lives, and that is what UBI enables.

UBI is essentially proposing a future where people work because they want to and not because they need to.

In the instance that the UK leave the EU, how does the green party intend to maintain relations and work with European countries to mitigate environmental problems?

The people we would look too are the European Greens and the Global Greens Congress. Each Green Party is independent of each other, but they are unified. If we can’t be in a political union like the EU, perhaps we should look to see how we can get our political parties to work with their European equivalents.

Why does the Green Party believe that changing to a proportional representation voting system will help the country? 

The argument many people use for the current system of FPTP is that it maintains stable democracies, but we know that’s not happening.

People are voting for a party not because they believe in its values, but because they are scared of the results otherwise and I don’t think politics should be driven by that fear. The only way we’re going to change that is by changing to Proportional Representation. People will have a genuine choice because they will be able to scrutinise parties they wouldn’t have considered, creating a greater level of democracy and accountability, by removing the existence of safe seats and allowing for the scrutiny of minor parties.

People feel there is a democratic deficit. The deflection from the Conservative party is to blame the EU, but democratic deficit lies in our own Parliament.

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