Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) chair Mary Creagh has become an increasingly prominent figure in the resources sector since being elected to the role just over a year ago.
Her panel’s inquiries into topics such as the Treasury’s action on sustainability and the EU’s influence on UK environment policy have provided scrutiny of Government policy at a time when this has arguably been lacking from Opposition politicians.
Labour’s ability to form alternative policy has been hindered by two changes of shadow environment secretary in the past year, a position Creagh herself held between 2010 and 2013.
Following a curtailed tilt at becoming Labour leader, Creagh has flourished in her current role, and won plaudits and awards across the resource sector.
MRW spoke to her the day after chancellor Philip Hammond’s spring Budget, which included confirmation of future packaging recycling targets and landfill tax rates but little in the way of overarching recycling policy changes. Creagh calls the Budget overall as a “damp squib”.
She echoed concerns raised by many in the industry at the lack of intervention on the environment or resources, describing it as a relatively “policy-free area” since the coalition Government took over in 2010.
“Most of the thing they have done, both the plastic bags levy and the proposed ban on microbeads, have come as a result of intense campaigning rather than any desire to take action,” she says, adding that the bag levy may have been implemented reluctantly after the pledge was made during the 2015 election to win votes.
“We’ve seen the landfill tax credit get to the natural end of its usefulness,” she says. “We’ve seen councils, like mine in Wakefield, making £157m of cuts during the past seven years.”
Treasury sustainability inquiry
Such concerns about local government cuts, and their subsequent impact on councils’ ability to boost their recycling provision, were raised in the EAC’s sustainability and HM Treasury inquiry.
A week before the autumn statement, the EAC published a report from this inquiry, accusing the Treasury of “riding roughshod” over other departments’ objectives while putting short-term priorities ahead of sustainability, which would potentially increase future costs and harm investor confidence.
The Government’s response, which rejected criticism particularly regarding the Treasury’s disproportionate influence over other departments, was slammed by the EAC in March for being unclear and failing to say whether the Treasury would do anything different in future. In a fresh attempt to get some answers, the committee now plans to investigate the Department for Communities and Local Government.
Creagh says: “The fact that [councils] have lost a third of their budget in the past six years is something that not even Donald Trump would be able to pull off in America because of the checks and balances. But our system of government allows chancellors to make these swooping cuts and they are all powerful – and I’m afraid some of those chickens are now coming home to roost.
“We thoughts councils would be a useful place to go next, particularly in terms of waste and recycling.”
This could be an interesting avenue for the EAC to go down, with Defra and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) sometimes appearing at cross-purposes with regards to recycling policy.
Former communities minister Eric Pickles made a number of unpopular interventions in town halls, such as removing enforcement powers from London boroughs and promoting weekly residual waste collections, which Creagh says is “pure ideology”.
“There are weekly bin collections in some areas of London. But in parts of the country where people have room for three bins, people are perfectly happy for them to be emptied [every other week].”
25-year environment plan
Anticipation from the waste sector is high for what measures might be included in Defra’s long-awaited 25-year environment plan, with the preceding framework expected to be published “soon”. Resources minister Therese Coffey has said the plan will consider “priorities for resources, waste and recycling” and tackle “barriers to resource efficiency”.
Many within the sector, including the Environmental Services Association and the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee, have lobbied for extended producer responsibility to be a key element of the plan. But after being pencilled in for release last July, Defra has repeatedly delayed the plan, initially to the end of last year, due to a required rethink following the unexpected EU referendum result.
But it failed to appear in 2016, with the department as yet refusing to name a specific release day for the plan or even its framework, and rumours spreading about the reason behind the latest delay.
One theory is the department is struggling to put together the framework because of a lack of resources, with further staff cuts made last year, which the EAC has urged Defra to prove is not the case. Defra has been recruiting recently for specialists to develop the plan.
An alternative suggestion is that Defra has written the framework and is raring to release it, but is being held back by Government concerns that any indications of progressive environmental policy might harm the UK’s ability to secure a post-Brexit trade deal with the US.
President Trump is famously sceptical about climate change and has slashed funding to his country’s environmental protection agency and could regard a requirement to comply with UK regulations a turn-off.
Creagh says: “If we are worried about future trade deals, it is not going to be published for the next 10 years. So the 25-year plan could be the 10-year plan.”
In its report The Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum, the EAC argued that the framework had to be published and consulted on before Article 50 is triggered. “It is absurd to be writing the Great Repeal Bill without any vision or strategy for what we want the natural environment to do,” Creagh says.
The Government is currently running a consultation on its industrial strategy, drawing some optimism from the sector for its pledge to “promote well-functioning markets for secondary materials”. But Creagh says this is just a green paper, and believes that firmer policies are needed to start forming the UK’s post-Brexit environment legislation.
“What is clear is that resource efficiency is the name of the game in terms of all future economies. We have an intellectual lead on some of this stuff in the UK [but] Brexit poses risks to that.”
She says: “They always put things off, [which] is a really problematic tactic for the British waste and recycling sector because you have got no regulatory certainty, no stimulus to the sector and the Government is ideologically committed to allowing markets to find solutions.
“And the problem is that when you are putting tens or hundreds of millions of pounds into MRFs, you cannot just do it on a wing and a prayer – you need the certainty to know that, for the money flowing in at the beginning, you are going to get the money back.
“And that is why we have seen recycling rates falling for the first time since records began in the 1990s. It is not because people are confused; it is because the investment has stopped and landfill tax credit has run out of road, so we need a new stimulus.”
But Creagh admits she “genuinely doesn’t know” what the new stimulus should be.
The traditional source for alternative recycling policy has been the Opposition, but little substance has been offered from Labour’s shadow environment ministers in the past 18 months despite some positive-sounding intentions for a “recycling revolution”. Creagh says she has not advised any of the three shadow environment secretaries, currently Sue Hayman, on ideas to put meat on the bones.
“There was a meeting in the diary that didn’t happen for a variety of reasons. But that is not to say I would not share [the EAC’s work] with them,” she says.
Green Investment Bank
Some MPs, such as Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas and shadow business secretary Clive Lewis, have criticised the Government’s plan to sell the Green Investment Bank (GIB) at a time when it is trying to form a new industrial strategy.
There are concerns about the bank’s future in the private sector, with suggestions that reported preferred bidder Macquarie Group could strip the bank’s assets. Ministers have tried to allay suspicions about the organisation’s future green focus, with the EAC-lobbied ‘special share’ designed to protect its original purpose.
Creagh, who has written to business secretary Greg Clark regarding the bank’s sale, says the vote to leave the EU will have materially affected the sale price. The EAC has called for ministers and officials responsible for the GIB’s sale to appear before them with assurances about its independence.
“As soon as they make an announcement,” she says. “We want them in.”
Coffey has repeatedly distanced herself from the term ‘circular economy’, saying in one debate that she was concerned it implied no growth and preferring instead ‘resource efficiency’.
Creagh believes there is aversion to the phrase because “they see it as a bit of an EU idea”; the European Commission may have used it for the overarching environmental strategy, but she says it does not matter what it is called.
Creagh adds: “What is clear is that resource efficiency is the name of the game in terms of all future economies. We have an intellectual lead on some of this stuff in the UK [but] Brexit poses risks to that.” She lists uncertainty about post-Brexit university collaboration, innovation and working across companies as things that could “materially affect our progress towards a resource-efficient economy”.
One of the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals, ‘ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns’, centres on resource efficiency, and Creagh says this offers the waste industry some leverage for getting ministers’ attention.
“Having a resource-efficient economy is something that the sector really needs to grab with both hands. These goals are to be achieved by 2030, and the sector needs to use them as stimulus for debate and corporate action on what you are going to achieve and how you are going to achieve it.”
The EAC is running a consultation on domestic implementation of the goals and, in January, 80 organisations including Unilever and Dong Energy wrote a letter urging the prime minister to demonstrate a commitment to delivering them.
The strength of Creagh’s opposition to the Government’s Brexit plan was clear from her vote against the party whip in February, despite 66.3% of her constituents voting Leave last June.
“I have a huge amount of anxiety about the capacity of parliament to chunk this stuff through, the capacity of Government to make a series of quick decisions,” she says.
The industry will be counting on Defra to work through more than 800 pieces of EU environmental legislation that needs to be transferred into the UK, a third of which the EAC says cannot be directly transposed and may require laws to be created as part of an environmental protection act.
In parliament, the sector might need Creagh’s committee more than ever to hold the department to task during this unprecedented process.
CV: MARY CREAGH
mary creagh eac 400
1967: Born in Coventry
Early career: Read Modern Languages at Pembroke College, Oxford. Intern at the European Parliament. Lectured in entrepreneurship at the Cranfield School of Management
1998-2005: Councillor for the London Borough of Islington
2005-present: MP for Wakefield
2010-13: Shadow environment secretary
2013-14: Shadow transport secretary
2014-15: Shadow international development secretary
2016-present: Environmental Audit Committee chair. Plans to continue in role “for as long as Parliament will have me”.