During the past few years, LondonEnergy has been undergoing a period of transformation. Managing director Peter Sharpe joined the company in August 2015 and, in September 2017, the business rebranded from LondonWaste to LondonEnergy.
The name change was to help reflect “the future rather than the past”, and to make the connection clearer between the role the company played in both generating energy and saving energy through reuse and recycling.
“But it wasn’t just about a name change,” Sharpe explains. “It was about modernising the company in terms of how we operate – everything from terms and conditions, remuneration packages, benefits, training and development – and moving the company to being much more progressive and modern. Investing not just in bits of kit but investing in the staff as well.”
This programme of change has included all the managers undergoing training and achieving Chartered Management Institute level 3 management standards. The business has also introduced a major campaign on safety behaviours called ‘Start Safely’. And all staff now have the same terms and conditions, so everyone has 28 days’ leave a year plus bank holidays, as well as private medical care.
LondonEnergy is already seeing measurable change. Its accident frequency graph shows a steady decline during the past three years since the start of the safety campaign, while its reporting indicators in this area have increased, reflecting its work to make employees feel confident enough to report matters in the first place.
“People feel very comfortable now to talk about safety, to intervene and go ‘are we sure?’ and to question, which is what you want – this no-blame culture,” says Sharpe.
“I come from aviation – I flew in the army and had 20 years of flying, and aviation has a no-blame culture – an honesty about ‘I did this and it didn’t go quite right’. Such an honest culture is what we have tried to bring here.”
He adds that, on safety, LondonEnergy has benchmarked itself against other sectors, such as construction and offshore oil and gas, “which have very leading safety cultures – and that is where we want to take ourselves”.
A lot of time has also been spent on multi-skilling staff in the energy centre in preparation for the replacement energy-from-waste (EfW) plant.
The new EfW facility: construction on an operating site
the new EfW plant at Edmonton, which will replace the existing one, is being delivered by the NLWA. Construction is due to take place in 2022-24, but physical work started last year, including ground investigation. A compost centre is currently being decommissioned because the space needs to be cleared for the new development.
Sharpe explains that there is a “close interface” between the NLWA and LondonEnergy on the plant because the construction work is happening on the Edmonton site while it remains operational.
As LondonEnergy will operate the new facility, it also has a role in supporting the authority in the design and tendering process. Sharpe explains: “It is very much the NLWA’s project, but what we seek to do is ensure that the interfaces for the construction work smoothly and safely.”
The replacement plant will be a 700,000 tonne a year facility and is due to start commissioning in December 2025. There will also be a new HWRC on-site, making Edmonton open to the public for the first time. There will also be an education centre and a district heat centre, built with the intention of serving the new Enfield Council Meridian Water development which will be located nearby.
Aside from being 50 years more modern than the current EfW plant and having a greater capacity, the new facility will have two boilers and one turbine compared with the current five boilers and four main turbines. It will also have “world-beating” emissions standards.
Sharpe explains that the increased capacity reflects the predicted growth in population of north London, and takes into account a reduced level of waste generation per head.
“We have this clear ambition to become a great place to work,” says Sharpe. He adds that, in terms of diversity in the workforce, the company is “very diverse in terms of black and minority ethnic [people]” but, “when I started, 6% of the workforce was female; now we are up to just over 10% and we want to be up to 30%”.
Asked if the business has set itself specific targets in this area, Sharpe responds: “I think you have to. There are arguments against it but, if you don’t set yourself something to be measured against, you will always find an excuse not to achieve it. They are targets that set out a direction of travel.”
He adds: “You only generate the candidates you can generate, but you have to work to generate them. You can’t just throw your hands up and say ‘well, only 12% of engineering graduates are female’. Go out and find them, and encourage them to come here in an attractive place to work.
“People say to me that only the likes of Google and Facebook can be great places to work – well, why can’t a company like ours be a good place to work?”
“Similarly, you can complain about the standard of graduates or the standard of apprentices, but you also need to take responsibility for helping with that. We try and do what we can to help with STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] teaching in north London. We have a host of engineers here, so we try not to just go ‘oh, there are no female graduates’ – we get into schools and enthuse them about a career.
“People say to me that only the likes of Google and Facebook can be great places to work – well, why can’t a company like ours be a good place to work? Yes, we have heavy operations to do and things like that, but we can still be a good place to work, we can still care. There is no reason why you can’t value your staff and invest in them.”
He says the first recognition that the company was going in the right direction was at the end of last year, when the North London Waste Authority (NLWA) announced that LondonEnergy was going to be the operator for the EfW plant, “which wasn’t always [the case], certainly when I started here”.
- It is a private company that is wholly owned by the NLWA. The authority is therefore effectively the shareholder and it is also LondonEnergy’s principal client.
- It has an independent board, runs itself and reports to the shareholder. A client liaison deals with the waste authority as a client.
- It handles all the NLWA’s municipal waste. It has several facilities, the main one being the Eco Park at Edmonton, which houses the EfW plant and back-room functions.
- The EfW plant handles about 550,000 tonnes a year and produces enough electricity to power just over 80,000 homes. It receives a combination of direct deliveries of waste from local boroughs and transfers in waste from its two large transfer stations at Hornsey Street and Hendon.
- The current EfW plant is also able to draw on waste streams from outside the waste authority. It will take in material from Hertfordshire and east London. In addition, it will occasionally take in low-volume, high-value waste streams from council trading standards departments if they are disposing of counterfeit goods or confidential wastes from various embassies or consulates. The plant also recycles its bottom ash after the metals are extracted; during the past three to five years, this has gone into the M25 widening project. It is currently exploring options for recycling the fly ash.
- Edmonton has a bulky waste facility which processes and bulks up material for onward transport to reprocessors.
- The company operates six HWRCs on behalf of the boroughs where the public can take their recyclables, which are separated for reprocessors. There is a reuse shop at the Kings Road site in Waltham Forest, and items suitable for reuse from across the six HWRCs are diverted for sale at the shop.
- Its reuse shop is proving to be a success, and Sharpe says it has a retail measure that 85% of people coming to it will buy something. The authority is keen to have it as a social service. In addition, the company has noticed that members of the public are increasingly coming to the HWRCs and saying “can you reuse this?”
But LondonEnergy did have to prove itself: “Part of that was showing we were ready to operate a new plant because you need different attitudes and approaches.”
He explains that councillors are rightly concerned about factors such as safety and the environment, and the company demonstrated that it was ahead of them in addressing these concerns.
“We are a socially owned company, we are owned by the council taxpayers of north London, and we very much feel that is who we deliver a service to. So you can’t afford to do anything wrong because it is not acceptable for the public, in effect, to own a company that is not operating at the highest standards,” Sharpe says.
A lot of time has been put into safety training across the whole company, but there was a particular focus on this for staff at the household waste recycling centres (HWRCs) because they deal with the public.
Bodycams were introduced for all operators across its recycling centres after an employee was assaulted by a member of the public. Training was given by the Metropolitan Police due to their direct experience of using the equipment. Since their introduction, LondonEnergy has found they have helped to ‘de-escalate’ potential situations where individuals start becoming aggressive. In general, such situations tend to focus around traders, who should be paying to dispose of their waste but are trying to get rid of their waste at the sites for free.
But Sharpe is keen to point out that such situations are “the 1%”, and that “the majority of people who come to our sites are keen to recycle and are keen to be helped by staff ”.
Training for operators at its sites has also included taking staff to reprocessing facilities, so they can see first-hand what happens to the various materials which are collected. Aside from connecting them to the bigger recycling process, and making them appreciate the important role they play in it, it makes them feel part of a team and arms them with the knowledge to answer questions from members or the public – or rebuff suggestions along the lines of “it all goes to landfill anyway”.
Sharpe explains that management of all six HWRCs has just been taken over by a young man who started as an operator at its Summers Lane site and has come up through the business. “We are putting real emphasis on trying to bring talent through the company. People can see him and think ‘I remember him – he was working at Summers Lane and here he is’. He has an infectious enthusiasm – it’s great.”
In the past few years the company has been taking six or seven graduates a year, and Sharpe says the business is leaning towards focusing on graduate apprentices rather than apprentices in the future: “We think that fits our needs.” It has a very high retention of graduates, with only two departures in three years, and its first graduate intake is now coming through into the business. For example, one person is becoming a shift manager and another a capital projects manager.
Sharpe says its graduates “have certainly given something to us” by helping to develop and deliver its graduate recruitment campaign, going to speak at universities and offering pointers as to how best to connect with students and courses.
Part of being a more modern business is to check in on its staff more regularly. LondonEnergy has now carried out three annual employee surveys, and it will soon be introducing a monthly question for staff to answer to “take the temperature” of the workforce.
Sharpe says: “We did a big values exercise, which wasn’t me going ‘this is what the values are’. We spent a year, with workshops across the company, asking what people’s values were as individuals and then what did that mean for the company they worked for?
“So the values have come from the bottom up. We asked everyone. We came out with these values at the end of last year: be safe, have trust and own it. And now this guides us through.”
Impact of the resources strategy
Sharpe says the “direction of travel” laid out for the sector by the Government’s resources and waste strategy “has to be seen as a significant step forward” and this direction is “entirely supported by the company”.
“Our job here is not to feed the incinerator. We have a clear mandate placed on us to maximise recycling because there is no great imperative on us to fill the bunkers,” he explains. “So, we work as positively as we can to try to improve recycling. In the recycling centres, which is the interface between the public and us for recycling, we work extremely hard. We consistently have a recycling rate of more than 70% across the HWRCs.”
Set against the fact that its HWRCs are on inner city sites, which do not receive large tonnages of green waste due to a lack of gardens, Sharpe says this recycling figure is “credit to the boroughs and the waste authority for the education they do, but also credit to the operators on our sites who help the public”.
Asked whether changes to the composition of the residual waste stream will affect the business, Sharpe responds: “We don’t want plastic in there anyway – you don’t want to be burning plastic if you can help it because it is hard to deal with. And if a lot of the food waste comes out, the calorific value of the waste will go up, but if you take paper and card out, it comes back down, so it balances out.
“And, certainly, the current facility has got quite a broad tolerance of what can be accepted and how we can manage it, so we haven’t seen an effect to date that we cannot manage.”