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Big interview: Lord Deben - pioneer peer of landfill tax

As environment minister, John Gummer - now Lord Deben - was responsible for introducing the landfill tax. James Illman spoke to him about how he would refresh England’s waste policy if he was in charge

Politicians may yearn for a legacy but Lord Deben is part of an elite few who can claim to have left one.

It must be infuriating to be remembered in the wider media as the minister who, in 1990, fed his then four-year-old daughter Cordelia a hamburger during the ‘mad cow’ disease scare. But his real legacy is far more profound, especially for the waste sector.

The landfill tax, which the Tory grandee helped to introduce in 1996 while environment secretary, revolutionised the UK’s recycling and waste management efforts.

While the initially controversial tax may not have made it on to the statute book but for Ken Clarke’s love of bird watching (more on that later), Deben is held in high regard for his role in arguably the most seismic development the sector has seen in recent years.

Much has changed since 1996, but Deben remains an influential presence in Parliament, and holds numerous industry positions including chair of the producer responsibility giant Valpak (see CV box).

We meet in the office of his consultancy, Sancroft International, which is situated in an exclusive enclave of Westminster. Blue plaques adorn many neighbouring properties. The street is lined with expensive cars with blacked out windows and chauffeurs.

Deben’s meeting room is what you would expect from a politically influential and wealthy individual. There is a grand piano in the corner. Our tea is served in fine china.

Over the course of an hour-long chat, he exhibits some of the characteristics that have allowed him to keep a strong voice in Westminster and amass a small fortune: an astute understanding of the economic and environ-mental imperative for green growth and the waste agenda.

He seems far more passionate about waste than many of Parliament’s current crop, as he outlines a coherent mini-manifesto of what he would do if he were waste minister. He also delivers an unyielding defence of the UK’s membership of the EU.

“We became utterly unable to justify such a poor record on recycling because we are part of a union that reminds you of these things, sets standards and that forces you to provide answers,” he says.

He lists recycling targets and the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive as having “concentrated minds”, and says the tougher standards in the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive would be impossible to operate if they were not pan-European.

While Deben presents some reasons for cheer - he likes current waste minister Lord Taylor and thinks people are now far more conscious about waste - he appears less enamoured with the home front. Indeed, given a blank sheet of paper, it appears he would tear up the existing plans and usher in a new system for waste management.

He cites waste minimisation - he approves of the high plastic packaging recycling targets but wants more done by product designers and retailers - and a shake-up of collections as the priorities for England.

A cornerstone to the Deben blueprint would be to ditch commingled collections. Even the description elicits a chuckle. 

“I am always suspicious of arguments that invent a word which makes its sound much more technical and intelligent than it really is,” he says. “The word commingling, which is just shoving things together, was invented when Britain was fighting not to have legislation in Europe which began to see the end of putting stuff in holes.”

Separate collections, he says, are not “an ideal world but the world that most other civilised countries live in”. Perhaps more importantly, they can underpin better citizenship. He argues: “The moment anybody suggests people ought to take some responsibility, the Daily Mail runs a campaign saying it’s wholly unacceptable.

“It’s not wholly unacceptable. It is necessary and part of decent citizenship. If you want your waste dealt with, the first thing you do is make it sensible so it can be collected in a way that is useful.”

Even so, he argues that certain forms of housing, particularly densely populated urban flats, should be treated differently.

Deben is also among those who believe the current two-tier model, where district councils are responsible for collection and counties for disposal, has led to what he calls a “barmy” predicament whereby neighbours can have completely different criteria for their bin collections. He suggests that counties decide what sort of collections should be run while the districts manage collections and decide which companies run them.

“District councils are too small to create enough of a waste stream to get the best prices,” he says.

“A county can do that. You can have different companies doing the collections but they would be doing so to a standard set by the county council.”

Commercial waste collections - currently carried out by private sector operators unconnected to the council-collected municipal waste - also need a radical overhaul.

First, he says, the commercial/municipal split blocks potentially sensible solutions. For example, if the municipal collector is collecting plastic bottles from houses in an area, would it not be sensible for it to extend this to small businesses?

Second, because contracts are drawn up in an ad hoc way by different businesses, collection is very inefficient.

“We need co-operation so that we collect in a sensible manner. At the moment the lorries will go down a road, miss out five shops, then do one, then miss out four. Then someone else will come down and fill in the gaps. Not a sensible way of doing it.”

He says he would like to see geographically based contracts drawn up to avoid such a situation, perhaps facilitated by councils but certainly not run by them. “I am not dogmatic about how it is done,” he adds.

Deben, like many in the sector, also believes Defra should have more clout and that the current arrangement, whereby responsibility for waste straddles three Whitehall departments, is ended.

He says: “The waste agenda should not be in the ministry of local government. It should be part of the environmental agenda.”

It is worth noting that he is also not impressed by communities secretary Eric Pickles’ “nonsensical” campaign to return councils to weekly collections.

He adds that planning should come back to Defra and that its current home in the Department for Communities and Local Government contravenes EU rules.

“The appeals should be to a different minister,” he says, although he stresses that the current climate is not the time for a departmental restructure: the economy must be the priority.

While on the subject of Whitehall, Deben is not much keen on the Treasury, asserting it has historically been full of so-called climate change deniers. But he remains somewhat indebted to Ken Clarke, who was chancellor when he was trying to get the landfill tax through Parliament in the 1990s. Such a policy shift faced substantial opposition in Whitehall.

“We invented the landfill tax and civil servants played a big part, but it was really done by Ken and I. Ken had a real understand-ing of dealing with litter, and that aspect of it was because of his enthusiasm for bird watching.

“That was a very important part of it. He stood up to his civil servants, none of whom really wanted it.”

At present, Deben’s views chime more with senior industry figures than with those prevalent in Whitehall.

It will be interesting to see how long it will takes before the Whitehall conventionalists accept that it is perhaps time for another seismic game changer, like the landfill tax, if we are to properly fortify ourselves against the ever-deepening resource crunch on a global scale.

Lord Deben’s waste blueprint

  • Minimise waste: increase packaging targets to make manufacturers and retailers more aware of packaging disposal costs. Improve construction and design of products so that they are more easily reused or recycled.
  • Scrap commingled collections: separate collections achieve better recycling rates and foster “decent citizenship”.
  • Shake up the structure of waste collections to a more “geographical model”.
  • Ditch attempts to make councils return to “nonsensical” weekly bin rounds.
  • Restructure Whitehall to give Defra total control over the waste agenda and planning.   
  • Roll out more incentivisation schemes so that recycling agenda is more about carrot than stick with residents.
  • Change council waste targets from weight to percentage so the focus is on collecting the more difficult waste streams rather than focusing on inert waste streams such as garden waste, which are heavy but less dangerous to the environment.

Lord Deben CV

John Gummer became Conservative MP for Lewisham West in 1970, and landed his first Government role as private parliamentary secretary to Jim Prior as minister of agriculture, fisheries and food in 1971-72.

He subsequently held several ministerial positions, most notably secretary of state for the environment from 1993-97. A passionate Europhile, he also chaired the Conservative Group for Europe from 1997-2000.

Lord Deben has recently been selected as the preferred candidate to succeed Lord Turner as chair of Parliament’s committee on climate change. He also sits on numerous boards of companies in the waste and green energy sectors including chairing Veolia UK, Valpak and offshore wind company Forewind.

He also chairs the Vision 2020 panel, a group of leading waste industry experts lobbying for better efforts to be made to eradicate food waste from landfill by 2020.

He was raised to Baron Deben of Winston in the County of Suffolk in 2010.

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