May 22nd, 2014
by Peter Jones
I wonder how much of the waste sector has read up on UKIP’s policies. UKIP’s rapid growth looks set to give it far greater representation in local government than ever before and its councillors will have correspondingly greater influence. So, what could this mean for waste?
Learning from the difficulties their mammoth 2010 general election manifesto gave them, presenting interviewers with umpteen quirky policies to quiz Nigel Farage about (uniforms for taxi drivers, anyone?), they’ve started afresh and produced a stripped-down document for the 2014 local elections. There’s also a separate European manifesto. No room has been found for previous plans to charge for cycle parking and require cyclists to hold third party liability insurance, or for any substantive policies on councils’ social services or leisure facilities. However, waste is honoured with two specific mentions.
Predictably enough, UKIP are supporters of weekly residual waste collections. Less predictable is that they are somewhat cautious ones. They say “We are opposed to the loss of weekly bin collections and will restore it in councils where the majority of residents seek for it to be returned.” There aren’t any details regarding how it would be determined if such a majority existed – it might just be based on UKIP councillors’ perceptions of what the majority want – but they’re also major advocates of referenda.
It would be interesting to see whether in practice there is a majority in support of weekly waste collection. However, I suspect that the turnout for such a vote would be pretty low, and there would be a risk that a motivated and vocal minority of weekly collection advocates might have a disproportionate influence.
The influence of the European Union on waste policy isn’t lost on UKIP, and in addition to railing against EU “subsidies to ‘renewable energy scams’, such as wind turbines and solar farms” they indicate that they would “drop the EU Landfill Directive to cut refuse disposal costs”. Leaving aside the limited influence of local councillors on such matters, this policy rather mis-states the influence of the Landfill Directive: it sets targets for landfill diversion, but the use of a high landfill tax as the means to achieve this is entirely the choice of successive UK governments – and could be replaced tomorrow with alternative diversion policies should the government wish.
The effect of high landfill costs has been to make recycling collections and residual waste treatment through energy from waste (EfW) more financially attractive as alternatives. It’s unclear whether UKIP would wish to reduce landfill tax to £0, or just scale it back a bit – but either way, it would have a profound impact on the financial case for big incinerators. At a reduced level of landfill tax, recycling might well still be competitive, but there would be little prospect of it being viable if all disincentives to landfill were removed.
Full of rubbish
Clearly, the likely effect of UKIP’s policy proposals – reducing constraints on householders’ residual waste and removing the financial incentives for landfill diversion – could have only one effect: a big increase in demand for landfill. The search for new sites could lead to an interesting tension with another UKIP policy. They promise “binding local planning referendums on major decisions, such as out-of-town or large-scale supermarket developments, wind turbines, incinerators, solar farms, major housing developments and transport schemes like HS2.” It seems likely that new landfill sites would fall within this definition – they’ve always been controversial with nearby communities concerned about odour, water pollution and vehicle movements. It seems likely that in binding referenda, the balance would rarely tip in favour of the tip.
Given the limited landfill capacity remaining in the UK, would a few years in the grip of UKIP’s policies lead to a disposal crisis? A couple of possibilities spring to mind. One is that market forces might start to come into play. As landfill became an increasingly scarce commodity, gate fees would start to rise, restoring the competitive balance with recycling and EfW – and undermining UKIP’s stated aim of reducing disposal costs.
Ironically, the second possibility is to look to Europe for help. EfW overcapacity across Northern Europe already offers an economically viable alternative to landfill for some authorities, and a waste boom in Britain could be good news for countries with EfW built in to their approach to heating and powering their cities – assuming that, if we were outside the EU, our exports weren’t loaded with punitive tariffs.
It is by no means surprising that UKIP isn’t especially green in its outlook. But voters should be taking on board the fact that, having bothered to include policies relevant to waste in their slim manifesto, UKIP appears to have given so little thought to what their effects might be – including an increased reliance on Europe’s incineration capacity to tackle the resulting waste.