Árni Þór Sigurðsson began his career as a journalist for RÚV, working as their Moscow correspondent during the fall of communism. Upon returning home in 1989, he embarked on a political career that brought him into Reykjavík City Council in 1994 for what would become the Leftist-Green Party. Since that time, he’s witnessed the numerous triumphs and upheavals that Reykjavík has undergone, and he is now running for City Council again.
/// Recently [city council member] Björk Vilhelmsdóttir left the Leftist-Greens to join the Social Democrats, but at the same time we’ve seen the strongest rise in support with your party and the Independence Party. Do you think there is a polarisation happening in city government? How do you account for that?
– Yes, I think so, especially when you look at the polls and see the 18- to 25-year-old age group. The Independence Party have support from around 50% of them, and we have about 27%, whereas the Social Democrats have about 18% or 20%. Of course, I know that younger people are more extreme in their political views, so it might be quite natural that we are bigger in this group, but this is also a potential in the long run. This is an age when people are starting to form their political views.
So, polarisation? Yes, I think that people want politicians to have views, and not just swim like a fish in the water and never tell exactly what they mean. Some politicians, especially, as I see it, in the centre, they like to first hear what the people want to hear, and then they tell exactly that. Instead of just telling the people what they mean, and why they should elect them, and if they agree, they will; if they disagree, they won’t.
/// In terms of the needs of the city, what is the first thing that comes to mind in terms of what the city needs most that it doesn’t have now?
– I think one of the issues we will need to tackle in the near future is traffic. We have seen some extreme changes in Reykjavík not only in the last twelve years but in the last five years concerning this issue, with all the particle pollution, and the car traffic, which is getting heavier and heavier – this is something that we must do something about. But I would also underline that Reykjavík has changed positively. The city centre, as I see it, is flourishing. We have a lot of projects ongoing. I see a lot of positive things that have been happening.
In terms of the service, look at the kindergartens. Twelve years ago it was impossible to get a place in the kindergartens unless you were a single parent, but it is now much easier. Since the city took over the primary schools, we have a lot more classes and a lot more people working in the schools. Also we are working on the after-school programs. We see that the children who are not using these programs are coming from the lowest income families.
The same goes for the school meals. We in the Leftist-Green Party have already said that we think the school meals should be free of charge. The same goes for the after-school programs. If we are talking about equality, that all children have the same rights, then this must be free of charge.
/// These are all good ideas, but I guess the question on my mind, as a taxpayer, would be, where is the money to pay for this going to come from?
– We’re already using the maximum of city income tax, so we would have to cut funding from other programs, or raise real estate tax. But you should also understand that these social welfare programs like school lunches and after-school programs are not very expensive for the city to take over.
/// So what programs would you say we can afford to cut into?
– I would say the transportation sector – the money that goes into building and maintaining new roads. I think we are using far too much money in that sector because we are always building up for the private car. There’s a lot of money there. But also take the sports and leisure industry in Reykjavík. We are of course supporting sports and leisure for our kids, but we are also paying a lot of money to the more professional sports clubs, professional players, and football teams, and I doubt that this should be the role of the municipality. They have been sponsored more and more by private companies, and I think they should be sponsored more by them.
/// Getting back to cars. Given the fact that there’s two to three cars for every household in Reykjavík, do you worry that saying you want to cut funding for serving private car owners is going to hurt support for the Leftist-Greens?
– As I said initially, we must tell the people what are our views, and not just tell them what we think they want to hear. As we see it, it is of great importance to reduce the impact of the private car on the environment. We are now using 50% of all land in Reykjavík for the private car, with roads and parking spaces and such. If this development continues over the next twenty years, we will see a 30% increase in car kilometres. Where are we going to take this space from? Obviously, this is something that we must face. The Independence Party says that the citizens of Reykjavík have chosen the private car, and that everything must be done to serve the needs of the private car. And when the Independence Party says that we have to facilitate the private car, you have to understand that this is impossible. They can say it, but they won’t do it, because it’s impossible to widen all the streets all the time. They won’t have space. When they try to widen a street in a certain neighbourhood, the inhabitants in that neighbourhood will naturally oppose this. So they will have more problems.
We say that we must accept that the space is limited, and we want to use the space for the people, and not for the cars. This means that we will have to strengthen the public transport system, and put more money in it. Also, to facilitate walking and cycling. Right now you have bike paths along Sundbraut and other places, where you might go for a Sunday ride, but there are no bike paths along the main streets, and there need to be, so people can use their bikes and walking to make short trips. 30% of all car rides are within one kilometre. If you’re just going down to the bakery, why on earth would you take your car?
/// Say I’m a car owner in Reykjavík. Why should I stop using my car in the city? How would it benefit me?
– First of all, it’s much cheaper. Many families in Reykjavík have two cars or more. If you sell one of your cars and use more public transportation, you save a lot of money because it’s much cheaper. Second of all, in the long run it will be easier to get to work if we facilitate public transport. Third, you will gain a better environment, less pollution.
/// Regarding housing. [Independence Party mayoral candidate] Vilhjálmur Þ. Vilhjálmsson has said that we need to have more single-family homes in Reykjavík because people are moving into the suburbs to live in them. How do you respond?
– I think you must offer a good mixture. The trend in Reykjavík in the last decades has been on private homes. This is good for the people who want this, but we haven’t offered people other possibilities. Take an example like Skúlagata or other areas where you have apartments close to the city centre. This wasn’t the emphasis before, but we’re putting more emphasis on this now. And I think we must continue to put more emphasis on a more dense city centre, but I reckon we also need to offer something to those who want to live in private homes, and I can agree with Vilhjálmur that Geldingarnes is a good place for this. But I don’t think this is something that needs to be done in the next two to four years, so we could disagree on that. (Laughs.)
/// In looking at the campaign platforms of the candidates running for mayor, you were the only one who put emphasis on multiculturalism. Why is this important to you?
– Well this maybe has something to do with my political views in general. Twenty years ago, equality was something that was only applied to men and women. But now we have seen all these changes in our society. People are coming here from other countries, some staying for a long time, some a short time. They come from very different backgrounds, and I think this is something that is just flourishing in our society. We should benefit from it, all of us. And I also think this is important if we want to live in peace together. I see children of different backgrounds in school with my children. You see how important it is that they can live together, work together, play together and be in school together, without any prejudice. Therefore, I think we as a city should make all the conditions for a good multicultural society. You will have to give people who come here the opportunity to learn not just Icelandic but also their own mother tongue. This is a problem when you have kids of different backgrounds who have parents who don’t speak good Icelandic, and kids who can’t speak their own mother tongue. We need to teach these children their mother tongue in school and teach the parents Icelandic.
/// Language is a pretty big issue with foreigners in this country. In particular, there’ve been concerns that while the law requires that a foreigner take 150 hours of Icelandic courses in order to get permanent residence status, the costs of the classes keep rising. Do you think the cost of Icelandic classes should be reduced?
– Absolutely, and I don’t think it should be just the state or the municipalities but also the employers who should contribute to this. Let’s say you’re working for Eimskip. Why shouldn’t they pay for your Icelandic courses? I would say that this a common task for the partners in the labour market. It could be the unions, or the employers, or the state. This is something that we should do something about.