HARRY BARTON – UPSTREAM THINKING
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye / Photography by Nick Hook
Harry Barton is a quietly confident man. He is the Chief Executive of the Devon Wildlife Trust and he carries himself with the balance, poise and grace that only comes with the ‘water-under-the-bridge’ of life-experience.
At the age of 50, having travelled around much of the world, Harry is a passionate advocate for environmental issues and for inspiring confidence in local government, local businesses and local residents that Exeter has the potential to be the ‘Green Capital’ of the U.K.
Along with photographer Nick Hook, I went to spend a couple of hours with Harry at Devon Wildlife Trust’s offices near Exeter Quay. I found him, his organisation and their building intriguing and impressive. For example, their offices are based in an old mill, with a working mill wheel. They use it to generate electricity and also to produce flour; an impressive demonstration of using an office building to work for you, rather than the other way around. There are only a few things that impress me more than joined-up-thinking.
So, as we sat down with a cuppa, our conversation meandered in a similar fashion to the River Exe that we were sat just metres from, discussing everything from environmental issues to karate and mountaineering. Here is a snapshot of our conversation.
Good morning Harry. Thanks for making time to see us and for welcoming us to your offices. How has your day been so far?
Excellent thanks Joff. We have been devising our five and twenty-five-year plans for the organisation over the last few months and we had a fantastic meeting about our twenty-five year plan this morning.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard of a business having a twenty-five-year plan. That’s impressive!
Well, if you think about it, a five-year plan is sometimes not a long enough period of time to achieve something. For example, tackling significant environmental issues; you can make a good dent over a five-year period, but you aren’t going to eradicate issues completely. In twenty-five-years though? Yes. That is long enough to completely eradicate certain issues in our world. Of course, you have to work flexibilities and contingencies into a plan that thinks that far ahead, but that doesn’t mean it is impossible or shouldn’t be done.
I remember in the 1980’s, for example, that a lot of the seas around the South West were seriously polluted. Then South West Water came up with it’s ‘Clean Sweep’ programme which, over two decades, has sorted out the cleanliness of our seas and lead to our region having award-winning beaches. A seemingly insurmountable task that was achieved because of forward-planning, consistency and hard work. The two largest challenges that I think we need to tackle next in our region are air quality and climate change. Again, both seemingly insurmountable, but we just need to get on with planning (and then executing that plan) in a consistent and hard-working manner. If you strategise for the long-term, it’s amazing to think what can be achieved.
Fascinating, and I agree. Tell me a little more about your affinity to Exeter and Devon?
Of course. I am not a Devonian by birth although my parents did get married in North Devon before moving up to Kent where I grew up. We came down and holidayed in Devon throughout my childhood and I always intended on moving down here to live and work at some point in my life. So, when the chance arose in 2011 for me to come and work at Devon Wildlife Trust, I jumped at the opportunity. It is such a beautiful part of the world; I just don’t know why anyone would want to leave once they settled here.
With two coastlines, two National Parks, five areas of outstanding natural beauty and twenty-three rivers which rise and meet the sea in Devon, I really think you would be hard pressed to argue that any other part of the UK is more beautiful. I guess that is why so much of the rest of the country comes here to holiday.
And, whilst it is truly one of the gems in England’s crown, I think the unrealised potential that the county has is also exceptionally high. In many areas, the cleanliness and beauty of both built spaces and green spaces are not what they could be. I see this as a great opportunity rather than a negative and, over that twenty-five-year time period that I mentioned earlier, I believe we can make huge changes and strides forward. We have a real opportunity to prove the indisputable link between people’s wellbeing, thier levels of happiness and the quality of the environment around them.
Think of what we could do with, for example, new-build houses and green-buildings.
I genuinely don’t see why we can’t become the UK’s version of Milan or Singapore – the ‘Green Capital’ of the UK.
We have a project here in Exeter called ‘Exeter Wild City’ and one of the many things that this project achieves is to ‘green-up’ space. We have recently finished a roundabout near the MET Office and also a Swift’s tower near the Vue Cinema which projects the sound of swifts’ from speakers, to encourage other swifts to come and nest there. These are just minor examples of the sorts of things that we can look to do in Exeter to make it greener and more welcoming to wildlife.
Inspiring stuff Harry. So, it sounds like you have been stirred by the way that other cities and countries approach the marriage between people and nature?
Yes, indeed. I am fairly well travelled, although that has definitely declined since having children (who are now in their teens). Earlier in my life and career I travelled to Nepal, East Africa, New Guinea and South America. Travel is a real passion of mine and I think it educates and broadens your mind like no other experience. You see, hear, smell and taste things that you simply wouldn’t ever have done if you stayed in your country of origin and, sometimes, this gives you inspiration, ideas or even solutions to problems back home.
Having travelled extensively and worked with natural environments for most of my career, I am as convinced as ever that people are both the problem and the solution to environmental issues.
Perhaps you could tell me a little more about your role at Devon Wildlife Trust?
Well, the two things that have always captured my attention and held a special place in my heart are international development and the natural environment. To have ended up pursuing a career over the last few decades in natural environment work has been fantastic. This work has taken me across England (working in Kent, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, London and Devon) and, during a spell working at Kew Gardens in London I met my now wife. So, some great experiences, both professionally and personally.
In terms of Devon Wildlife Trust, our aim is to enhance Devon’s natural environment, protect its wildlife, bring wildlife back where it has reduced in population and make the people of Devon more aware of the natural beauty in our county and for them to engage, enjoy and protect their natural surroundings.
One major observation I would make since starting in my role in 2011, is that people get overly familiar with their surroundings and stop seeing the positive and negative things about where they live. For example, have you ever gone abroad and then returned home with, what feel like, new eyes. You suddenly see things, both good and bad, that you simply had become blind to previously. I liken it to home-decoration. When you first move into a house you are acutely aware of the things that need fixing, changing and painting. But, if you go long enough without making those changes, you become accustomed to them and, before long, blind to their existence. Environmental issues are exactly like that. As the old saying goes, ‘Familiarity breeds contempt’.
What other challenges do you face at Devon Wildlife Trust?
Another common issue that we face is dealing with peoples’ assumptions, which sometimes need to be tackled. For example, in Devon, people assume that our seas will always be healthy and provide us with fish, that our soils will always be fertile and provide us with crops and that our public open spaces and beaches have limitless capacity and can put up with an infinite volume of people using them. Of course, these things are simply untrue, and we need to continue to work hard to ensure that our natural spaces are sustainably healthy.
One example of a key area for concern is that, currently in Devon, less than 20% of our rivers have a good ecological status (based on a piece of EU legislation called the Water Framework Directive). This is due to a combination of factors, including run-off from urban areas, chemical sprays finding themselves into the water table and impact from building developments. People can hardly complain about the price of their water bills if they realise that the cost of cleaning our water supply only increases the more we pollute it!
The water that you walk over on a bridge is the very same water that, eventually will need to be treated and cleaned for you to drink. Closing that loop in our mindsets is vitally important.
We must also consider the environmental cost of the exciting growth story of Exeter. A growing city is hugely exciting but, obviously, has knock on effects as natural resources and spaces are consumed more readily. So, as Exeter expands, we must pursue joined-up thinking and multi-dimensional growth wherever possible. Where is the low-hanging-fruit that we can pick when considering transport infrastructure, housing developments, public spaces etc? Personally, I think a tram system in Exeter would be a wonderful idea and would solve multiple issues for the city in one go.
I imagine that the lines between your work and home life sometimes get a bit blurred as you are so passionate about your cause. How do you combat this?
You’re right, I do have to be careful to get in to a different mindset sometimes. It won’t surprise you to hear that I find nature an incredibly inspiring and recharging place. Whether it is running, cycling, swimming or walking on the moors, I try to get out into nature as often as possible.
I also take karate very seriously which me and my eldest son do together. Apart from physical activity, I love music, play classical piano, keep up to date with politics and love to read.
Earlier in life, I was a keen mountaineer too. I never scaled Everest but did get up to over twenty thousand feet on one climb. One of the hardest, most physically gruelling things I have ever done. An incredible experience though – inexplainable perspective over the beauty of the world. Everything seems clearer and sharper when you are that far removed from your usual viewpoint.
One of the most compelling arguments, in fact, for protecting our environment is that sometimes we need to get out into nature to gain perspective and clear our heads a bit. Protecting the environment, in turn is positive for our health (both mental and physical).
So true Harry. You mentioned that you like to read. Finally, are there any books that you could recommend to our readers?
Yes, a couple. One of my favourite books in recent years is Colin Thubron’s ‘To a Mountain in Tibet’, the tale of the author’s secular pilgrimage to the sacred slopes of Kailas in the western Himalayas. An excellent read.
Also, I’ve just finished reading a fantastically interesting book called ‘Momo’ by Michael Ende (the chap who wrote The Never-Ending Story. It is about a homeless child with special powers who is the only person able to resist the sinister men in grey who arrive in their city and try to steal their time, attempting to convince them that their work is never done. An incredibly visceral and satirical commentary on the increasingly busy society that we live in.
Harry, I have genuinely enjoyed our time together and look forward to seeing your continued hard work to protect and preserve our natural surroundings in Exeter. Here’s to a greener Exeter over the next twenty-five years!