Obituary: Sam Barker, director of the Conservative Environment Network

James Murray
clock • 4 min read

'An incredible advocate for a greener and more sustainable society'

One of the UK's leading environmental campaigners and advocates for green conservatism, Sam Barker, has died aged 36 following an 18 month battle against bowel cancer.

Barker was a well-known figure in environmental campaign circles and served as director of the influential Conservative Environment Network (CEN) from May 2016 until this summer, when he stepped down to continue treatment for cancer.

Speaking at the time, CEN chairman Ben Goldsmith hailed the huge contribution Barker had made to the organisation, which works to promote conservative engagement with and responses to environmental issues. "Sam brought full-time professional leadership to the organisation," he said. "Sam's insights and experience have set the bar high for our organisation's work. His decade of experience in public policy and civil society has added immeasurably to our work and to the conservative environmentalist cause."

Barker played a key role in raising the profile of CEN and co-ordinating a wide range of campaigns that helped drive climate change, plastic pollution, and biodiversity up the agenda of Conservative ministers and MPs.

He said he was proud of the legacy the organisation's work was creating in government, noting that various initiatives to deliver the 25 Year Environment Plan and Clean Growth Strategy, tackle plastic pollution, and create marine reserves were dependent on "a groundswell of support from conservative activists, councillors, MP's and peers". He added that it had been a privilege to work with those working to drive green progress and to deliver publications and events that "provided the impetus for much of this change".

"I would like to pay tribute to the board and the many others who have supported me and my family in a crazily unexpected situation," he said. "Life throws odd curveballs, but the support of friends, and the opportunity to keep campaigning has brought lots of joy."

Throughout his time at CEN Barker was an eloquent advocate for green conservatism, arguing that environmental protection was an integral part of the right's political tradition. In an article for the Climate Home News website in 2017 he suggested green groups needed to work more closely with conservatives and sketched out his philosophy for tackling environmental challenges. "Property rights, the rule of law, free markets and through them innovation, can help deliver," he wrote. "As Paris found over Copenhagen, a pragmatic, bottom-up ratchet works: a top-down target driven negotiation fails… Whatever happens on the fringes, the main argument between Conservatives and the left is whether growth is the problem or the solution, not whether environmental challenges should be met or ignored."

He joined CEN after nearly four years at Christian anti-poverty charity Tearfund, where he was quickly promoted to head of UK policy and government relations. A well-known figure in Westminster policy circles he also did stints at World Vision, the Relationships Foundation, and Policy Exchange, having previously worked in Parliament as an MP's researcher specialising in health policy. One colleague at the time described him as "a one-man press release machine when it comes to homing in on government health policy".

Raised in  the West Midlands, he graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2004 and went on to complete a MA in African Literature at SOAS University of London in 2010.

Following his untimely passing earlier this month, friends and colleagues paid tribute to Barker on Twitter, where he tweeted under the handle @RepairingLease - a reference to Margaret Thatcher's famous assertion that "no generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy—with a full repairing lease".

Conservative MP Tim Loughton described Barker as "a great asset in Parliament and to the voluntary sector organisations he worked with so effectively afterwards. He took his cruelly untimely illness with extraordinary phlegmatism and bravery and will be greatly missed".

Emma Pinchbeck of trade body RenewableUK recalled how Sam was "at the heart of so many campaigns, projects and schemes (!) in the environmental movement". It was a point also made by Unicef UK's Alastair Harper, who recalled a "generous and thoughtful and cunning man who always had a way of avoiding being at the centre of the credit for the change he was at the centre of making happen. He made the world better".

Colleagues and political opponents were similarly effusive in their praise. The Labour Campaign for International Development described Barker as "a true gent". "We may have been [from] different tribes but had a common cause in wanting politicians of all hues to take action on poverty and the environment," they added.

Ben Caldecott, who worked with Barker at CEN, said he was "an incredible advocate for a greener and more sustainable society".

"It is so sad that he has left us so young," he added. "As director of CEN he led the good fight within conservatism. My thoughts are with his family. We will commemorate his legacy."

The Conservative Environment Network announced last week it will commemorate Sam's contribution to politics and the environment through a Memorial Lecture and prize for Green Conservative of the Year.

The group aims to host the first lecture and prize in 2019 and intend it to serve as a reminder of Sam's contribution and the continuity of his legacy.

Barker is survived by his wife Xanthe and two young children.

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