I am in the fortunate position of being able to get involved in two Scottish Parliament Cross Party Groups; one on Towns and Town Centres linked to Scotland’s Towns Partnership, and one on Independent Convenience Stores linked to the Scottish Grocers’ Federation. They provide a forum to discuss issues in these areas and to engage with MSPs and others on matters of concern. Such access and openness is a benefit of the Parliament and being located near enough to get involved.
In most cases my involvement has been on topics I know something about and I have presented on occasions on policy and our work. But the latest meeting in the CPG on Independent Convenience Stores was a little different. It focused on the hot topic of Deposit Return Schemes in Scotland and the potential impact on small convenience stores. It was different in that it was a topic on which I was aware there was an issue but really knew little. So I sat at the back, listened and used Twitter to take some notes (see @sparks_stirling for the 21st May).
The Cabinet Secretary, Roseanna Cunningham opened the session by drawing attention to the Government’s recently published policy (see the consultation process and responses here, the debate in parliament here, and the Full 150 page Stage 1 business case here) but also the Government’s openness for further input on operational and implementation matters. She was followed by a variety of scheme/system promotors and Scottish retailers who had been involved in trials over the last few months promoted by the Scottish Grocers’ Federation. It is I think a mark of the enhanced role and capability of SGF that such things are now the norm in the sector. A slightly heated Q&A session followed and we were so engrossed we ran out of time. The fact it was a packed room (mainly of convenience store retailers) was an indicator of the significance of this issue.
So what did I take away from the event?
- The various trials showed the practicalities of the scheme and the in-store operational ‘pit falls’. None of this was problematic and the systems can be made to work. This should not be a surprise to anyone, especially if you are Scandinavian.
- Consumers reacted well to the trials and their response was highly positive. But, and it is a big but, the trials were false in that the consumers got money back but did not have to pay the deposit in the first place. Something for nothing tends to be better received than nothing for something.
- The inclusion of glass in the proposed scheme (it was not in the trials) is controversial and retailers believe it will alter the practicalities significantly. There are operational issues of space, security, safety and mess/cleaning and there is a fear that these will overwhelm smaller stores if glass is included.
- The second big issue was the question of the handling fee to retailers and its relationship to the cost of machines. Smaller retailers fear that if the handling fee is too low they will have to subsidise the scheme, whereas larger multiple retailers will be able to profit. As a level playing field is a key aim then setting the fee will be a major consideration.
- Some debate kicked off on the return and use of the deposit to consumers as vouchers. Should this be restricted to the store in which the recycling takes place and on only some products or as a cash voucher for use anywhere? As it is a refund, a cash voucher is the more logical, but children collecting bottles to trade for sugary sweets does seem a little at odds with other Scottish Government goals on healthy diets/eating.
- The final point of note for me was the Scottish vs English (UK) matter. Roseanna Cunningham made a point of Scotland being ahead of the game and not wanting to wait for others to catch up. There was not much concern from retailers in the room about the UK issue (retailers present were local or Scottish) but producers did voice a concern. Other multiple retailers might have a different view. The feeling seemed to me to be fine Scotland’s doing it, let’s make it work as best we can.
I am not sure that I captured all the sentiments and points of agreement and disagreement, either above or on Twitter. As was said at the outset, the policy direction is now set, and many are in favour. But the devil is in the detail, especially for independent convenience stores, and so the implementation and consultation phase still has a number of possibilities and could end up problematic. It will be interesting to see how this works through and settles down.