Somehow it seems all wrong for Hilary Benn to be chairing a rubbish summit this week. One tries to picture him sitting, like Guy Fawkes, on top of a vast pile of unacceptable waste, but he is altogether too neat for the part. There is too much unnecessary packaging. He looks as if he belongs in a Whitehall office, signing off some harmless government directive, rather than having to talk to us all about slop buckets and gasification.
He should be credited for taking seriously the tricky job of Environment Secretary. Previous incumbents have seemed distinctly queasy about it, as if dreaming of Work and Pensions as they inspect yet another incineration plant.
Recognising that the privacy of our rubbish is peculiarly important to the British – it represents personal freedom rather as guns do in America – Benn has dared to point out that, waste-wise, this country has been living in a 50-year-old bubble. Whereas one of our environmentally responsible neighbours (Germany, of course) puts a mere 1 per cent of its waste into the ground, the UK dumps 54 per cent. It has got to change, says the minister. We must aim to become “a zero-waste nation”.
First step: clobber the consumer. Certain items will be banned from landfill, forcing us all to pick through our rubbish like rag-pickers in Calcutta. The idea is that all of it will go into one of five household bins: for recyclable material, for compostable kitchen waste, for items which can be incinerated, for food scraps to help generate energy and – almost empty, one imagines – for landfill waste.
Eco-enforcers will be taking a hard line, too. A Street Service Development Manager from Brent Council has set the tone, revealing that his team have a 12-step programme with fixed penalties. “So far,” he warns, “we have not yet had to go beyond step one.”
That smell in the air is not the slop bucket – it is a distinct whiff of double-dealing. When it comes to waste, the customer is at the bottom of the food chain. If Benn is serious about getting the British public out of its bubble of denial, he will have to do more than nag and bully it.
What really causes waste and landfill is not so much the bin mismanagement of citizens as the plastic-packaged, pile-’em-high culture which has been actively encouraged by central and local government. The main reason why a third of our food is thrown away is that the giant supermarkets gear their marketing to the bulk-bargain culture. They make money from three-for-two deals, ever-shorter sell-by dates. Their products are also absurdly and wastefully over-packaged.
Is Government cracking down on this greedy, irresponsible madness? Far from it. The consumer may be enforced by future legislation; companies are to be “encouraged”.
The environment matters – except when vast profits are involved. There is not the slightest sign that the mass production of electrical goods, which can never be mended and which quickly become obsolete, is slowing down. Indeed, the few small electrical shops which once could repair items for re-use are being driven off the high street by voracious supermarkets as they destroy the environmentally positive local supply chain.
For big industry, geared to expansion, size and profit, green concerns belong in their advertising campaigns but are otherwise irrelevant. Over-consumption is how they increase their profits year on year. Worrying about waste is strictly for the little people.
The arts will lose out in this unseemly squabble
We can probably now take it as read that the people in this country are rather cheesed off with their politicians. No news bulletin is complete without ordinary voters on the high street of Sanctimony-on-Sea telling an interviewer that they are still very, very angry about the expenses row. Nothing, short of a few MPs being strung up from lampposts in Parliament Square, seems likely to assuage this mood of self-righteous bullying.
Yet some politicians continue to live a charmed life. A distinctly odd business involving an important public appointment, a former newspaper editor and the Mayor of London has been given minor coverage, with little apparent collateral damage to anyone’s reputation.
During the run-up to the mayoral election last year, Boris Johnson received the impassioned support of the London Evening Standard under the editorship of Veronica Wadley. No longer the editor, Wadley applied for the post of chair of the London region of the Arts Council. At Johnson’s insistence, she was added to the shortlist of candidates. When she was eliminated – she was the “least qualified” of the candidates said one interviewer and had “almost no arts credibility”, according to the chair of the committee – the Mayor reinstated her for the final interview, which was with him. He then offered her the job, later describing her to the Culture minister Ben Bradshaw as “the most creative candidate in terms of promoting the arts and culture across London”.
Bradshaw vetoed the appointment and the situation is now at stalemate. The fact that the arts in London, not to mention those who enjoy them, are likely to lose out in this pathetic and faintly seedy political squabble has been forgotten along the way.
How to plough some lucrative furrows
One sector of the community has not being doing too badly throughout the recession. Landowners have just learned, from a report by the property agency Knight Frank, that the value of farmland, which has been rocketing upwards, is likely to double over the next five years. This year alone, the increase in value (currently the top price per acre is £4,970) will be a very acceptable 11 per cent. Remember these figures the next time you hear a farmer complaining about the world price of wheat.
* Any ambitious young writer keen to learn the important arts of backing into the limelight and of deploying apparent modesty as a promotional tool, might usefully study the career and interviews of the poet, memoirist and TV presenter Clive James. “Showbusiness has fuelled my work as a poet and a critic,” he explained this week. “It got me out of the ivory tower.” There is something nigglingly self-serving about an author who justifies his lucrative television career by explaining that it provided him with material.