Clare Whelan: Lambeth’s green campaigner

Lambeth's Conservative spokesperson on the environment, health and adult social care speaks to Nick Warburton about improving waste and recycling in the borough

You have a strong track record in environmental issues. How did you first get involved in waste and recycling?

I first became a councillor over 22 years ago and for most of that time the environment has been one of the things that I’ve been particularly interested in. Waste collection is the one service that every resident makes use of and local residents made it clear to me early on that this is a priority for them.

But even before that I had an interest in recycling. As a teenager I belonged to Friends of the Earth. I think I’ve always been conscious of resources; that they’re used properly. I have also been a member of Local Government Association boards or committees since 1998 and have been on its environment board for the last four years.

How would you describe your role at Lambeth in relation to waste and recycling?

At the moment I’m in opposition. My starting point is always the local residents. A key question is – are the residents getting a good deal? Are they getting collections when they need them? Are we recycling what they’d like us to recycle? Also are we getting value for money and are we pushing the council to maximise the opportunities open to it?

Across local government nationally, regardless of what you might read in some of the newspapers, local residents really value their waste and recycling collections. The approval rating at the moment is 80% nationally and I think that is probably reflected locally.

When I first became cabinet member for the environment at Lambeth the recycling was really poor. Over the time that I was there, the recycling rate went up to nearly 24%. It was one of my biggest achievements.

We introduced a different recycling collection system and I set up a board that pulled in all the players – not just the contractor but also the different parts of the council and talked to voluntary organisations. Lots of people felt involved in this challenge to drive up recycling rates.

In June, you are chairing a session at CIWM’s conference on the challenges facing local authorities in delivering efficient waste services

We are pleased as a sector that the Government and Defra have acknowledged that local authorities should determine their own collection methods but there is a pressure on us to show that we can do that responsibly and co-ordinate more among local authorities.

A lot of us are locked into long-term contracts so it’s not always easy to change the service that you are offering but I think we will begin to see a lot more joined up working across authorities.

We talk a lot about needing to increase recycling but what we want is not to have waste in the first place. The big challenge for us is to reduce the amount coming into the waste stream. We also need to think about how we can get best value from the waste we do collect.

The National Planning Policy framework came out in March but did not include PPS10, the guidance for waste planning. How do you think the Government can reassure industry that this will remain robust and fit for purpose?

Clearly the planning regime was not working for the industry. I know that one of the concerns, with the emphasis on localism, is that local authorities won’t be brave enough to push through infrastructure that is needed in the face of residents’ concerns.

I think that worry can be misplaced because local authorities know that they do need this waste infrastructure and they are going to have to build in arrangements for it. Local authorities do need to work with industry to design in more community benefits to help us sell the infrastructure to the local communities. Under the new planning regulations it’s going to be easier to do that.

It’s a question of looking at what’s appropriate for the local area. I would argue for as much local flexibility as possible so that the infrastructure fits the community need.

Unlike Scotland and Wales, the Waste Review in England has not set national targets for recycling. What incentive is there for local authorities to drive up recycling?

Landfill tax is a huge driver by itself. There is a real incentive to make sure we do divert as much as possible from landfill. I think it is right that national targets weren’t set. It does mean that the commitment to localism is real. It’s really good if local authorities can set the targets that they think are locally appropriate. Other things will help. The value of recyclates is going up enormously. If councils can get some of the benefit from that value, that helps. Also, there’s a lot of pressure from local residents.

Localism is very much at the heart of your party’s political agenda.

One thing I am pleased to see is much more local flexibility over planning, so we can plan around what our communities want. In south London, we have some very strong community activists and some of them will want to take on things that in the past the council has run. We want to encourage that community desire for involvement.

But it’s always a challenge making sure that you don’t only listen to the loudest voices; that we also work as councillors to reach the heard to reach groups.

That’s a good point. Lambeth has some very deprived communities

One of the things that I am pushing for at the moment is to improve recycling on our estates. The recycling rates have gone up but one of the really big challenges there is the quality of the recyclate, which isn’t as high as it is from the kerbside properties. I want to challenge the authority to work hard to improve the quality of the recycling.

It’s really difficult, particularly in an area like Lambeth. A lot of people are there for a short length of time. You need to make sure you inform every resident and sometimes English isn’t their first language. You have to make it easy for people to recycle and that is more of a challenge on a housing estate. Also, if you have bins on an estate, it’s very difficult to know where the contamination is coming from. How do you build in the incentives for the people living there to help improve it?

You have been a non-executive director of WRAP for the last three years. You obviously see great value in the work it does?

WRAP manages to be imaginative but at the same time everything it does is evidence based. That’s a really good combination. I love the way it’s worked with the packaging industry on various agreements. It has credibility with industry as well as with local authorities. It is also respected by the Government.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie