Local councils likely to miss peat-free target
Are councils hitting their targets?
Speculation is growing that local councils have failed to meet their target of going peat free by 2015. Tim Hunt investigates.
A recent article from Horticulture Week magazine suggests that the government’s 2015 target to phase out peat from local procurement is a long way from being met by local councils. 
Horticulture Week interviewed a number of local government contractors which revealed that only around 20% of councils were stipulating that they wanted peat-free growing media when putting contracts out to tender.
One supplier said that, “We were expecting to be deluged with enquiries for peat-free but there’s been virtually none.”
In 2011, following sustained pressure from campaigners such as Friends of the Earth and Garden Organic, DEFRA introduced a number of targets to help reduce peat consumption in the UK. At the time DEFRA said that the “external impacts and costs of extraction are not reflected in the market price of peat, and Government intervention is necessary to facilitate a shift to peat-free [growing media]”
The targets are set out to end purchases of peat in new local government contracts by 2015; with additional targets for amateur gardeners in 2020; and in 2030 for professional growers of fruit, vegetables and plants. The targets will end peat use in all horticulture in England by 2030.
There were previously voluntary targets in place but these had failed to deliver the necessary cuts. In 2011 peat still accounted for 58% of the market with 2.4 million cubic metres of peat used in horticulture.
In essence the market had failed and government intervention had become necessary to protect the environment.
David Garret of Garden Organic was disappointed by the findings. He told Ethical Consumer, “Most councils collect ‘green waste’ from residents and produce peat-free compost. Surely this would be the cheapest source of growing media for procurement?”
DEFRA told Ethical Consumer that the targets will be formally assessed in the second half of 2015 and that “Not only are our peat bogs home to many unique birds, insects and plants, they also store potentially harmful carbon. It is important that we leave them intact.
“That is why we are backing peat-free growing media, and funding a number of projects to demonstrate their quality and effectiveness.” 
DEFRA also told us that it is “important to change perceptions that peat-free growing media is inferior.”
However it wasn’t until last year that funding was committed to this. DEFRA spent just £67,000 pounds promoting peat-free compost at a local level in the UK and they are now working with the RHS and their Sustainable Horticulture in Partnership Project to change public behaviour.
Paul de Zylva of Friends of the Earth said “The voluntary approach to phasing out the damaging use of peat is clearly not working. By letting retailers, producers and local councils and their contractors do their own thing at their own snail’s pace, the Government is in danger of giving regulation a good name.
Meanwhile our upland peatlands are not in a good state and need proper restoration.”
Not a clear picture
Data on peat usage in growing media production shows that the volume of peat in growing matter sold in 2013 was down 29% from 2011; with a decrease of 26% in the professional sector. Most plants used by the public sector are grown by the professional sector.
In addition to the targets, DEFRA is also engaged in a number of other projects to support the restoration of peatland sites in the UK. These include £35 million to manage moorland habitats in a new environmental land management scheme; and the UK Peatland Code, launched in 2013, which provides a basis for business sponsorship of peatland restoration.
However there was no data available on the success of these projects.
Why the slow pace of change?
The reason why councils have so far failed to make an impact are unclear but one council supplier blamed the government cuts for the failure to meet targets:
“Councils have pressure on budgets and because peat-free will cost a few bob more they’re keeping their heads down and staying quiet. They’re more worried about whether they will have a department to
do bedding and displays and peat-free is down the list of priorities.”
We also asked the National Association of Local Councils for comment but they failed to respond.
2 email to Ethical Consumer from DEFRA
Read more about peat free compost in our latest special report on gardening >