Newcastle City Council has set up a commission to solve the city’s waste problem. It is the branchild of the council’s cabinet member for neighbourhoods and regulatory services, Nick Kemp.
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How did the idea come about and how did you persuade people to become involved in the Newcastle Waste Commission?
I felt that we needed to look at things in a markedly different way. Probably most importantly, the thing that drove it for me was that waste and recycling exists for the city not just the city council. I wanted to create something that wasn’t part of the council behemoth but sat strategically across the whole city.
We are speaking to everyone, so we are looking at construction waste, hospital trusts and so on.
It came to me, as all good ideas do, as I was sat in the pub. Having had numerous conversations with a lot of people who had different levels of knowledge and experience on waste, I came to the conclusion that I for one didn’t have the answers.
It struck me that we had always looked at the challenges from one perspective. Let’s not reinvent the wheel – there is a raft of experts across the country and lots of examples of good practice.
I had a hit list and took an officer with me around the country to set up meetings. The immediate response from each of the commissioners was refreshing. They were clearly excited and interested in the approach we were adopting. Colin Church, who as a former Defra civil servant has intimate knowledge of how central and local government works, was my first commissioner, which set the bar high.
“The purpose is to stimulate debate and to get arguments from all sides. It is operating in a similar manner to a select committee.”
How do you deal with competing interests, for instance those who back and those who oppose incinerators?
It’s really a matter for the commission. I do know it has considered a lot of evidence pointing to the best treatment options for waste. The purpose is to stimulate debate and to get arguments from all sides. It is operating in a similar manner to a select committee.
I would hope that its report will set out a series of proposals and the possible impact of those. My wish is that there would be a suite of solutions and their impact, including cost. With Heidi Mottram as chair, I have no doubt it will be based entirely on pragmatism.
Separate, but aligned, is Newcastle council’s refreshed statutory waste strategy. Our newly appointed waste officer is going through that process, and we are trying to harness the work of the commission into examining the value of secondary markets.
What would constitute success compared with the cost of setting up the commission?
Around 300,000 people have been involved in the discussions. The main cost is officer time because we are the secretariat. As far as long-term success is concerned, it’s about changing behaviour in the city, the best waste treatment options and a far better understanding of the waste streams produced. Generating less waste would be a success, as well as recycling and reusing more.
We are close to securing a North Tyne devolution deal, and waste is a clear oven-wrapped opportunity. It would give us greater potential leverage to engage better with Tees Valley.
Could other such commissions be set up across the UK?
Absolutely. Our commissioners have seen this as innovative and given their time freely. So many people that we approached have been keen to share their best practice – it doesn’t have to be expensive and other authorities could take note.
This is such an important issue and has such an impact societally and economically in every city and town, so I sense that other commissions could be created very easily. I hope we have flown the flag for the art of the possible, and that we will have changed the way waste is discussed in England.
Commission in focus
The Newcastle Waste Commission held its first meeting in April. It conducted a series of workshops and meetings during the summer, and invited input from across the city. It is independent of the council.
A report to be issued towards the end of the year will make recommendations on how to reduce the 142,000 tonnes of waste produced every year. Newcastle has an in-house recycling service, and its recycling rate fell last year to 39%.
The commissioners are: Heidi Mottram, chief executive of Northumbrian Water Group (chair); Dr Colin Church, chief executive, Chartered Institution of Wastes Management; Ben Webster, environment editor, The Times; Marie Fallon, director of regulated industry, Environment Agency; Peter Maddox, director of government programmes, WRAP; Paul Taylor, chief executive, FCC Environment; and Andrew Griffiths, head of environmental sustainability, Nestle UK and Ireland.