Magazine

Incentives for change

With the global economic crisis supposedly necessitating major cuts to public expenditure, Kit Strange argues that the time to act on incentives (both carrots and sticks) is here

Kit StrangeAs policy makers in England reflect on the nascent 2011 waste strategy (likely to emerge in time for the summer solstice), one of the toughest nuts to crack will be how to encourage us (the squeezed, confused but enfranchised public) to change our ways and live more resource-efficiently (while still remembering to do our bit for the consumer economy).

This puzzle would be made simpler if policy makers could make free use of the key drivers for behavioural change, by which I mean charging. It is clear that the general public can be persuaded to do (or to refrain from doing) many things by using a blend of rewards and penalties – the traditional carrot/stick combo.

There are limits to what people will do of their own volition, when it comes to moving forwards in a useful direction. The evidence from many parts of Europe, and beyond, is that a reasonable charging system – when supplemented with cost-free, or cheaper, alternatives – will deliver useful change in waste generation and resource recovery.

The governments in England have over many years tip-toed towards direct and variable rate charging (pay-as-you-throw) for household waste, but have then run scared when the media shouts about stealth taxes. Since last year’s elections,
pay-as-you-throw schemes have become a concept so loaded, so politically incorrect, that even the word ‘incentives’ has become slightly dodgy. Now we can just about contemplate ‘awards’ and ‘rewards’ to stimulate behavioural change at the national policy level.

It is interesting to see how we might really square this timid approach with the global economic crisis, which is supposed to be necessitating such major cuts to public-sector expenditure. It seems to me that this should be the ideal time to change the
way we fund waste management and bring it out
in the open.

Landfill tax is now £54 per tonne (and rising) and the government can rest easy that this has not caused Poll-Tax style riots. It works, and recycling is just one of the major beneficial spin-offs.

As I write, I am intrigued to see that in Somerset some under-threat household waste recycling centres could be kept open if people will pay £2 per visit. The visit charge is part of a package planned to help avoid closures and save £1.9 million for cash-strapped Somerset County Council.