Few MPs have better first-hand experience of the emotion waste issues can provoke in the British voter than the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee’s (Efra’s) current chair, Anne McIntosh.
Few MPs have better first-hand experience of the emotion that waste issues can provoke in the British voter than the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra)Committee’s current chair Anne McIntosh.
In 2010, then Conservative MP for Vale of York, she suffered the misfortune of having a half pint of beer poured over her head by an irate constituent.
The issue which sparked the extreme act by the Conservative voter was a proposed incinerator.
Now, nearly a year on from publication of the Government’s waste review, what is the Efra chair’s verdict on how the overarching strategy is shaping up?
Sitting in an immaculate pink suit and staring over her specs as she composes her answer, it appears McIntosh is not in the mood to upset too many of her ministerial colleagues, in the first instance at least.
She scores prime minister David Cameron a generous “six or seven out of ten” for his efforts on building the UK’s ‘greenest Government’, but does not take the opportunity to criticise any part of Defra’s waste review, despite its widely perceived lack of ambition.
“There is an appetite to do some work on waste, but we are waiting until the review of waste policy has reached its conclusion,” she says. “Our work has been pretty much pre-determined for the first two years but I’m hopeful it can get a bit more relaxed.”
The Efra chair has the power, should she choose to wield it, to thrust waste into the limelight. Select committees, which shadow each Whitehall department, can propel issues up the news agenda, as illustrated by the Culture, Media and Sports Committee’s recent inquiry into phone hacking by journalists.
It would be naive to think that the Efra committee could make as a big a splash as the hacking inquiry, and the sector could well do without some of the adverse publicity such sessions can generate. But with a recent Associate Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group report estimating that the nation’s waste infrastructure is in need of an £8bn upgrade by 2020, the sector could well do with a profile raiser.
MRW caught up with the long-standing MP, now representing Thirsk and Malton, in the Houses of Parliament’s bustling central lobby. Wandering through the Palace of Westminster towards one of its idiosyncratic wood-panelled meeting rooms, McIntosh appears open and personable, an impression aided by her decision to turn up without the often-obligatory senior politician’s shield, a press officer.
She admits in a somewhat apologetic tone that the committee has been “rather holding fire” on waste. Much of this she attributes to scheduling issues: she reels off a list of inquiries and evidence sessions which have been undertaken since she took up the post nearly two years ago.
But an evidence session on waste towards the end of this year may be possible, she notes, while stressing her understanding of the sector’s importance.
As McIntosh flits from topic to topic, trying to cram in as many of her views on a wide range of subjects into our allotted time, a common thread emerges.
Her views on waste are largely driven by her other great passions: the countryside, her constituency and her family. Green energy is a case in point. Subsidies for wind farms, which she says blight areas of natural beauty, should be cut and handed to biomass projects instead.
“All the arguments seem to be stacked against wind farms. If you were drafting a renewable policy you would not start with wind farms,” she says. “I am very excited that the prime minister said the Government is minded to reduce the subsidy on wind farms, and that leaves the door open to increasing the subsidy on producing biomass.”
The subsidy for biomass would help Drax to expand the Selby power station, which would in turn create more employment in North Yorkshire and help farmers in her area who grow potential biomass feedstock.
McIntosh also talks passionately about the need for a cash ban on scrap metal, which seems largely driven by damage to church roofs and other community monuments in her constituency.
Another clear driver for her views on waste comes down to her family background. Her Danish heritage may explain why she neglected to take the oft-regarded easy vote winner of opposing an incinerator in her own back yard and ended up drenched in beer as a result.
“Denmark has been incinerating since my aunt and uncle’s house was built in the 1960s,” she says. “The community opportunity was that people got reduced cost hot water and underground heating.”
McIntosh says she wants a “much wider public debate and a public education exercise” on energy-from-waste, adding that she would like the committee to “look at it and possibly take evidence”, if time permits. Both the Environmental Services Association and Renewable Energy Association said they would welcome such a session as a chance to dispel some of the myths which surround the technology.
As our discussion draws to a close, it seems remiss not to ask about the topic of weekly bin collections which has caught the attentions of the national media. And here she is prepared to go against a Tory minister.
She says communities secretary Eric Pickles, who has long campaigned to banish alternate weekly collections, must “live by his own Localism Act” and allow councils to make the decisions. She has not “detected any appetite” from residents in her constituency to move back to a weekly collection despite the community secretary’s much-trumpeted Weekly Collections Support Scheme fund.
“There is nothing in my mail bag [about returning to weekly collections]. It is something that Eric is very passionate about, but let the local councils decide - that is what the Localism Act is about,” she says.
As we wrap up, the MP again stresses her desire to place waste on the Efra committee’s agenda, and it would appear that a huge opportunity will be missed if the waste industry does not help turn desire into reality.
But the sector’s leadership groups can be assured that their lobbying efforts will be received by a politician whose views are already broadly aligned with their own.
CV: Anne McIntosh
- McIntosh went to school at Harrogate Ladies College, before crossing borders to study law at the universities of Edinburgh and Aarhus
- in Denmark. She was unsuccessful in a bid to win the seat of Workington, Cumbria, for the Conservatives in 1987, but made it into the House of Commons 10 years later, winning the Vale of York vote.
- She was then elected to the new constituency of Thirsk, Malton and Filey in May 2010, and appointed Efra chair in June 2010.
- She has since shadowed the Department for Education, Work & Pensions; Culture Media and Sport; and the Foreign Office, and held a raft of backbench roles including sitting on the executive of the Conservative 1922 Committee.