Election promises: What the 2015 manifestos said about the environment
Political leaders may be focusing on the economy and the health-care system this election, but what we want to know is: what will they do for waste? Resource examines the policies the parties are promising for the sector
This article was originally published in Spring 2015
Speaking on behalf of the waste and resources industry at the end of last year, the Trade Association Group – comprising the alphabet soup of ADBA, CIWM, ESA, ICE, REA and the RA – wrote a letter to the main political parties summarising the policy proposals the sector would like to see implemented after the general election. Highlighting the industry’s economic credentials (we’re worth £12 billion and provide employment to 150,000), the group’s letter went on to outline a wish list that included: establishing an office for resource management, headed by a minister, to coordinate government policy on resource efficiency across departments; expanding the market for reused and recycled products and materials by (for example) reforming government procurement rules and putting appropriate economic incentives in place; stimulating private investment in resource facilities by setting long-term policy goals; and ensuring that local authorities and enforcement bodies are properly resourced to combat waste crime.
Most of the general election manifestos had little to say about waste and resources, but here’s what we’ve been able to deduce so far about the parties’ prospective policies for the sector in the run-up to the general election.
Labour was highly commended by the waste industry in 2013, when it launched ‘Resource Security: Growth and jobs from waste industries’. The waste policy review said that a Labour government: might institute a 70 per cent recycling target for 2025; would promote ‘fair trade recycling’ that levelled the playing field for UK reprocessors; and would help ‘design out waste’ by encouraging ‘an advanced design community committed to thinking about a circular economy’. Upon the release, the likes of the ESA and RA all praised the document’s ambition (then ESA Chair David Palmer-Jones said: “Labour has rightly grasped the opportunity for the waste and resources industry to be an engine of green growth”), while cautioning that the challenge would be to develop detailed proposals.
It’s fair to say we’re still waiting for such proposals, with the party’s manifesto neglecting to mention resources after it backtracked on one of the few firm commitments it had made for the sector. Following the horse meat scandal in 2013, Labour – through then Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh – promised it would “ban food from landfill so that less food gets wasted in the supermarket supply chain and more food gets eaten by hungry children”, but in what might have been the first U-turn of the campaign, Ed Balls revealed in January that a food waste ban was “not Labour’s policy”. Instead, he said, that commitment has been ‘superseded’ by a commitment to review resource security through a Stern-Review-style exercise (although no such review is mentioned in the actual manifesto). Barry Gardiner, present Shadow Minister for the Natural Environment, recently told the Loop magazine that the review would look into ‘the barriers for investment in the waste and recycling industry’. He added that a Labour government would devolve £30 billion of funding to local government, giving them more control over the services they deliver, and would give the Green Investment Bank borrowing powers ‘so it can provide… investment and move towards a circular economy’.
The Conservative-led coalition has presided over a marked stalling of recycling rates, controversially ‘stepping back’ from waste policy work and refusing to support the introduction of new targets. Moreover, the resources sector didn’t get a look in in the election manifesto, and there have been no promises to be the greenest government ever this time around, although the manifesto boldly (some would say laughably) claims: ‘We have been the greenest government ever.’
Eric Pickles’s so-far unsuccessful crusade to re-instate weekly collections would likely continue, though, were Conservatives to lead another government post-7 May, with Kris Hopkins MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, recently telling the Loop magazine: ‘There are still too many councils and other bodies doing their best to scrap weekly collections and in Labour-run Wales, where some parts of the country have gone to monthly collections – the impact of smelly rubbish being left on the streets is clear to see. Conservatives remain clear that councils must deliver a frequent and comprehensive rubbish and recycling service that protects the environment and public health and which gives hardworking taxpayers this basic service they have a right to expect.’
That being said, not all Conservatives are on board with this agenda of Defra limiting its involvement with waste while DCLG pushes weekly collection: Chair of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Committee, Conservative MP Anne McIntosh, famously lambasted Defra’s decision to ‘step back’, calling for waste policy to remain an ‘important priority’, for example; and the self-styled ‘progressive’ 2020 Conservatives Group has called for the UK to become more ‘resource aware, efficiency focused and productivity driven’, with waste viewed as a business opportunity, ‘not a liability’. The official policy line has had very little to say to the resources sector in the run-up to the election, however.
Ahead of the 2010 election, UKIP produced hundreds of pages of policy documents with detailed (and sometimes bizarre) proposals (reinstating corporal punishment in schools, for a start), including several devoted to waste and recycling. The 2010 ‘Secure Energy, Better Environment’ policy document gives a nod to the waste hierarchy, saying UKIP would ‘promote a less wasteful culture, greater reuse of products’. It also promotes competition in the recycling marketplace, saying the party would enhance domestic recycling through ‘a more flexible system of contractors’. Unsurprisingly, it also takes issue with Europe’s influence on the waste and recycling scene, expressing opposition to ‘arbitrary targets, driven in the UK by EU directives’ – legitimately citing the collection of garden waste to meet weight-based targets as ‘dubious’, and less legitimately lambasting ‘the widespread imposition of “alternate weekly collections”’, which, according to UKIP, ‘encourages the breeding of vermin’. The document also seems to be fairly pro-landfill, noting it is ‘only “expensive” because the government imposes taxes’, and ‘modern landfill performs much better than in the past’. All the pre-2010 promises have since been disowned by
UKIP Leader Nigel Farage as ‘drivel’, however, and the 2015 manifesto has little specifically targeted at the waste and resources sector, apart from the promised abolition of WRAP, which the document maintains is an ‘unnecessary quango’ that costs taxpayers £15.5 million.
UKIP’s leaner manifesto ahead of last year’s local elections explicitly opposed ‘the loss of weekly bin collections’, and stated that the party would ‘restore it in councils where the majority of residents seek for it to be returned’, and there has been no public change to that policy.
The party’s current manifesto reiterates plans to repeal the Climate Change Act 2008, end subsidies for renewable energy, abolish green taxes and support the development of shale gas and ‘rejuvenate’ coal, though, so its policies are likely to worry those with concerns about the environment.
Though many might criticise the outgoing coalition government’s record on the environment, the junior partner is attempting to set itself out as a green choice ahead of this election. The Liberal Democrats revealed the front page of their manifesto in February of this year, at the same time indicating that one of their five main priorities for the next five years is protecting nature and fighting climate change. The party says it would introduce five ‘Green Laws’, which it revealed last September, and has been consulting on ahead of the election. In addition to carbon, nature, heating and energy, and transport, waste features in these laws with the Lib Dems promising ‘A Resource Efficiency and Zero Waste Britain Act’. The party says this bill will include such key measures as ‘establishing a Stern Report on resource use, with binding targets and a clear action plan to reduce waste and end biodegradable landfill’.
In its manifesto, the party outlines a Zero Waste Act that would (amongst other things): establish a statutory waste recycling target of 70 per cent in England; introduce regulation to promote design that enhances repairability; establish a ‘coherent tax and regulatory framework’; reinstate the landfill tax; consult on the introduction of an incineration tax; and work with local authorities to extend separate food waste collections to at least 90 per cent of homes by 2020.
The party also became the first to promise to create a Cabinet committee to oversee resource management, a move welcomed by industry.
The country’s only Green-led council Brighton & Hove (a minority administration) has faced criticism for its approach to waste management, with a relatively poor recycling rate (25.8 per cent in 2013/14), and recent trouble with striking refuse workers in disputes over pay, staff grading and responsibility. Nonetheless, the party has plenty to offer the waste and resources sector in terms of specific policy promises (and Green MEP for the South East Keith Taylor told the Loop that ‘the fightback [against central government cuts in Brighton & Hove] has started with the rollout of communal recycling bins for 32,000 households and dozens of community food waste composting schemes, turning tonnes of household waste food into compost at a neighbourhood level, and hopes are high that recycling rates will improve’).
The Green Party’s overarching policy on natural resources and waste management includes the following long-term objectives: ‘to determine the global availability of resources and identify sustainable patterns of resource use’; ‘to minimise consumption of all natural resources and, in particular, non-renewable resources’; and ‘to phase out the routine use of non-renewable resources for product-uses in which they cannot be easily recycled for the same purpose’. Short-term objectives include: ‘minimising waste during manufacturing processes’; ‘the manufacture of long-life products which can be repaired or reused’; and ‘to work towards a target of zero waste’.
Ahead of this specific election, manifesto pledges about waste and recycling include: moving towards a ‘jobs-rich circular economy’; using taxation and regulation to ensure waste is designed out and products can be fixed and used for longer; banning organic waste to landfill; increasing spending on recycling and waste by ‘about 50 per cent’ to eliminate landfilling and incineration; and aiming to recycle 70 per cent of household waste by 2020. Speaking to the Loop, Taylor called for resource policy initiatives to be ‘joined-up right across the range of government departments’, with Defra leading, concluding: ‘The zero waste concept encompasses producer responsibility, ecodesign, waste reduction, reuse and recycling, all within a single framework with the aim of eliminating altogether waste sent to landfill or incinerators.’