Interview: Andy Atkins, Friends of the Earth

The environmental organisation's new director wants to talk about biodiversity and independence.

Andy Atkins, director, Friends of the Earth
Andy Atkins, director, Friends of the Earth

The Charity Commission's more relaxed rules on campaigning have not tempted Andy Atkins, the new director of Friends of the Earth, to change its structure, despite potential tax advantages.

At present, it is part trust, part company: Friends of the Earth Ltd does the campaigning if it's primarily political, and the FoE Trust does other campaigning, research, education and publishing.

"Much of what we once thought we needed to do outside the charity bit can now be done within the charity bit," he says. "But you never know what the future will bring in terms of constraints: it would be unwise to abandon the structure we have. That's part of safeguarding our independence."

But the organisation will be changing its focus to concentrate more on biodiversity loss, says Atkins, who joined FoE from development charity Tearfund, where he was policy and campaigns director.

"Climate change is rightly getting a lot of the attention now," he says. "We're not going to stop working on it, but what we want to see in five years is people talking about biodiversity in the same way that they now talk about climate change."

Atkins wants to strengthen the organisation's relationships with policy-makers in Westminster, Whitehall and the EU.

He says the success of the Climate Change Bill, due to go back to the Lords next week on 17 November, indicates the strength of FoE's parliamentary work.

Atkins welcomes the creation of the new Department for Energy and Climate Change, headed by former third sector minister Ed Miliband, but is worried how it might deal with the voluntary sector.

"He's taking over staff from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, which has been less collaborative with civil society than other departments," says Atkins. "It will be interesting to see how Miliband gets staff at his new department to work closely with civil society. The will is there, but he's taking over some people who do not have that in their culture."

There is a difference between sustaining relationships with government and being in its pocket, he says. "Oxfam took a lot of flak during Make Poverty History for being too close to the Government, but that was an unfair perception. I wouldn't want FoE to be seen in that light, but I do want us to be seen as people the Government can have a sensible conversation with. It's about tone, rather than substance."

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