The man who treads lightly

By David Newble

Published on Friday, January 18, 2013 - 11:17


The man who treads lightly

Ray Harrington-Vail.

WIGHT LIVING WHAT’S your idea of a typical green activist?

A nagging, po-faced bore, probably university educated and middle-class, who harangues you about your wasteful lifestyle, piously lectures the poor on which foods they should eat and drones on about the Third World.

This person is likely to be profoundly anti-science, technology and progress in general.

The founder of Island environmental charity, The Footprint Trust, Ray Harrington-Vail, has a simple message for this mythical person.

You should move to Romania. By all means, build yourself a log cabin and live the environmentally simple life with solar panels for generating electricity, compost toilets instead of the flushing kind and do all your washing by hand.

But don’t come crying back to Britain when you need the NHS to save your life.

It’s a blunt message, from an outspoken individual — but then Ray doers not fit your idea of a stereotypical left-wing green activist.

He’s a fan of technology and science for a start. Outrageously for many lefties, he is an admirer of Mrs Thatcher for being the first world leader to acknowledge the existence of climate change but at the same time, is hugely critical of both Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair for raising indirect taxes which hit the poor the hardest.

And unlike many green activists who are content to shout from the sidelines about the evils of industry and capitalism, Ray is willing to mix practical action with pragmatic environmentalism and is willing to work with commerce and industry to achieve his goals.

Surprisingly in his youth, he also joined the Army Cadets. "I was allowed to fire guns." Not your average hippy peacenik then.

Ray was born in south London in 1958 and spent his childhood playing with friends in the local parks and open spaces.

His first experience of volunteering was as a member of the Army Cadets when he helped to take disabled young people on camp with them.

This meant by the age of 13, he had already become aware of the need to help others through volunteering. Throughout his teens, Ray got involved in community radio stations, assisting at youth clubs, gardening for the elderly and volunteering at a drop-in centre for the homeless in Soho.

He trained and qualified as a nurse before moving to Devon. It was in Exeter, during the early 1980s, he had his St Paul-like 'road to Damascus’ moment when his daughter, Kathy, was born and when he began getting concerned about the environment and what sort of legacy we would be leaving to our children.

He set up a Friends of the Earth group, got involved in a number of green good causes and worked with young people before moving to the IW 15 years ago where, among other things, he set up, funded and ran the Wight Green Centre, which provided information on a number of green issues.

Ten years ago, the charity Ray worked for announced the centre would close as they no longer wished to be involved in that kind of work.

Undaunted, Ray set up The Footprint Trust to continue the work they started with the aim of reducing the ecological 'footprint’ on the Island.

The trust helps hundreds of families reduce their energy and water bills and promotes insulation of homes and wise use of resources. The group set up the IW Green Gym and runs cemetery, pond and river warden schemes. The popular Adopt-a-Garden scheme, which helps younger people 'adopt’ an elderly person’s garden and care for it, has been featured on BBC Radio 2 and Radio 4. Produce from the scheme is shared between the young person and the owner. A useful by-product is the scheme reduces the distance food has to travel from where it is produced to our dinner tables and also brings redundant land back into use.

However, Ray is anxious to point out his activism and beliefs do not make him a hair-shirted green.

He said: "It has always been a concern of mine that eco-extremists alienate the public. And some of the high-minded green people don’t have a perception of poverty.

"There is also a sort of isolationist policy where business is seen as a bad thing. At the same time, the government thinks green activists are a left-wing anarchist movement and wants nothing to do with it.

"We are against that sort of isolationist idea and think the best way forward is to bring as many people on board as possible."

One of the trust’s chief concerns is helping people who are in fuel-poverty — people who spend more than ten per cent of their income on heating their homes.

The trust was awarded the 2012 Community Action for the Environment Award from the IW Rural Community Council and Ray himself was named a Heat-Hero by National Energy Action for his work reducing fuel poverty.

Ray said: "We go out of our way here to find the fuel poor. We came across people in the run up to Christmas who were spending 30 per cent of their incomes on heating their homes. That is a massive chunk of their income and they were making a choice between heating and eating."

Again, rather than just spouting warm words, Ray practices what he preaches. The trust can supply free white goods to those on low incomes along with free insulation of their homes.

Ray also believes the AONB, which covers about half of the IW, needs to modernise its views and allow more diversity in the countryside, including small wind farms, homes and jobs for young families, rejecting the idea that AONB means freezing the IW in aspic.

He certainly practice what he preaches. He chooses to cycle, walk and use public transport and has never owned a car.

The vast majority of his holidays have been spent in the UK, he rarely flies and is a keen recycler.

Yet he refuses to be put into a convenient box, dismissing conventional left/ right political labels.

He joked: "I suppose you could call me a free-market environmentalist.

"I am not someone who believes we would be all better off if we were all equal.

"I have looked around the world at the different models used and see countries like Sweden, Holland, Australia, New Zealand and ourselves and think we have pretty much got it right."


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