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The Big Interview: Steve Lee

This will be the last RWM for Steve Lee as chief executive of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management, who is stepping down this autumn after 13 years. MRW editor Robin Latchem posed the questions.

How do you look back on your time at the CIWM?

In retrospect, it took me a while to find my feet, to grow into the job. But it’s fantastic how the waste industry has continued to open out and get more interesting every year, and how the role of chief executive of the CIWM allows you to be engaged in all of that. I think I’ve been really lucky.

What did you encounter that you hadn’t expected to?

How about culture change? It had a lot of culture of its own. I came into the CIWM when it was still totally engaged in the annual event at Torbay [now joined with RWM], and you would be amazed how many people still talk to me in gushing terms: “Oh, one more show, Steve, one more show – let’s go back to Torbay.” But it isn’t just CIWM that has grown up in these past 13 years, the whole industry around us has grown up.

What about the balance between the private and public sectors? Because your membership embraces all, can that cause conflict?

I’ll agree to that, but it’s one of the great things about the organisation: it’s streaked throughout the body of the whole industry. It breaks down into neat quarters – the public sector, private industry, consultancy and then every­body else, from teaching hospitals through to meat pie manufacturers. But its breadth is its strength as well. In an organisation that broad, we can gouge each other’s eyes out on almost any topic you like. Some argue that energy recovered from waste is an abso­lute must, and we must do it this way, but others think that energy from waste is actually the enemy of waste preven­tion and recycling. You have get your head around the fact that, as chief executive, it is your job to help the institution bridge those interests and say, “OK, this is quite an interesting point; some of our members feel like this, some of our members feel like that.” But the real gold dust in there is when you can say, “above that, what is it that our members really wholeheart­edly buy into?”

‘When I first came into this job, was it really seen as our place to influence the worlds of manufacturing, retail or the designers of goods and services?’

To what extent do you think your out­going personality has shaped the post?

Well, the CIWM has to be outgoing and personable as well. It’s never going to be able to deliver its promise if it is folded into itself as an organisation. The whole point is to gather the body of knowledge that’ s in our members’ heads, to synthe­sise it and to communicate it, because the key to success is to alter the way peo­ple think and, crucially, the things they actually do. To do that, you’ve got to be a communicator. So the CIWM, its chief executive, many of its senior members, and pretty much all of its employees have got to be prepared to communi­cate. It’s all about influence.

You’ve got two or three big player organisations in the sector – the Envi­ronmental Services Association (ESA) and yourselves, for example – and there are overlaps and potential con­flicts. In the past year it does not seem to have been quite such a collective effort than the year before, when you were doing your Resource and Waste UK (R&W UK) partnership.

That’s an interesting perception; R&W UK is still alive and well. We’re still doing exactly what we said we would do when we set the thing up. We are look­ing for big, unifying messages. Across the industry, I think it’s one of the best changes that I’ve seen in the past five to six years.

Most organisations recognise that they don’t sit on all the information; they don’t hold all the understanding or the contacts. If we are going to influence successfully upwards, into govern­ments, Europe and outwards into other sectors, and then down through our own sector, we are only going to do that by partnership.

So what sort of partnerships are we in? We’re a member of the trade associ­ations group. We’re working closely with the ESA, the Resource Association and the Anaerobic Digestion &Bioresources Association. We’re looking for those high level messages. There is no space on the pitch for people erecting walls, defending them and saying, “we’ll be safe behind them”. We’ve got to work together because there is so much that we’ve got to achieve.

(NB: After this interview it was confirmed that Lee would retain his leadership of R&WUK as director general in a part-time capacity)

But there is a danger, when markets get tight and margins get cut, that an organisation has to look at its mem­bers’ interests first. So you can see how it might be that, if a recession hit for example, interests would become more insular.

Actually, I can see that being more rele­vant between trade associations, because one set of market conditions might favour one technology or one end of the business compared with another. I’ll go back to the point that I made about the incredibly broad church that CIWM is. I’ve got as much discord in terms of policy agreement within the CIWM as I have outside, so that perhaps puts us in a unique position to be a good partner with all of these people.

Has the CIWM changed much in the years you’ve been there?

Yes, it has. There are far more people to try to influence. When I first came into this job, was it really seen as our place to influence the worlds of manufacturing, retail or designers of goods and services? It was probably unheard of and it cer­tainly wasn’t on our radar.

Five years ago – this is a horrible admission – I’d never even heard of the Royal Society of Arts’ sustainable design initiatives. Now I do know they exist, we’ve had quite an interesting discus­siondiscus­sion with them. We can see that other parts of the materials and product cycle have got just as much influence on how resources are used in the first place, how they’re presented as products, how long those products will last, whether they’re repairable, whether they can be disas­sembled when they’re finished so that we can pump those materials back into the market. Designers have got as much respon­sibility as the manufacturers, the retail­ers, ourselves and the reprocessors do.

Those conversations were non-exist­ent five years ago. These are the very early days. I wouldn’t say that we’ve got it perfect but we’ve started, and it sets the pattern for at least the next 25 years.

Where has the CIWM got to get to in the next 10 years?

It has got to keep working on developing relationships around the resources cycle. We have got to talk to designers and manufacturers. We are picking up mem­bers and we are delivering services topeople outside of the core industry.

When I first started, who did the CIWM train? It trained people already in the industry, public and private sec­tor. Now, there is probably a majority of our delegates from what you might call our customer sectors: retail, manufac­turing, construction and demolition.

That’s a mark of success, as far as I’m concerned – people recognising that they need to understand the rules to the game, pick up information and skills.

But that doesn’t mean we should not continue the fight to develop member­ship within the core sector. The more members we’ve got, inside and outside the sector, the bigger the body of knowl­edge, the more value there is to our opinion and the more good we can do. Develop, develop, develop.

We’ve got an enormous gear change to go through, and there are some big concepts out there waiting to be discussed and waiting to be used”

I sense within the industry that it has been quite hard to get on with minis­ters in recent years. Is there a frustra­tion, not a personal one for you, but within the industry that we haven’t been able to get the message across?

The market has toughened, and the approach by governments hasn’t so much toughened as diversified. I was quite surprised how quickly devolution across the UK started to bite into the policies and the direction of the four UK governments.

We’ve seen some really good stuff come out of, first the Welsh, and now the Scots certainly have got their think­ing sharpened. They have got some work to do to turn their thinking into action and the action into demonstrable performance, but there is some really good stuff coming out of there. I was grown-up enough to say, “this is good”.

The fact that we’ve got four gov­ernments sparking off with their own ideas, borrowing from each other and saying, “I could use that, I’ve got some­thing that fits in with that,” I say it’s bril­liant. But, disappointingly, I think we haven’t seen the thinking come any­where near as far forwards in England.

It is true there are some things Eng­land should be recognised for. The work on combatting waste crime is good. I might wish that they had started on it five years ago, but its good and deserves recognition. The work that the resources minister is putting into harmonising collection practices across local author­ities may well turn out to be rather more difficult than he had originally hoped but, good on you, more of that, please.

What has been the one thing you would have done differently, or you could change, either personally or to do with the organisation?

We have got to continue to modernise. We need to modernise how we work, our internal structures and how we gain best advantage of that body of knowledge in members’ heads.

If there is one thing I would have done differently in my 13 years is tried to push the accelerator a little bit harder. Organisations as complex as ours can only modernise at a certain rate; they move forward by consensus.

The CIWM has moved forward a long way. I’m not very good at looking back but, sometimes when you do, it does you good and you think, “wow, we’ve come a long way from where we were,” in terms of our constitution, how we make deci­sions, how we communicate. I think we have moved forward well, but if I could have my 13 years again, I think I might have moved a bit faster.

So what would your message be to the members, as you eventually leave?

We have come an enormous way. We are recognised around Europe for having been one of the fastest developers. We have achieved a lot. The next 13 years, potentially, there is even more to be gained. This could be the most exciting period that our industry and our cus­tomers are ever going to live through in that respect.

We’ve got an enormous gear change to go through, and there are some big concepts out there waiting to be dis­cussed and waiting to be used, at least at a European level. Things like how far can we push extended producer respon­sibility? How far will governments be prepared to push fiscal measures, instruments, incentives, new forms of taxation?

It is going to be a real kick forwards on how, not just our sector, works but how society and businesses and people who make stuff and purvey stuff and use stuff – they are all going to go through a change. And about time too because we can’t go on as we are.

I think the Government is really hop­ing that the circular economy (CE) might just deliver itself. It thinks more mouths on the planet, more middle class consumers, more stuff needed, will drive resource-efficient design, manu­facture and use, and will drive materials back around the industrial cycle. Yes, beam me up, Scotty.

There will be so many people – water, food and important materials will only go so far. As an industry we’ve got to cope with our customers. Life has always been like that, but you can’t take your eyes off the prize.

I think the CE will deliver itself in the very long term. But if we want it to hap­pen faster, we need support from gov­ernments and they have to intervene in the market. Do governments have a good track record in intervening in markets? A lot of people would say no.

It needs to be very carefully thought through. If it is done consistently by governments, and on as broad a basis as possible, then we stand a chance of success.

Lee’s thoughts since the referendum vote to leave the EU

Direction of travel must shadow Europe

In the short term, the industry will continue to operate in much the same way as before. The (predominantly) EU legislation and targets that have shaped it will remain in force for at least as long as the timeframe for the exit negotiations – and how long is a piece of string?

In the long term, the desired direction of travel must also surely remain the same.

We are facing a resource-constrained future, and the imperative to move towards greater resource efficiency and security to protect the long-term future of the UK, both in environmental and economic terms, should be at the top of the agenda.

UK policy in areas such as the environment may end up broadly tracking EU policy, tweaked to suit our particular needs. Alternatively, we may see a strong deregulatory or ‘green sceptic’ scenario emerging and then all bets might be off.

The best thing we can do is to come together, pool our knowledge and expertise, and present the Government with our vision for the future. After all, as Defra minister Rory Stewart said recently, we are the ones who best understand what needs to be done and how to do it.

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