Tom Chance

Tom Chance is the Green Party Parliamentary Candidate for Lewisham West and Penge and the party’s Spokesperson on Housing. Violeta Vajda spoke to him about his local campaigning in Crystal Palace and about what we could do to solve the housing crisis in London.

Knowing you and reading your website, what stands out straight away is that you are a tremendously active local resident, campaigning to save local parks, historic buildings, lower rail fares, improve air pollution and more. What has been the response from other fellow residents to your campaign? What are the people of Lewisham and Penge saying to you when you meet them on the doorstep?

People are quite fed up with politicians as robots reeling off party lines, people are positive that we are doing practical things. To tackle air pollution we have gone out and measured air pollution levels, we’ve had a few dozen local traders supporting our campaign on that. On parks, other parties have sat on the fence, they want to say that building in the park will bring jobs, we’ve been very clear about what the park should be there for, how we value ecology and open space. And I think people admire the Greens in the area being unafraid to take a principled stand, they feel that we’re standing up for local people when nobody else will.

How do you see your chances in Lewisham West and Penge? Who are your political opponents and what do you bring that they don’t?

The incumbent Jim Dowd is very Old Labour, he came into politics through his trade union and seems like a decent man. He’s a very loyal Labour MP with a comfortable majority, but he has voted with his party 97% of the time, and he doesn’t have a very active profile, certainly not in this part of the constituency.

So I want to give him a run for his money so he cannot be complacent. When he voted for the war in Iraq, or for privatising the NHS through Foundation hospitals, he was taking his voters for granted.

I also like to think that all Greens bring is some fresh thinking. So I’ve been campaigning against a school, Sedgehill, being turned into an academy against the wishes of the pupils, parents, teachers and governors. But I’ve found it’s not just about academies versus local authority control. The campaign also goes to the heart of what we want out of schools, because Sedgehill has quite an alternative ethos that’s focussed on giving young people the character and skills to make the most of their lives. Ofsted & co just don’t get it. The Green Party has a fresh way of looking at education, and it has gone down really well with a lot of the parents I’ve spoken to.

What are your campaign goals in Lewisham and Bromley?

I also want to use this campaign to build the party base in the area. I think that as Greens we see our role as councillors or MPs as almost an extension of our campaigning for change. I am already out there anyway campaigning on pollution and housing, and working closely and visibly with campaigns around Crystal Palace Park and Sedgehill School.

At the time of the last local elections it was about three of us campaigning in my ward, now we have around a dozen people in each ward who are willing to come out to leaflet and campaign. I think the Greens could do incredibly well in places like Crystal Palace and Forest Hill – there are a lot of people out there who have a hunger for something different, and are fed up of having to vote tactically for Labour.

You recently tweeted: According to @DarrenJohnsonAM if the #GreenSurge continues I’ll end up Housing Minister and solve the crisis in 5 years! We may have a while to go until then, but Green Party has been surging ahead in the polls and coming up the radar when it comes to media. What are the opportunities and challenges of the Green Surge from your perspective?

First of all we have so many more people than before helping us. The way you can have an impact on a community is by getting out there, so the Green Surge totally transforms our capacity to campaign in places that before were off limits for us because we were only able to reach relatively small parts of the capital.

The Green Surge is creating a buzz and the media is taking notice. I don’t think the media have ignored us entirely before, it wasn’t a grand conspiracy. But while we previously we weren’t doing things of interest to the likes of Nick Robinson at the BBC, in the vacuous Westminster bubble, we were never really had a way of hooking into the stories of the day. Now that we have Labour and the Lib Dems on the run, we have a story that interests them. So for us it’s an opportunity to get in there and actually change the story and not just talk about the Green Surge but about why are people attracted to us, about our policies and our different way of doing politicsl.

The challenge locally is that we are an organisation that is used to dealing with a few people joining each month, we’ve recently had dozens of people joining a week, and so the struggle is making sure that all these people are greeted and that there are things for them to do, because we’re an organisation run by volunteers. It’s going to take time to sort out and I hope that people will be patient with us and that we can very quickly scale up to being an organisation that can keep the 10,000 members in London involved.

We have to give them a reason to stay in the party after the elections, so they don’t just quit because they think ‘well, that was all very exciting and now I’m done with it.’

At the same time as a local candidate and campaigner, you are a prominent figure in the Green Party, being head of office for the Green Party at the London Assembly and joint coordinator with Caroline Allen of the London Green Party. What insights does that job add to your politics and how does it help with your local campaign?

Really what Caroline and I are there to do is to try and create a regional structure which enables people to contribute their skills, whether in media, or in organising demonstrations, or whatever it is. We need a clear offer to members, and to organise a few things really well instead of trying to do one hundred things badly. It’s interesting to do the job for the whole of London, as opposed to just for a ward or a constituency, but basically many of the issues are the same. It’s about how we organise the growing membership.

At City Hall, although I’m the Head of an Office for the Greens on the Assembly, my role is entirely non-political. I’m a local government employee, I’m not there as a Green Party person. At the same time, my work has enabled me to become more knowledgeable about an awful lot of policy issues across London such as transport, social justice, poverty, and particularly housing which is my specialism now.

Actually being involved in a political system whether as a councillor or an officer helps me to see the opportunities for making a difference. I’ve seen how we’ve been able to funnel hundreds of millions of pounds into cycling in the capital, or more recently to get solar power onto the agenda of all the political parties on the London Assembly. I like being able to understand that and figure out how can I bring that policy to Crystal Palace and the rest of the Lewisham West & Penge constituency.

Your campaign on housing is one that strikes me as well-informed, articulate and looking beyond the immediate problems to long-lasting solutions. Would you sum it up for us in a few words?

The crisis rests on the fact that in London housing is unaffordable for the majority of residents which is a pretty astonishing state of affairs. One of the things I like about the Green Party is our different way of looking at things. Most of my work on housing is about pushing back against this idea that we just need to do business as usual, to just let big developers build more homes.

We as Greens are concerned about ecological impact, we are thinking about resource use, we don’t just want to flood the market with homes. We look at who is buying those homes. Two thirds of homes in London are built for investors, so we are building the kinds of homes that are attractive to investors. But that drives more demand for housing, which means you need to build even more. Who is going to build enough to bring prices down? Not the big developers, who release new homes slowly to keep prices rising.

So we bring a fresh perspective on housing, which is basically to reduce demand by making policy about homes rather than assets for speculators. At the same time we want to give people more rights, particularly private tenants so that everybody can have a home that is secure, comfortable and warm.

In the last year activism on housing has exploded. It’s always difficult as a Green politician to get anything done if there’s no grassroots campaigning pushing you and pushing everyone else. Now we’ve got the Radical Housing Network, we’ve got Focus E15, New Era, big campaigns that have captured the headlines in the last year, as well as lots of private tenants groups and anti-gentrification campaigns. All these people are now coming forward and we’re working with them to create a movement for radical change, not just accepting this mantra that we need to build more homes and just let the private developers do what they want.

What changes have we seen as a result of these campaigns?

We’re seeing Labour councils starting to take this much more seriously, realising they need to do put in place tighter regulation of the private rented sector. Islington has been looking at restrictions on investors buying homes and leaving them empty.

But we need to take this to the national level in a very radical way, to completely change our view of how we’re going to address the housing crisis, so that’s really the challenge. We need other parties to see that as well if anything is going to change, and the Greens need to be there forcing Labour and the LibDems or even some Conservatives to face up to the fact that you can’t just leave it to the private developers in a broken market.

The big successes have been individual campaigns. We’ve helped get the first Community Land Trust in London off the ground, and there’s another proposal just outside my constituency in Lewisham called RUSS, so there are lots of solutions coming up from the ground up. People are starting to take the housing crisis into their own hands and find solutions themselves, that’s also very exciting.

Anything else about Tom Chance – beyond your political role?

Well I’m always busy, there are so many interesting and inspiring things happening and I try to dip into them from time to time.

I love geeky open source stuff, and for years I’ve contributed to OpenStreetMap, which is this quirky community creating a free map of the whole world. It started out in London among people interested in maps and is now being used by the Red Cross, all sort of humanitarian organisations, was used in Haiti when they had the earthquake and is now helping to fight Ebola. That inspires me because it shows me that people like doing things for altruistic reasons, they like doing things together as a community, they’re doing it because it’s enjoyable.

I also find my local Transition Town really inspiring. We just celebrated the one year anniversary of a community garden in a churchyard. A year ago I was there digging out brambles with people I’d never met in my life but who live in my local area. The Transition Town brings people together to organise and do stuff – they’ve set-up these gardens, a market I now use every week and more.

People doing things together in a really positive way inspires me more than anything else.

Any last words?

Within the Green Party I think we need to be careful to respect a diversity of political views. Sometimes people forget that and people can get very factional, like all this fruit salad nonsense. I think any kind of factionalism, any idea that people who have the same view of say, economics, are going to vote en bloc, or to try to trample over people who disagree with them and crow about it is very dangerous.

I would like the Green Party to remain the home for a rich diversity of views. Like any ecosystem, we’re stronger if we have that mutually reinforcing diversity.

Part of a series of ‘Green Challenger’ articles in the run up to the General Election. Read Josiah Mortimer’s interview with Bristol’s Darren Hall here; Adam Ramsay’s interview with Edinburgh’s Peter McColl here, and Violeta Vajda’s interview with Deputy Leader Amelia Womack here