Truth to power
Environmental Audit Committee chair Mary Creagh talks to Chris Seekings about Defra’s long-awaited Resources and Waste Strategy – and post-Brexit Britain.
Gazing out of her parliamentary office window, Mary Creagh is downcast as she talks about the UK’s approach to tackling waste – much of which is destined for the River Thames below.
On her request, the National Audit Office (NAO) produced a report earlier this year that highlights major flaws in the country’s recycling system, finding that it is open to abuse and poorly enforced.
As chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Creagh leads a cross-party group of MPs that is tasked with holding the government’s feet to the fire and ensuring its much-delayed Resources and Waste Strategy rectifies these failings.
Originally expected in July, the document is seen as a key element of the UK’s 25-year Environment Plan and Clean Growth Strategy, and is set to contain a raft of sustainability measures.
A new dawn
“What I am hoping for is an entirely new vision for waste and environmental management,” Creagh tells me. “I want to see a series of different approaches that are more resource-efficient and embed circular economy principles in the UK.”
The recent autumn budget has already paved the way for new manufacturer responsibilities by introducing a tax on plastic packaging with less than 30% recycled content.
Creagh expects the new strategy to extend those responsibilities by focusing on the ‘polluter pays’ principle, and says that it should also include a formal ban on plastic straws, stirrers, and “other useless things that have crept into our lives in so many ways”.
“What we need to see is a bending of the curve on plastic use, and a simplification of plastics. And I want to see very strong action on things like polystyrene, which has no recyclable value at all.”
While the strategy will likely mark the official opening of a consultation on a deposit return scheme for plastic containers, Creagh says that we will not see it in action until 2020, at the very earliest. “It has taken a very long time to get to this stage, but I welcome the fact that we are here and at least making progress on these issues,” she says.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) estimates that the UK has exceeded its packaging recycling targets since 1997 and recycled 64% of all packaging in 2017. However, this year’s NAO report revealed that these estimates do not account for the risk of undetected fraud and error – something thought to be widespread throughout the packaging recycling obligation (PRN) system.
This requires companies that have a turnover of at least £2m and handle more than 50 tonnes of packaging each year to acquire recovery evidence notes from reprocessors that export waste for recycling abroad.
“The system is hopeless,” Creagh blasts. “There has been a fall-off in compliance visits – just one to a high-risk exporter in 2017 – and the Environment Agency (EA), which regulates the system, has lost a quarter of its budget in the last eight years.”
She explains how supermarket chain Costcutter, living up to its name, “didn’t pay a penny” into the system between 1997 and 2014, despite creating 40,000 tonnes of packaging; instead, it paid half a million pounds as part of a settlement case. “That is a huge amount of free-riding, and a failure of the waste management system,” Creagh says. “And it’s not like they get caught once and stop – they carry on and carry on, so it’s cat and mouse.”
Defra has said it will reform the PRN system in its Resources and Waste Strategy, but Creagh argues this will be impossible if the EA does not receive the funding it needs, particularly when more and more is being asked of it.
“We are asking it to do everything, from being the frontline of flood defences to tracking shipments of waste, and there is a strong case for it being UK-wide – but there is not enough money,” she says. “At a time when climate change is making these challenges even more demanding, you cannot function as a regulator on the cheap.”
Bills, bills, bills
The government’s announcement of a new post-Brexit Environment Bill for the first time in more than 20 years is intended to close a “governance gap” around compliance and enforcement. This should include a legal framework for an independent watchdog to ensure environmental protections remain after the UK leaves the EU.
But with the Sustainable Development Commission and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution having both closed in the last decade, Creagh points out that the government has “more experience shutting down watchdogs than it does setting them up”.
Her committee has called for concrete action, including the introduction of five-yearly legally binding targets for waste, air and water – which are currently overseen by the EU – but also for other areas such as habitats, biodiversity and soil health. “We want that to be set in stone along the same lines of the Climate Change Act, so it can’t be scrapped by a future government,” Creagh says. “We want to look at trees, plants and animals to ensure they aren’t just surviving, but thriving – all of these ecological measurements are important.”
She also describes the government’s decision to publish the Environment Bill after the Agriculture Bill as “very unfortunate”, after the latter outlined where the public subsidy for environmental goods will be allocated. “We are basically saying ‘here is the money, and now here is what we are going to do’ – which is problematic.”
Having read the government’s Agriculture Bill, Creagh reveals her worries around the proposals to pay farmers seven years’ worth of subsidies upfront after Brexit, and says it is “tragic” that the plans have had such little public scrutiny. “What happens if farmers pass that farm on to their sons or daughters? Are they then excluded from subsidies? What if they want to introduce nature-friendly farming, are you going to pay twice? It strikes me that there are very large problems
with the bill as it currently stands.”
Having worked in Brussels for four years, including as an intern at the European Parliament, Creagh is vehemently anti-Brexit, and recently came out in support of another vote on EU membership. She worries that higher tariffs will put many farmers out of business and believes that a flood of cheap imports arriving from trade deals could make it even harder for them to survive. “This could also spark a trend towards mega-farms as smaller ones struggle to stay afloat, which is a hugely damaging prospect and creates massive pollution risks,” she says.
However, it is not Brexit that Creagh sees as the biggest threat to the country’s environment. She highlights that, while the government is the UK’s largest provider of goods and services, it persistently fails to ‘buy green’. Creagh also reveals that it’s a constant struggle to get her fellow MPs to make even small changes in their lives, such as reducing electricity use.
“If we are going to move away from what the EU does then this is once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reset the dial, and there are very profound changes that are going to happen to care and management of the landscape over the next 10 years,” she warns. “But the biggest thing the government can do is to be more green now – it talks the talk but doesn’t walk the walk, and it is about time it led by example.”
While outlining a range of other challenges that face the UK – not least addressing the country’s fourth carbon budget gap, which is likely to grow should the Committee on Climate Change set a zero net emissions target – Creagh remains optimistic about future environmental policy. “There are big tests that lie ahead, but I am sure we can rise to them,” she says. “It’s all going in the right direction, but we are walking, and we need to be jogging or running.”