Closing the circle

We’re only beginning to understand where waste actually comes from, and how to go about reducing it

In 1858, the year that became known as the Great Stink, the untreated sewage that flowed down the Thames had become so unbearably smelly that the House of Commons hung sacking drenched in chloride of lime at the windows, and members of parliament were eventually forced to abandon their sessions altogether.

As sure as night follows day, regulations were passed to cope with Britain's increasing sewage problem. The Victorians were famous for getting to grips with the drainage problems of large cities that were entering the modern, toilet-flushing world. But the regulatory framework they brought in didn't take waste into account - at that time, it was just something burned in grates, behind factories or in power stations. It wasn't for another hundred years or more that we began to think that we were really going to have to do something about our waste.

In 1999, the EU brought in the Landfill Directive, which attacked our motley approach to waste management and would see off the first generation of inefficient and polluting incinerators installed in the 1970s. While the UK signed up, however, we retained a quirky approach to the philosophy that now, ten years on, has come back to haunt us.

At the time, the foundation of our Anglo-Saxon approach was different from the rest of Europe in two important ways. First, we chose a regulatory framework based on where waste originated rather than what it was - leading to a dog's breakfast of exceptions and exemptions that became a lawyer's paradise.

And second, with our government unwilling to interfere in an efficient, low-cost regime, landfill carried on being the preferred exit route. By 1996, it had at least been recognised that the cheapness of landfill was a brake on innovation, so taxes were introduced to level the field to meet 2010 diversion targets. Unfortunately, at £7 per tonne, the tax was woefully unsuccessful until swingeing annual increases - eight years late (in 2005) - began to redress the balance in favour of innovation. Politically, this timorous approach was probably grounded in the uncertainty of the new, particularly when the latter was presented as the European model of community-based incinerators delivering combined heat and power at subsidised cost. Such models were seen as being, at best, unworkable in the urban UK arena and at worst a form of political suicide, given our disastrous first foray into incineration in the 1970s, when incinerators were found to be spewing worrying quantities of dioxins - which many people considered a grave health hazard - into the atmosphere.

Global warming awareness charged the debate with a new urgency, along with the realisation that our species was reaching an upper limit of capacity to live off one "Spaceship Earth". At the Wuppertal Institute, the Rocky Mountain Institute, and the Stockholm Environment Institute, innovative minds were coming to the idea of circular material flows within the earth's system - the "closed loop", as it has become known.

The great difficulty was, and is, the absence of coherent systems of measurement. In 1996, while at Biffa we were embarking on research into the UK's waste, it became obvious to me that putting together an integrated data capture network on material flows was going to be essential if we wanted sound policymaking, diverting around (then) 110 million tonnes of "stuff" from geological to operational use. We used the money from the landfill tax for a £10m programme to analyse material flows by region, industry sector and material type culminating in the publication in 2006 of The Mass Balance Movement, which began the huge work of collating this information.

And what our studies demonstrated is that, in order to produce the 60 million tonnes of food and drink, clothes, road fuel, furniture, electrical goods, cars and all the other stuff that we consume, we take around 1,200 million tonnes from the global commons. Which means that it has taken 20 tonnes to produce every tonne of consumer goods we buy. The waste is quite extraordinary.

Worse still, as we consume, we dispose - obvious in the case of food, but implicit in the case of all else. The suspicion is that the net accumulated mass of physical "wealth" - the things we buy that we actually keep, such as books, furniture and houses - is less than 3 per cent each year. Parallels with the financial economy are striking, with 3 per cent growth rates, and inflation that equates to the growing rate of atmospheric and physical outputs failing to be absorbed by the natural system.

Does the legislative executive in Westminster really understand what is going on here? And what needs to be done about it? Only partly. On the upside is the growing realisation that delivering improved resource efficiency means less in for the same out. That comes from innovation
in terms of engineered products (developing economies will not need to go through technology stages now seen as resource-inefficient, such as fixed-wire communications networks), engineered consumption (car shares, leasing systems rather than purchasing) and engineered systems - which is where waste comes in.

In the 21st-century, resource-efficient nations will have an advantage: being able to make more with less in a resource-constrained world. Whole-systems thinking is the only way forward - and waste is the best place to start. The entry point for different companies into this concept may differ; it may come through producer responsibility - where manufacturers find it cheaper to recover raw materials from last year's sales rather than buying them in a global market. It might come from the waste companies converting what they collect into materials (recyclate), such as electricity, gas or synthetic road fuel, and so on, in a world where fossil carbon prices will prove bullish.

But market investment in this process in the UK is being fatally slowed down because there is still no integrated database showing these material flows. And there is still no single framework for modelling alternative solutions in terms of avoided fossil carbon emissions - which would
be a good way of linking our waste to the wider climate-change imperative.

Also missing are two links in political understanding. First, the countries that buy in early to this concept of resource utilisation are buying in to a global competitiveness ticket for jobs and wealth creation in the next Industrial Revolution. Second, in a UK where taxes on employment and consumption are reactive and limited, taxes on resource use and carbon could be proactive and fruitful.

So, next time you are stuck behind that dustcart or your recycling man whinges about your quality of waste, just remember the bigger picture! Waste need not be waste at all.

Peter Jones OBE was a director of Biffa and now represents Boris Johnson on the London Waste and Recycling Board

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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