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Revealed: Ministers taking ‘sustainability’ tips from illegal dumping execs

Defra’s Council for Sustainable Business is chaired by CEO of Severn Trent, which discharged raw sewage into river

Lucas Amin
24 February 2023, 6.00am

Warm treated sewerage from a Severn Trent Water treatment outlet on the River Trent attracting birds during Winter.


Martyn Williams / Alamy Stock Photo

Ministers are taking high-level environmental advice from a business leader whose firm was fined millions for pumping raw sewage into British waters.

The so-called ‘Council for Sustainable Business’, which advises the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on water, waste, and biodiversity, is chaired by Liv Garfield, the chief exec of Severn Trent Water.

Its members also include a scrap metal boss whose company was convicted of illegal dumping, and the CEO of Heathrow Airport.

Garfield – who earns close to £4m a year as the highest paid boss in the sector and is also a non-executive director of trade association Water UK – received a CBE for services to the water industry in 2020.

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But in 2021, while she chaired Defra’s sustainability council, her firm was hit with a £1.5m fine for illegally discharging 360,000 litres of raw sewage from four sewage treatment plants in Worcestershire. It also lost more than 400 million litres of drinking water every day in the 2020-21 financial year due to leaking pipes, and was fined a further £500,000 in 2019 for flooding a park in Birmingham with human waste.

Garfield currently leads the council’s work on “challenges” in “agriculture and water”, and her role requires her to “advise on the development of the right regulatory frameworks, policies and support structures”, according to a terms of reference document.

Clive Lewis, the MP for Norwich and a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, told openDemocracy it “was like putting arsonists in charge of a fire safety board”.

“When the government takes environmental advice from the very people who are responsible for environmental damage,” he added, “it is clear our political institutions are in a state of deep rooted system failure.”

Neither Defra nor Severn Trent responded to openDemocracy’s questions about Garfield’s appointment as chair of the council or what her work involves.

A Defra spokesperson said: “The appointment of the Chair and members of the Council for Sustainable Business are agreed by the Environment Secretary at the time."

Feargul Sharkey, the punk-rock-singer-turned-water-campaigner, told openDemocracy that he was “not surprised” by the news.

He said: “Defra has proved yet again it is nothing else but a hothouse of mediocrity and incompetence. How else can you possibly explain the hiring of one of the biggest polluters in the country?”

Weakened targets

Garfield has had high-level access to policymakers while Defra reformed its policy on water companies.

In the 10 months before the 2021 Environment Act was signed into law, official documents show her council met ministers at least 10 times, including for an “update and discussion” with the bill’s two sponsors – environment secretary George Eustice and Zac Goldsmith.

Campaigners subsequently criticised the act for weakening targets on sewage dumping.

Similarly, wildlife groups have slammed the “low ambition” of new targets published in December last year to clean up rivers. The targets came after “extensive consultation” – including a meeting between Garfield’s council and water minister Rebecca Pow in the preceding months.

Meanwhile, Garfield’s company Severn Trent also met twice with Eustice in March and August, and her lobby group Water UK also met with both Pow and Eustice in February and March, respectively.

openDemocracy asked Defra whether minutes of these meetings existed, and if it would publish them, but the department did not respond.

Severn Trent refused to answer openDemocracy’s questions on whether Garfield had submitted interest declarations to Defra and on whether she had ever recused herself from council business. The company also did not respond to questions on whether Garfield had ever discussed sewage dumping and water leakage policy with Defra policymakers.

Ashley Smith, founder of the Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (WASP) campaign, told openDemocracy: “Liv Garfield is infamous as one of the highest rewarded CEOs of one of the now notorious water companies that have been shown to pollute as a consequence of underinvesting while creaming off massive dividends.

“To discover that she is still advising Defra, which recently created a polluter's charter for water companies in the form of the Environment Act, reveals another piece in a jigsaw that shows who is pulling the government's strings.”

Britain’s biggest waste man

Garfield is not the only controversial member of the council, whose members are supposed to “demonstrate strong environmental leadership in the way they run their businesses”.

Defra has also appointed the waste entrepreneur Chris Sheppard and public relations mogul Neil Munn to lead work on plastic and waste in 2023.

Sheppard, nicknamed Britain’s “biggest private scrap merchant”, runs European Metal Recycling (EMR) Group.

Last year Sheppard’s company admitted illegally dumping 2,000 tonnes of metal, foam and plastic from “end of life vehicles” in a quarry.

The company paid a £400,000 fine and £350,000 in prosecution costs following one of the largest criminal investigations conducted by the Environment Agency.

The prosecution took “many years and forensic analysis of criminal behaviour at many levels in the supply chain”, according to the agency.

Sheppard was promoted to his lead role on plastic and waste in 2021 – the year of his company’s conviction.

Last year he met with Jo Churchill, the Defra minister responsible for waste management at the time, to provide “industry insight” and “recommendations on plastic”.

The EMR Group did not respond to questions from openDemocracy about when Sheppard's work for the committee began and what it involved.

A spokesperson said: “To date, the CSB has largely been focussed on raising the importance of action on Net Zero, Nature Positive and the circular economy in the business community.”

Defra itself admits that the council has created “multiple policy recommendations” that have “contributed to Defra’s waste and resources strategy” – but the department did not respond to questions from openDemocracy on how these recommendations shaped the strategy.

Defra also did not confirm whether Sheppard or his predecessor Kate Wylie led on this work.

Wylie worked on plastics for the council while she was employed by Mars Inc as global vice president of sustainability.

The confectionery giant has been repeatedly ranked as one of the worst plastic polluters in the world.

Nina Schrank, plastics campaigner at Greenpeace UK said members of the public would be “utterly perplexed as to what Defra is playing at”.

Schrank told openDemocracy: “You can’t run a company which illegally dumps waste and still sit on a government sustainable business council, let alone one that leads on plastic and waste.

“The conflict of interest should be clear to anyone and that Defra sees this as reconcilable is shocking. It leaves us with serious questions about their judgement and understanding on just who and what is needed to help end the plastic waste crisis.”

Wylie remains a council member but now works for international gender equality group Fondation Chanel.

Third runway

Another member of the council is John Holland-Kaye, the CEO of Heathrow Airport.

According to the Financial Times, Holland-Kaye “masterminded a politically sensitive push to build a third runway” at the UK’s busiest airport.

The third runway – which has been fiercely resisted by environmentalists for over a decade – won parliamentary approval in 2018.

The Court of Appeal ruled the plans illegal because they failed to consider the principles of the Paris Agreement – to limit global warming to between 1.5°C and 2°C.

The Supreme Court then overturned this, ruling that the international agreement was not a part of UK policy.

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