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The Big Interview: Leonie Cooper

It has been barely a year since Leonie Cooper was elected to the London Assembly, and she has not let the dust settle in a whirlwind of activity.

She joined in May 2016 as the Labour candidate for Merton and Wandsworth and, a week after, she was elected as chair of the Environment Committee. Under her guidance the committee has launched inquiries and reported on energy and fuel poverty, parks and open spaces, and plastic bottle waste.

At her request, the committee is now looking at waste management and resources, with a series of meetings cov­ering the entire waste hierarchy, from prevention to energy recovery.

Cooper’s ambition is to come up with practical recommendations to turn London towards a circular economy (CE) and boost its recycling rate to 65% by 2030 – and possibly even light the way for other urban and metro areas in England. Considering London’s cur­rent rate is a lowly 32%, this would be no mean feat.

“Expert guests are questioned to tease out the important areas from our research into what’s going on now in London,” she says. “It’s a complex pic­ture. London is very large, there are 32 boroughs, involvement at the mayoral level and some of the boroughs have joined together to do things.”

The first meeting held in July focused on prevention, reuse and remanufactur­ing. It heard from Lwarb chair Liz Good­win and WRAP, as well as innovative reuse start-up Library of Things and surplus food sharing app Olio. Future guests will include Shirley Rodrigues, London’s deputy mayor for environment and energy.

Getting committee members and col­leagues in the Greater London Authority (GLA) up to speed was the first task for Cooper. Does this mean she thinks the term ‘circular economy’ is not yet widely understood?

“I would agree with that. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been work­ing with the mayoral team. It has pro­duced a video that essentially sets out what the CE is, and it’s absolutely fan­tastic. You could show it to small chil­dren and they would come away with an understanding. People come at it from different backgrounds, so I wanted to make sure the committee members were all in the same space.”

Cooper’s own journey to the CE began with her involvement in housing and related issues around individual behaviour change over the use of energy and water.

“I think there has been a develop­ment and people are becoming more responsible. There is interest in freecycling and there are lots of internet reuse groups. The question is, how can we effectively promote that so we are not needlessly purchasing new things? Then, when a product cannot be used in its current form, how can you then encourage entrepreneurs to remake things? That’s a really interesting area, and the possibility for jobs in that space is quite diverse.”

Job creation is a key element of the inquiry. The GLA is in accord with Lwarb’s estimate that expanding the CE could create around 40,000 jobs in the capital by 2030. Lwarb is helping to kick-start that economy by funding SMEs, so does Cooper back this approach?

“Yes. If you look at our plastic bottles report, there is quite a lot in it about suggesting the only way to really tackle the situation is to work with small and medium-sized retailers,” she says.

“If you are going to talk about devel­oping some sort of deposit return scheme, you have to take them with you. It has to be manageable for them and generate additional cash for them as people come in to get the deposit back and then possibly spend it in that shop.

“It is likely that the CE report will focus on partnership working between the mayor and the boroughs, GLA, Lwarb and SMEs. We think there is so much opportunity there.”

The London Assembly’s job is to scrutinise the GLA and the mayor’s per­formance. Current mayor Sadiq Khan has made some bold statements about making London a zero-carbon city by 2050. Cooper says the CE will play a crucial part in meeting this target.

“Every time we make new things, there is a lot of energy involved in that process. So reuse and repurposing have to be the way forward in terms of carbon output. It’s a win-win situation.”

It’s no surprise that, as a Labour pol­itician, Cooper is full of praise for Khan: “The fact that he mentioned the CE in his manifesto is an enormous step forward. I know him quite well because he was my local MP. Although his prior­ity is tackling the housing crisis, and he has had to respond to a number of diffi­cult incidents such as the Grenfell fire and terrorist attacks, he has not stepped away from anything he said on air qual­ity, for example.

“The fact that he has put a deputy mayor for the environment on to the board of Lwarb and appointed a new chair means he is paying attention.

“He also put into his manifesto that he wants to reach 65% recycling – that’s a pretty big target. I think he feels pas­sionately committed to these things – that some of us may have bent his ear about quite a lot.”

If London does forge ahead on recy­cling rates, could it leave the regions in England behind, as Wales has done? With such a large population, London must be a major drag on the UK’s over­all recycling rate. Defra figures show the rate for the capital has been falling since 2013.

londons faltering household recycling rate

londons faltering household recycling rate

“At the moment, it would be jolly nice if London caught up with the rest of England. It would be a bit cheeky to say we are going to be the leader in this area,” Cooper says.

But she is optimistic that the introduction ­of ‘metro mayors’ will shake things up. Connections between the new regional power bases could provide an alternative to the withdrawal from waste and resources policy by the for­mer coalition Government and seem­ingly continued by the current administration.

“I’ve got people contacting me from Birmingham, the West Midlands and Manchester. I know a lot of people in Bristol where Marvin Rees [the Labour mayor] was elected the same time as Sadiq. There is starting to be a network of contacts.

“Given that the percentage of people who live in metropolitan and urban areas is getting higher and higher, we’ve got to learn how to turn not just Lon­don’s trash into cash, but across all those areas. If we can make it work in Lon­don, because it’s big and complicated, then it can work elsewhere. I’d prefer us all to step forward together.”

Former Lib Dem resources minister Dan Rogerson’s infamous statement in 2014 that Defra would “step back” from waste and resources policy is something she finds hard to stomach: “Absolutely pathetic, it just annoys me so much. If people come into politics, they can’t just wash their hand of important issues. If we are not dealing with trash, it ends up in our rivers and landfill.”

Of course, Labour’s own resources policy is also up in the air since former leader Ed Miliband announced a “zero base review” that scrapped all policies ahead of the 2015 election manifesto.

But Cooper says Westminster is not entirely a policy vacuum thanks to the work of MPs across all parties who are on committees covering food and plas­tic waste. She cites Neil Parish, Conserv­ative chair of the Efra committee, and Labour’s Mary Creagh, who chairs the Environmental Audit Committee, as influential figures.

“I can’t begin to comment on [envi­ronment secretary] Michael Gove because he has only just come in, but it would be great if he was able to turn his attention to some of these important issues,” she adds. “My worry about national Government – there only seems to be a certain amount of band­width of MPs’ attention. It may be that the metro mayors need to step up to the plate on this, hopefully with support from the Government.”

INQUIRY INTO WASTE MANAGEMENT AND THE CE

The inquiry will examine, among other things, Lwarb’s CE ‘route map’ and attempt to influence the GLA’s forthcoming environment strategy. Waste management companies, businesses, charities and local authorities are also being asked to give written evidence for the final report.

The first meeting concluded that moving towards a CE was a necessity for London because an increasing population, combined with decreasing space, has led to a real need to address the waste issue.

Further meetings will be held monthly. The inquiry will conclude by the end of the year and publish a report soon after.

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