Gavin Shuker, who holds Labour’s waste and water briefs, speaks enthusiastically about the resources industry, littering his responses to MRW questions with buzzwords such as “ambitious”, “one voice” and “win-win”.
He is a relaxed interviewee, joking that he “looks about 12” in photographs, and describing the end of term law-making in Whitehall as “ping-pong between us and the Lords”.
But a flash of frustration unsettles his otherwise cool exterior when I ask about the absence of any mention in Labour’s recent waste policy review of banning specific materials from landfill. Does this mean the party is backtracking on the idea?
“We’re not backtracking from anything,” Shuker says, emphatically. “We are heading full steam ahead when it comes to building an economy that works for working people.”
He explains that Labour is trying to engage with the “hearts and minds stuff” around the waste and resources economy, to promote its benefits as a profit sector, before hunkering down to the details of specific bans or targets.
Labour’s Resource Security Policy Review - colloquially referred to as its waste policy review - reflects this. Published last month, it is a slim eight pages long and does not contain many detailed policy ideas, apart from raising municipal recycling targets in England to 70% by 2025. Instead, it sets out many areas to explore.
Shuker continues: “This isn’t an empty document. For example, it is not a document saying let’s add a couple of quid on the landfill tax escalator and let the market sort it out for itself. We are looking right across Government and asking what we can do.”
He also calls the document a “stepping stone” and a “baseline” for further consulting work. He says specific policies will be revealed in the 18 months leading up to the 2015 General Election.
“We need a tough regime. Why are we not checking containers when they come out of the back of MRFs rather than when they get loaded on to ships?”
Shuker appears happier discussing ideas to shape future policy: “I am very open to looking at a residual waste target, for example. I’m looking to see what you can do to boost the quality of leadership in local government - because that is really important for us [to achieve] these targets. And I’m open to using regulation to stimulate the market.”
The waste policy review states that Labour will be looking at improving skills and training for the sector. One idea that fires up Shuker is building a specialised centre to pair academic study with the industry.
He says: “I went to see a brilliant facility called Water at Leeds [WaterAtLeeds.org], which brings together practitioners in different disciplines across the industry. [It made me think] where is the ‘Waste at Nottingham’, for example?”
He is also enthused by reuse: “it’s a massive win-win and it employs people”. He quotes examples of the Salvation Army and furniture reuse schemes to illustrate the economic benefits that the third sector can bring.
On exports of recyclate, Shuker says: “We need a tough regime. Why are we not checking containers when they come out of the back of MRFs rather than when they get loaded on to ships? We know the number of MRFs that we have and we have got existing relationships there - we could be doing more.”
An older idea, which has been touted on previous occasions, is to have an office of resource security to co-ordinate waste and recycling policy across Whitehall. Shuker says it could carry out long-term forecasting on the amount of capacity that is required in the UK and to highlight infrastructure gaps.
MRW points out that such an office is not mentioned in the waste policy review document. Shuker responds: “If a better idea comes along, why would we want to exclude it?”
As for the ban on food to landfill that shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh previously mooted, Shuker says he is “very warm” to the idea. “Done in the right way, you could challenge the perception that the black bin is here for ever. Digging holes in the ground and sticking stuff in them is not a very smart way to manage our resources.”
Shuker says: “One of my first acts as waste minister, if I get the opportunity, will be to say, within Defra, what more can we do to make sure that we are a valuable resource across Whitehall and making sure that all Government departments are thinking about waste and resources? We know that our long-term growth is entwined with our access to decent materials.”
He is also keen to reform the PRN/PERN system if he gets into power: “It’s about creating a level playing field, which is why, if Defra ministers do not review it in this parliament, I’ll be reviewing it in Government.”
Overall, Shuker is critical of the coalition Government’s actions on waste policy, as you would expect of a shadow minister in opposition. He calls the 2011 waste review a “wasted opportunity”, and rails against Defra cutting the size of its waste team by more than a quarter and the department as a whole taking disproportionately large budget cuts than others across Whitehall.
He adds: “We have had a succession of waste and resources ministers - none of whom has been in post long enough to even learn their brief. I know this because I have shadowed three of them.”
He thinks Defra is fantastic at science but is missing political leadership and, as a consequence, other European countries are better placed to build investor confidence in the sector.
In its waste policy review document, Labour criticises a lack of clarity in messages from the Government on issues around environmental regulation. It points the finger at chancellor George Osborne saying ” we will not go further than other nations in environmental sustainability”.
Shuker is concerned by the planning policies articulated by Tory politicians such as local government minister Eric Pickles and Caroline Spelman, former secretary of state for the environment. He says they removed the sense of intelligent design from the planning system by ripping up regional development agencies, removing the Infrastructure Commission and the concept of regional spatial planning.
“It becomes very difficult to bring communities along with you when they see an energy from waste plant spring up six miles away from the next one - both of which are creating a massive demand for waste and resources, which perhaps could even go to another technology and be used more efficiently,” he says.
However, Shuker praises the Government’s MRF Code of Practice consultation, calling it an achievement. He argues that action is now needed to make the regulation one that delivers benefits. For Shuker, the absence of “ministerial follow through” to take such action has been the biggest wasted opportunity of this parliament.
Gavin Shuker CV
Gavin Shuker is the Labour MP for Luton South and the youngest member of the opposition front bench team in this Parliament. He studied social and political science at Girton College, Cambridge. Elected in May 2010, he was initially parliamentary private secretary to Sadiq Khan, shadow justice secretary. Shuker was appointed to the shadow Defra front bench team in March 2011. In the October 2011 reshuffle, he became shadow minister for water and waste.
In opposition: a strong voice for sustainability
“If Labour inherits the next government in 2015, there is not a lot of money to go around. It will be the initiatives that can create growth that will be prioritised. I’m certain of that,” says Shuker.
“So there is no alternative to an economy which is sustainable. Waste and resources have a lot to offer there, but it needs a strong voice at the centre of it, making that case. And Mary Creagh and the rest of the environment team have been making that case for the past three years.
“Sometimes the debate around this stuff becomes about what would you ban, what target would you set, where does the money come in. And, actually, there is a stage before that, which is the heart and minds stuff, which says that waste and resources can be a profit sector in our economy, not a cost.
“For me, that is the heavy lifting I have been trying to do in the past 18 months. Not just in the sector but with my colleagues across Whitehall departments.
“In opposition, we lack the resources to go through each individual energy-from-waste scheme. So when communities are understandably concerned about developments, I want to be clear that I am part of the responsible opposition who is not just going to turn up on the doorstep and say we will be fighting with you against this initiative. We have national priorities and national needs.
“I haven’t just visited MRFs or recycling facilities. I have done around 50 visits looking at new technologies - from those that are mature technologies to two lads in a shed who have knocked something up that they think is going to change the industry.
“All have different concerns, but one thing uniting them is they all believe that the Government has a role to play.”