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Big Interview: Minister gets his hands dirty

Nearly 30 years in the Territorial Army has given Lord de Mauley a military-like approach to his current role as resource minister: “A logical thought process: aim, factors, courses open, plan.”

Such a strategy is evident in the way the minister answers questions. He knows what he wants to put across, is focused, and is not overly keen to digress into hypothetical scenarios.

De Mauley described his ideal situation in the UK as one where substantially less waste is created in the first place, and products are designed for reuse and recycling. On top of that, he said: “Councils [will] have made reuse and recycling easy for people, and whatever is left after what has been reused or recycled [should go] to efficient energy generation, broadly speaking. And so mass landfill, waste on the roadsides and fly-tipping would be a distant memory.”

If his number one ‘ask’ is for waste prevention, what is the role for the waste and recycling sector as we move up the waste hierarchy? “The industry is going to be most interested by the reuse and recycling, EfW bit,” he said. “The prevention comes in the design end of the industry.” He uses the example of designers working with WRAP to reduce packaging, using refill bottles, or buying smaller portions to cut waste.

The Waste Prevention Programme, which will set a national strategy, is due to be published by Defra towards the end of the year. De Mauley sees the programme as a big part of the Government’s efforts to set the right conditions for industry and local authorities to take action.

He explicitly professed his support for the circular economy for the first time at the CIWM conference earlier this month, following publication of the Environmental Services Association’s report on the topic the day before. He also complimented WRAP on its work “to support industry on supply chain, waste minimisation and recyclability”.

Designers, those in the waste industry and WRAP have been calling for more cross-disciplinary collaboration with increasing fervour, so de Mauley is firmly in tune with the zeitgeist. But it remains to be seen how WRAP fares after the recent consultation on its future.

Another signal that Defra is listening to the industry is the recent Investor Symposium that brought together industry and Government representatives, as well as investors and banks. De Mauley said Defra had “taken to heart” messages from the waste industry which is frustrated “about consistency, the need for certainty or at least confidence in the long term in so many aspects”.

Two significant recent sources of industry anxiety have been the withdrawal of PFI funding from three residual waste projects and Covanta signalling its intention to leave the UK after failing to secure sufficient feedstock.

De Mauley joked that “some people were even complimentary about things” at the symposium. He said Defra was analysing

feedback from the event, and was already doing some “very good things” for investor confidence. These include supporting WRAP, spending more than £3bn on infrastructure projects and working on the impending MRF Code of Practice.

De Mauley points out that the Green Investment Bank has waste as a priority sector, and corporation tax is coming down from 23% now to 20% by 2015. This will make the UK’s tax joint lowest among the G20 leading economies in a bid to attract overseas investment. Money is also going into apprenticeships, including those in the waste sector.

He said the spending period, which will last a year and details of which are due to be announced on 26 June, will contain “no surprises” for the industry: “Everybody knows, and has known for a long time, that times are hard and this Government was going to bear down hard on the deficit.”

Despite ministers moving to adopt the industry buzzword of the ‘circular economy’ and starting to take the issue of investor confidence in the sector seriously, some people are still disappointed with the lack of ambition in Whitehall for more challenging household recycling targets in England, which could potentially be raised to 80% but are currently planned to be 50% by 2020.

“Any increase in targets has to be thought about really carefully because of all of the unforeseen consequences.”

Both Scotland and Wales have zero waste strategies. Edinburgh is gunning for 70% recycling and a maximum of 5% to landfill for all waste streams by 2025. Cardiff has a target of 70% of household waste by 2024/25.

De Mauley responded cautiously on England’s recycling rates: “It is absolutely my ambition to get to recycle as much as we possibly can. Having said that, to do so immediately costs money and also costs in terms of regulatory burden. Any increase in targets has to be thought about really carefully because of all of the unforeseen consequences.”

The minister wishes to reduce the onus of regulation on businesses in our time of “highly constrained resources”. One instance is Defra’s producer responsibility coherence consultation, which aimed to reduce the costs and administrative burden on regulated producers. But the consultation did not include the key issue of reform of the PRN/PERN system, which industry chiefs have complained discriminates against domestic reprocessors.

De Mauley said in a recent speech at the launch of the Local Government Association’s waste review that he intended to explore whether changes were needed to the system. But when pressed to elaborate with details, he was uncertain and asked a spokesman from his office to respond.

The spokesman said later via email: “We are undertaking a separate exercise to consider potential amendments to the PRN/PERN system, which will be part of a consultation on amendments to the Packaging Regulations. This will take forward the ‘coherence issues’ and specific packaging related issues such as PRN/PERN in the autumn.”

This statement surely puts to bed uncertainty about whether a much-anticipated review of the PRN system would take place in this term of Government. But the proof will be in what is implemented before the general election in 2015.

“[MRF code] looking quite good now… it looked at one stage as if it was going to be quite difficult to get a consensus”.

But there is less clarity on the subject of banning food waste from landfill, an idea that has been proposed by Labour in the past and was revived by Tory former environment secretary Lord Debden at the CIWM conference.

On one hand, de Mauley is clear that he wants to see food waste dealt with: “We need to create less food waste in the first place. That’s good for family budgets, but there are inevitably going to be some chicken bones or whatever that need to go to anaerobic digestion (AD).”

But when asked if a ban from landfill would be needed if statutory food waste targets become a reality, as recently mooted by the UK’s International Development Committee, he said: “I am very cautious about bans on anything, but there may be a case in due course. It is certainly something we will bear in mind but would need to be looked at extremely carefully.”

Another area that Defra has worked with industry on has been the MRF Code of Practice in a bid to improve the quality of recyclate. De Mauley expresses his excitement about the code, which he said is “looking quite good now… it looked at one stage as if it was going to be quite difficult to get a consensus”.

He said one of the key ways of fulfilling his vision for waste was to generate more demand for recyclate from manufacturers. He commented that “a big problem has been that we can’t rely on the quality” so the MRF code should help overcome this issue.

De Mauley also underlined his call for councils to take action to improve recycling rates by working together. He said: “Many waste collection contracts are legacy contracts and they are from a different age. They are not structured for what we want to see: to get more recycling and to make recycling easier for people. If we can get them [councils] together, it will mean they have much better negotiating power to achieve better contracts.”

A further strategic prong to achieve his vision is enforcement. “We are helping the Environment Agency target more effectively, whether we give them access to HM Revenue & Customs data… [and] we are working with the Sentencing Council to ensure [appropriate] fines for the dumping of waste to really deter illegal dumping.”

Apart from what has been achieved in the eight months he has been in the resource office at Defra, de Mauley said his highlights have been getting his hands dirty “in ways that are both metaphorical and real”, by visiting MRFs, plastic bottle recyclers and opening an AD plant.


Rupert Charles Ponsonby, 55, went to Eton College.

In 1976 he joined the Territorial Army, and retired in 2005 as a lieutenant-colonel.

In 2002 he succeeded his uncle as the 7th Baron de Mauley and gained the hereditary title Lord de Mauley.

In 2005 he was declared the winner of a by-election for a seat as a Conservative hereditary peer in the House of Lords. He was the first hereditary peer to have an elective seat after the House of Lords Act 1999.

He was a Government Lord-in-Waiting (a position in the royal household given to Government whips in the Lords) and also served as a shadow minister for children, schools and families, and energy and climate change. He became parliamentaryundersecretary at Defra in September 2012.

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