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The more we recycle, the more waste firms profit

Shlomo Dowen

22nd October, 2009

Earlier this month, campaigner Shlomo Dowen won a landmark High Court case that forced Nottinghamshire council to reveal its financial arrangements with waste contractor Veolia Environmental Services. So what did Veolia want to keep so quiet?

Throughout this whole legal wrangle, my intention was solely to exercise my rights under the Audit Commission Act 1998 and the Accounts and Audit Regulations 2003 – to inspect and take copies of Nottinghamshire County Council’s (NCC) accounts as they related to waste management, including all books, deeds, contracts, bills, vouchers and receipts.

This was to be a fishing expedition, a distraction from the real work of preparing for the public inquiry into Veolia’s proposals for a Sherwood Forest incinerator. But before we had left the harbour, a whale landed on our boat!

Veolia injuncted the council from revealing certain details, leaving the council with little choice but to take legal advice.

NCC was told that ‘commercial sensitivity’ was not an exemption, and that my request would have to be honoured. Veolia then forced a High Court decision by taking NCC through the judicial review process. I was named as the first interested party, and the Audit Commission was named as the second interested party. Thankfully I was represented by Friends of the Earth’s Rights and Justice Centre.

The decision, on-line in full here with useful excerpts available here, ruled in favour of accountability and common sense, and Veolia lost.

Unravelling the puzzle

The disputed documents have now been released to me (although some dispute has now arisen regarding previously undisputed documents), and now that the incinerator inquiry has been adjourned until after Easter we have turned our attention to the figures. Of course, we made our way straight to the previously redacted bits. Redactions are like puzzles, and we obviously wanted to understand what it was that Veolia were so keen to hide.

This will take some time to piece together, but we have already uncovered what appears to be £300,000 in ‘landfill tax’ (charged at £32 per tonne last year, rising to £72 or more in future years) paid by the council to Veolia for some 9,000 tonnes of material that was in fact recycled. This legal but questionable practice revolves around the contract that ensures Veolia is paid against projections of recycling rates made years ago. This has now been confirmed by the District Auditor, who also confirmed that this was not illegal.

So what does this mean for local residents? It suggests that the more we recycle, the more Veolia profits. Waste contracts funded through the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) are unlike other PFI contracts in that Waste PFIs depend on citizens to segregate our waste as part of the delivery of the contract. As these PFI deals are entered into on our behalf it makes sense that we too should have a role in formulating and reviewing the PFI both in the name of democratic accountability and to ensure best value for money.

Whilst most people are very happy to do their bit of 'precycling' by separating discarded material, it seems only fair that the financial benefits arising from the daily sorting ritual are equitably shared. In fact, without a fair share of the profits we become ‘waste slaves’ – forced to work for the waste companies.

Even worse, we pay for the privilege. We pay the shops for wasteful products to be made and transported. We also pay for unnecessary packaging on these products. We pay for this waste to be collected, sorted, and transported some more. We pay for it to be burnt in wasteful incinerators. We pay for the incinerator’s pollution to be managed. We pay for the toxic ash to be sent to hazardous landfill sites. We all pay for the rising Health Service costs of treating people who have been poisoned by dioxins and other harmful by-products of waste incineration. We pay for the damage done by incineration in relation to climate change. Then pay yet again to buy back energy inefficiently generated from burning our waste. And to top it all off, our money goes to these waste companies to help them pay their lawyers and consultants to wage legal actions and misinformation campaigns.

The alternative

Instead we should be treated as stakeholders. We should have easy access to all of the financial information about how public money is spent on public services. Perhaps if we had been allowed to have a say on the draft contract we might have helped NCC negotiate better terms.

This decision is a good one, which moves us forwards towards being treated with respect as stakeholders. We now have the right to be treated as stakeholders for 20 days a year. The significance of this decision is enhanced by the number of fellow citizens requesting to see this year’s accounts when the opportunity arises. I suggest you book early to avoid disappointment. But we will need more than a High Court decision to secure the right to be treated as stakeholders all year round. The law has been clarified; now the culture needs to change accordingly.

Useful links
UK Without Incineration Network

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