Sian Berry is keeping a suspicious eye on the Evening Standard photographer. “You’ve got to watch out when you’re a Green,” she explains. “They always want you to pose with trees. Time Out got me to pose with a green umbrella — a little bit Mary Poppins. I don’t want to look unserious in photos. It’s not vanity, it’s to do with my job.”
Ms Berry, the party’s Oxford-educated mayoral candidate and co-leader nationally, is running for City Hall for the third time. She bemoans the fact she is the most popular second choice of Londoners in an increasingly “Red/Green city”. Electors get two votes, but the second only counts if she secures enough first preferences to make it through to the run-off between the two best-placed candidates. If only voters would put their “heart choice” first, she sighs.
Then there is the problem of being a woman in politics. “It takes more to be taken seriously,” she says. “It takes more effort to have your expertise recognised. There are more assumptions just in people’s unconscious biases about what a mayor looks like, what a leader looks like. Rory Stewart was immediately accepted as a suitable candidate for mayor, in a way that me, Sadiq [Khan] and Shaun [Bailey] have all had to overcome not being from the stereotype.”
Mr Stewart, the former Tory minister turned independent, dropped out of the race when the pandemic forced the election’s postponement for a year. But Ms Berry kept on going — as she has done since slapping “parking tickets” on Chelsea tractors almost two decades ago. The eco-stunt got her on daytime TV with Richard and Judy. Is it daft to ask if she has a car? She roars with laughter. “Of course I don’t. I live in Zone 2.”
Home is a rented flat above a shop in Tufnell Park. She has a Zipcar account but can’t think when she last used it. She uses public transport and walks whenever possible, especially to avoid interchanging between Tube lines.
She is single but keeps her private life private. As she didn’t ask her family’s permission to get involved in politics, she doesn’t talk about them publicly.
She roars again when asked if City Hall rumours are true that she likes a pint and a rollie cigarette, but dismisses any suggestion she likes a steak too.
Her manifesto is seeded with brave, bright ideas, from London’s first “zero murders” target to protection for bees, sparrows and hedgehogs. Only the Greens are committed to developing big policy ideas, she claims. “That is where the zero murders target comes from,” she says. “It’s looking at the principles of policing and the goals of policing. It’s the creative process applied to politics.”
But don’t call the policies “radical”. Her spokesman requested that an earlier headline on this article be amended, saying Ms Berry believed her policies to be “rational, popular, common sense” but deliberately avoided using the R-word.
Berry says that Boris Johnson’s pledge this week to cut carbon emissions by 78 per cent by 2035 would require a “revolution” in Government thinking.
“That means no £27 billion nationally on road building, zero airport expansion, and a massive green homes investment plan. Cancelling the Silvertown Road Tunnel becomes even more urgent and clearly it’s time for my plan to shut London City Airport to use the land for homes.”
She’d introduce “flat” fares on the Tube, benefiting those in outer zones. The ultra-low emission zone would be extended London-wide, and a “smart” road pricing scheme introduced. Bus stops would become “bee friendly”, with wild flowers alongside solar panels on roofs. There would be a crackdown on puppy selling, efforts would be made to ban traffic from all royal parks, more toilets would open on the Tube and Transport for London advertising would encourage a vegan diet. The zero murders target would lead to a sea-change in prevention. “You can’t be enforcing your way to zero murders. This is a public health approach to crime.” She adds: “No murders are random. They are not the weather. There is always a cause.”
A target of zero road deaths is already in place (by 2041), and she says there is much to learn from the railway industry. “Crashes are investigated, causes are examined, systems are changed. We should be doing the same thing on the roads and in society when it comes to murders.”
The other big target is to reduce traffic, cutting miles travelled by 40 per cent by 2026 and by 60 per cent by 2030, by which point all diesels and other vehicles with toxic exhaust fumes would be banned. Alongside this, £45 per Londoner would be spent on improving cycle routes — a total of £400 million a year — to transform dangerous junctions.
With Crossrail opening next year, she believes faster access to and from Heathrow will render City Airport surplus to requirement — closing it is one of her big ideas. “I think we should be able to do without that airport.”
Ms Berry backs heroin prescribing by doctors and the trial of “safe consumption” areas, after the party spent 18 months learning from other countries and bereaved families.
“The war on drugs is 50 years old this year. It’s quite clear that has failed. Drugs deaths are going up, and they should be coming down. The best way to do that is to bring things within the law and take the drugs out of the hands of criminals.”