LEADERSHIP IS lacking on waste policy as cuts and crises undermine DEFRA’s ability to take charge.
DEFRA underwent its annual review recently. It’s been a tough 2014 for one of Whitehall’s smallest departments. There were the devastating winter floods; yet another change in secretary of state; ongoing crises involving milk prices and bovine TB; and the horse-meat inquiry. All this to manage but with even less money: the 2010 spending review required the department to cut non-capital expenditure by 16.7% to £2 billion this financial year, and next year it’ll be squeezed further to £1.8 billion.
It’s hardly surprising that ministers and officials have had to prioritise – and the resource minister has been the fall guy. “Dan Rogerson’s heart is in the right place but to put resource efficiency and waste properly at the heart of government would require an Office of Resource Management, headed by a minister, to co-ordinate [cross-departmental] interests in the subject,” says one observer.
DEFRA might well have responsibility for the waste portfolio, but there are other ministerial fingers in the pie. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has a new “waste champion” to push the waste-based bioeconomy, while the Department of Energy and Climate Change looks after renewables, including energy-from-waste and anaerobic digestion. And who could forget Eric Pickles at the Department for Communities and Local Government, who has thrown his weight behind a return to weekly kerbside collections?
This myriad of interests has left the government without a plan for waste policy. During the inquiry by the House of Lords science and technology committee that led to the BIS waste champion, officials and ministers came under fire for a “hodgepodge” of incentives and policies. “Where is the overall strategy?” demanded Lord Willis of Knaresborough. “Who is in the lead? It seems to me that each of the different departments ... all have different priorities for waste and nobody brings it together.”
DEFRA, perhaps understandably given its budget, has been gradually moving to the sidelines. Its Waste Review 2011, published a year after the coalition came to power, set the scene: it contained no new targets or legislative drivers. In November 2013, in one of his first acts as resource minister, Rogerson penned an open letter to the waste sector. He wrote that his department would be “stepping back” in areas where “businesses are better placed to act”. He blamed funding cuts.
The industry has often looked back in anger at these words, but is there no future for waste policy at DEFRA?
If a speech by the latest environment secretary is anything to go, perhaps not. Liz Truss, who replaced the unashamedly climate-sceptic Paterson in July, failed to mention resources or waste at the autumn Conservative Party conference. Her focus will be floods and food.
The UK is set for another very wet winter and, as the floodwaters rise, Truss is unlikely to prevent further flow of waste policy across Whitehall. This has allowed the government to tread water. “It’s hard to be exact when identifying just how damaging the lack of policy direction from government has been, but most would agree that it has put the brakes on planned development, left the industry in two minds about investment priorities and seriously derailed planned investor activity,” says Adam Read, the waste management practice director at consultants Ricardo-AEA.
Waste contractors and resource-conscious businesses require vision and leadership from the government. Wales, and before long Scotland, provide evidence of how clear policies can deliver real change: Wales is recycling 54.3% of household waste, compared with England’s ossifying rate of 43.2%; Scotland has new regulations which will push up recycling rates and already requires many businesses to separate recyclables and food waste.
In its recent policy report, “Mapping the Politics of Waste”, the resource management company FCC highlighted the “significant” move by the Scottish government to position waste as an economic opportunity, at the heart of a circular economy. With 50,000 jobs at stake and a potential £3 billion boost to the economy, can the UK afford to miss out? Waste policy is at the heart of new economic thinking, so the government needs to start using its head.