Here’s how we can increase recycling by Londoners who live in flats

A recycling bin at Wimbledon. Image: Getty.

Declaring a climate emergency – as the London Assembly and mayor of London have done – is an important first step in tackling the emerging environmental catastrophe. But what comes next?

The task ahead of us is so vast and the solutions appear so complex, that individual action alone – whilst incredibly important – won’t come close to solving the issue when systemic change is what’s really needed. We require the corporations that dominate so much of our economy to fundamentally reappraise how they do business – indeed, we all need to reconsider the role that capitalism plays in our climate crisis and how we might rethink what can at present be a destructive correlation between growth and climate breakdown.

With problems (and solutions) so vast, it may feel as though there is little that can be done on a personal or local level that can make a real, tangible and lasting difference. The recent Recycling Week is an opportunity to reflect on how we might bring this sort of change about.

Here in London we lag behind the rest of the country in terms of recycling. According to the latest statistics from DEFRA, 33 per cent of household waste in London is recycled or composted, compared to 43 per cent nationally. Even within London, the rate varies considerably from borough to borough, with recycling much lower in Inner London than Outer London: 14 per cent in Newham, 19 per cent in Westminster and 22 per cent in Lewisham, while Sutton and Bromley both manage 50 per cent, and in Bexley it’s 52 per cent. It’s in no doubt that we can and must do better – but what explains this significant discrepancy?

The London Assembly Environment Committee reported on household recycling in 2017, and found a strong link between the proportion of flats in a borough and the recycling rate. The simple fact is that many flats, and particularly high-rises, were built in such a way that the act of recycling can be inconvenient, particularly for those with mobility issues. The disposal of black bag rubbish, however, is often easy, with many blocks still using bin chutes.

With 50 per cent of London’s housing stock in flats, the difficulties are considerable – but it’s not an excuse not to drive up standards. In the municipality of Milan, where 80 per cent of residents live in flats, recycling rates have improved by 20 percentage points to 54 per cent in the past decade – a direct consequence of introducing better enforcement and food waste separation. This points not only to how we might improve recycling rates with state action, but also how the state might better incentivise individual action.

With London needing to build 65,000 new homes per year – most of which will inevitably be flats – the mayor of London and London boroughs must make sure proper recycling facilities are included in all new build homes. The ,ayor’s new draft London Plan states that developers need to consider how facilities are designed to ensure there is enough space for separate collection of dry recyclables, food waste and other waste.

Providing the space within the building is one thing, but councils also need to work closely with landlords and building managers to make sure the right kind of bins are provided, and residents know their obligations and how to use those facilities. This is an additional problem in London as people tend to move more often than elsewhere, and different boroughs have different recycling policies.

The Government’s proposals to introduce more consistency in household recycling is welcome, and the mayor should push local authorities to go further. Sadiq Khan has called for councils to provide all kerbside properties with six dry recycling streams (glass, cans, paper, card, plastic bottles and mixed plastics) and separate food waste collections by 2020 – but this absolutely must be for all types of property if we are to meet our target of 65 per cent recycling by 2030.

The evidence is that Boroughs can actually save money through this approach: Ealing reportedly saves between £1.7m and £2.3m a year by transferring dry recyclable and food waste recycling out of residual waste. However, the government needs to put its money where its mouth is by providing boroughs with the resources needed to scale up their recycling and collection infrastructure.

We should also be more creative about how we design space for waste and recycling inside the home. Guidelines could set out standard ways for recycling and food waste segregation to be built into new kitchens, which would increase the quality of materials collected and their efficiency for recycling. Too many people are limited to small spaces under sinks, and if we want them to recycle the majority of their refuse then this just isn’t good enough.

Experience has also found that limiting the amount of space for residual waste (i.e. that which isn’t recycled) increases recycling rates, so authorities should be careful not to overprovide wheelie bins for landfill rubbish, so that residents have plenty of space for recycling.

Finally, information is king. Partly due to the inconsistency of services, but also because manufacturers do not always put clear recycling instructions on products, many Londoners report confusion over what they can recycle and how. Clearer labelling must be mandated and regulated by the government. This is particularly crucial for single use products such as wet wipes, which many people don’t realise cannot be recycled, composted or flushed, and as a result end up contaminating recycling loads or contributing to horrifying fatbergs.

We have come a long way since London recycled just 8 per cent of its household waste twenty years ago, but to meet the climate challenges of the 21st century and beyond, we must push on. Recycling in London’s flats has lagged behind, but with stronger policies and creative thinking, we can design our homes and buildings to make it easier for everyone to recycle.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.


The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 

There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.