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Sunday, July 21, 2024
Nathalie Bienfait, Green Party parliamentary candidate for Poplar and Limehouse
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Nathalie Bienfait on the cost of living, rent freezes and anti-Semitism in the Green Party

As part of The Slice Tower Hamlets’ coverage of the 2024 general election, we interview Nathalie Bienfait, the Green Party candidate for Poplar and Limehouse.

Nathalie Bienfait is the Green Party parliamentary candidate for Poplar and Limehouse, standing in this year’s general election. We spoke to her about tackling the housing crisis and wealth inequality, as well as addressing anti-Jewish racism in the party.

Bienfait grew up and went to school in Kent, before moving to the Netherlands to study law at the University of Groningen. After returning to the UK, she worked at law firms such as Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP and Maucher Jenkins. It was her Master’s Degree in environment and sustainability at Birkbeck, University of London that led Bienfait to getting more involved in politics. 

In May 2022, Bienfait was elected as councillor for Bow West, becoming the first Green Party councillor in Tower Hamlets. In May this year, she was appointed as the lead on the Tower Hamlets environment and climate emergency scrutiny committee.

When she’s not working, she’s a keen gardener and can often be found in the Mile End Community Garden tending to the vegetable garden.

We asked Nathalie about the Green Party’s major policies.

Nathalie Bienfait, why are you standing for office and what do you recognise to be the most pressing issues for local residents?

I’m standing for Poplar and Limehouse to make sure that there is strong Green representation on the ballot and that people can feel that they can vote Green, whoever wants to. This is obviously not a target constituency for the Green Party, but nonetheless we can see that the two main parties aren’t being bold enough and aren’t being radical enough about key issues which are really important to the constituents in Poplar and Limehouse.

So at hustings and online, I’ll be making the arguments to make sure that the two main parties are really taking the issues seriously that we think need to be taken seriously. The three categories of issues that are important for constituents in Poplar and Limehouse are housing, economy and the cost of living, and the health service. 

Tunning through all of those, obviously we are the Green Party as well, so climate as a thing that’s coming down the track for us and something that we think is already here, is a common thread that runs through all of those.

You mentioned housing, and obviously your target audience does involve young people who are particularly worried about climate change, but they’re also the generation most worried that they’ll never be able to afford a home. What are you going to ensure that young people in Poplar and Limehouse can continue to afford to live here?

I mean look, we’re beyond a housing crisis in Tower Hamlets. As a councillor, I know that we have over 23,000 households on the social housing waiting list. For children growing up in the borough and in the constituency, even having their own room is an aspiration and I think that is an absolute tragedy and we’ve walked into that. We knew decades ago that we needed to build more family-sized homes for social rent and those weren’t being built for too long.

So that’s something that I’m really, really keen to push as a councillor but also as a constituency candidate. We also know that the supply of family-sized homes has been reduced by the Right to Buy. So we are keen to have a policy of Right to Buy Back and support councils to buy back housing that has been sold off under Right to Buy.

At the same time, there are segments of housing. So there’s social housing, where we need more family-sized homes, and there’s privately rented, which in Tower hamlets is about a third of the sector. And privately rented, a lot of those were bought under Right to Buy, so I’d be looking to support councils to provide them more funding to be able to buy back those houses.

And then in the privately owned sector, I think we have quite a good supply of privately owned houses. A lot of the flats that are being built in the constituency, currently about 50% of them are up for private.

I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to buy my own home at least for the next 20 years, so supporting young people to buy if that is something that they can afford to do. But I think focusing on these sectors which are really, really pinched, so the private rented sector and the social rented sector particularly would be my priorities.

And how would you allow more young people to start privately renting when right now they can’t afford it?

I think there’s a number of things that we need to look at… Just to reframe your question, I think for privately rented people entering the market, the main barriers tend to be things like landlords not allowing families, landlords not having the right kind of things in place for getting repairs done. And then there are also rogue landlords who don’t follow the HMO, houses under multiple occupancy legislation, so enforcing that better is a key thing.

But I think the government can do more to put controls on the levels of rent, so that’s something that we as a Green Party we’ve been calling for consistently.

There are things that need to be looked at before rent controls get brought in to make sure that the housing supply doesn’t collapse, which is the common criticism raised against rent controls. But the government has the power to implement rent controls and I think it’s crazy that [it] hasn’t been done before, it’s been done in many, many other countries.

As you say there are criticisms levelled against rent control, and we’ve seen in places like San Francisco, New York, Scotland, rent control has caused supply to decrease. Maintenance decreases and it can make it harder than ever for young people entering the market to start renting. How would these negative consequences be avoided by the Green Party?

The full manifesto is coming out in just a few days time, so all of the details about that will be in the manifesto. The key thing is that any rent controls [will] be brought in deep consultation with renters, and consultation with landlords, so whatever we do, we can’t just copy-paste something from San Francisco or from Scotland or from elsewhere. It has to be for the UK or it has to be delegated down from the government to London Regional, so the London Mayor might be given those powers and then that negotiation happens in London.

But whatever happens, clearly the rental market is not working for many, many people in Poplar and Limehouse, and the important thing is that we rebalance that power relationship between renters and landlords, which has just not been looked at yet. So many MPs are landlords and it has resulted in consistent policies that mean that renters are not in a position to claim their power.So for us, I think the important bit is to rebalance that.

Moving on from housing, you were voted recently as the lead on the environment and climate emergency scrutiny committee in Tower Hamlets. What concerns you most about Lutfur Rahman’s environmental policies?

So that’s obviously part of my role as a councillor, so maybe not so relevant as in my role as a constituency candidate.

There are many, many things which we can do as individuals, but there are also things that we need to pressurise the national government to do, to look at systems change for how we maintain responsibility for the impact that we have on the climate.

So I think the most important thing is to pressurise all governments, or all administrations anywhere, to recognise their responsibility, which the council has done – they declared a climate emergency I think back in 2020, and there are big plans on reaching Net Zero which are good to see.

But we also need to get the basics right. We have a very low recycling rate in Tower Hamlets, so that is something that I’m particularly concerned about, lots of other residents are particularly concerned about.

There are also things on reducing the climate impact from our transport, the way that we get around and things like how our houses are built, whether they’re well insulated. So one of the key Green Party policies is to implement a home insulation program, street by street. And that would have a twin impact on the climate – the amount of carbon emissions that we’re pumping out from our gas-fired boilers – and also a cost of living impact.

I think for constituents in Poplar and Limehouse, the key thing is that I will be pressurising the people in power to implement systems change. To make sure that the burden for change – because we do need to change, but I think the change that really needs to happen is on a systems level rather than on an individual level.

You mention cost of living, which is a phrase that obviously means a lot to everyone locally but also across the UK. The Green Party sees its role as pushing Labour to be bolder on the climate, but with tens of thousands using food back banks every week in Tower Hamlets, isn’t it more important for those people that they vote for a party whose priority perhaps isn’t the environment, but is cost of living?

So I know I used the phrase cost of living, but we often describe the cost of living crisis as an inequality crisis as well. So I would say that the key argument from the Green Party is not that it’s an either or, like either we save the environment or we try and make sure that everybody has what they need.

I’m really interested in the ideas of someone called Kate Raworth, who developed an idea called Doughnut Economics, which is basically a graphic of an outer line of the planetary boundaries, of where the line is for not overstepping what the planet can sustain, and then an inner line of human needs and wants, so housing, food, shelter, health care, that is an inner line.

We need to be existing between those two lines. So that is a framework which we follow as a Green Party through all of what we do.

So people using food banks, people having to steal food, we’ve seen a huge rise in shoplifting. It’s tragic, this is an absolute crisis, and when we have the top 1% of billionaires in this country not even paying the right amount of tax, this is such an injustice in our society.

And the fact that there’s been a kind of narrative created that we can’t solve both of these problems at the same time, I think is just fallacy. So the home insulation program is just one example of a concrete policy of how we can actually solve both of these issues.

So I would say that there may be a crisis of imagination to say that there’s a choice to be made here. I think if we think about this properly, then we can absolutely solve the inequality crisis as well as the climate crisis.

So we’ve spoken a bit about the economy but also socially in Tower Hamlets, we’ve seen since October 7th, the Israel-Gaza war has been a particularly contentious topic in the borough, and is set to impact how local residents choose to vote on polling day. What is your stance on the ongoing conflict?

Yeah I mean, it’s been a really, really difficult time since October the 7th, the attack on Israel, but then the attack from Israel onto Hamas. But we’ve seen such a huge tragic loss of life and it’s very, very difficult to know how to respond appropriately and I think there’s been a huge amount of emotion in this time and I’ve spent a lot of time with my residents trying to support them.

Our position in the Green Party has been from the beginning that there needs to be a political solution to this issue, that a military solution is absolutely not the way to go. So initially we have been the first party to call for ceasefire. We’ve also called for the return of all of the hostages from both sides, and we’ve also called very strongly for the UK government to stop sending arms to Israel. 

We are following the international legal position. There has been an allegation of genocide that has not been proven yet, but we are supporting the legal process to make sure that we get an answer to what’s actually happened. But it’s a really, really, really awful time and I know that a lot of people in Tower Hamlets and across the borough are really, really rightly upset about what’s happening.

And we’ve seen recently the Green Party has had to drop four candidates including Elizabeth Waight who was standing in Bethnal Green and Stepney due to anti-Semitic posts shared online. If elected what are you going to do to ensure that Jews feel safe and represented by the Green Party?

Correction: Elizabeth Waight was not reselected, but chose to step down.

So, I would just counter that. In Bethnal Green and Stepney, Elizabeth Waight had to step down. She has published a statement which is available on our website so you can read that.

She erroneously shared a post from another source, which included an anti-Semitic trope. She worked very closely with the Jewish members in our local Green Party to talk through what the trope was. She was completely, really, really shocked and upset that she’d done this and apologised immediately, and deleted the posts immediately.

But the press attention continued and she felt that this issue had become a distraction from the national campaign. So she felt that she needed to step down which we’re really, really, really sad about.

So just for clarity, we did not ask her to step down. This was something that she decided to do. In terms of the national candidates, I’m afraid I don’t know the details about why some candidates were asked to step down.

Anti-Semitism is not something that we accept in the Green Party and we’re working very, very closely with our local Jewish members and Jewish Greens, which is a formal group within the Green Party, to make sure that all of our candidates understand the tropes, and understand anti-Semitism.

So we’re really, really taking this seriously. But in cases where things are a mistake or people don’t understand, we are educating and making sure that everybody knows what can be offensive. So that is something that we’re taking really seriously, but sadly anti-Semitism does exist in society and we are absolutely an anti-racist party, and we will do everything we can to make sure that that we’re working to dismantle racism in society

And finally Nathalie, on a slightly more light-hearted note. Another way we can protect the environment is by going flight-free, which is a choice a lot of people make. So where was the last place you went on holiday in the UK, without using a plane, that you’d like to share?

I love going on holiday in the UK. I like going, it’s called through-hiking and I’m just testing a new solar panel to take on my next walking trip. And I’ll be going to the Hadrian’s Wall and I’ll be walking along the Hadrian’s Wall path in July and I’m really looking forward to that after the general election is over.

For more of our general election coverage, read our interview with Tony Glover, Reform UK candidate for Poplar and Limehouse, on Palestinian flags, Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, and housing.

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