Defra’s ‘stepping back’ from waste letter – one year on

It has been exactly one year since Resource Minister Dan Rogerson wrote to the industry to 'regretfully' inform them that Defra would be stepping back from some of its waste policy work. But just what impact has that letter had on industry over the year? Liz Gyekye reports.

On 6 November 2013, the newly-appointed Resource Minister Dan Rogerson made his first contact with industry. He wrote to warn them that Defra would be “stepping back in areas where businesses are better placed to act and there is no clear market failure”, from April 2014, as the Government had to prioritise its work to make the best of public funding.

The response from industry was one of disappointment and many found the letter unhelpful. This helped to explain why a parliamentary inquiry was held in March on Defra’s decision to step back on activities in the sector.

‘A bit of a crisis’

Since the publication of the letter a variety of industry heavyweights have continued to express disappointment with Defra. Resource Futures chair Phillip Ward says that since the publication of that letter “Defra has not covered itself in glory” and has been “slow to grasp the circular economy debate and continues to allow Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to romp all over their turf”.

He adds: “They have ducked out on TEEP when most people think that’s what is called for.”

He says there is a “bit of a crisis” in the industry over regulation of waste operators and the “spate of significant and persistent fires that are making waste sites really bad neighbours and will further restrict the ability to get planning permission”.

British Metals Recycling Association (BMRA) director general Ian Hetherington concurs with Ward and says that the impact of Defra on the regulatory landscape over the last year has been non-existent. He says that the Environment Agency in England seems to have assumed the role of ‘policy maker’ without any of the usual controls by the ‘gatekeeper’.

He adds: “Small mixed WEEE and fridges have been re-designated as hazardous waste; the former suddenly and without any real evidence and the latter has resulted in a strain on existing treatment capacity…”

In response, a Defra spokesman says: “We all need to use our resources more responsibly and reduce waste – the Government continues to take action to support this.”

Regulation and a “lack of clear policy” seem to be recurring themes that are concerning industry since the publication of ‘that’ letter. Waste expert Paul Levett maintains that “stepping back” is not a problem provided long-term policies are enforced to provide consistency and predictability to the industry.

This view is shared by SITA UK’s Stuart Hayward-Higham. He explains that with policy and regulation in place “the industry would be empowered to make the best use of waste in the most efficient manner”.
He adds: “Unfortunately, we are one year on and are losing vital time whilst we wait for long-term policy and are just starting to see actions coming into place for more effective regulation.”

Resource Association chief executive Ray Georgeson says: “Many of us were surprised at how quickly Dan Rogerson issued the ‘stepping back’ letter after assuming office, it had all the hallmarks of a pre-drafted missive from officials waiting in his in-tray. It served to reinforce the deregulatory character of this Government and was taken by many in the industry as a poor signal of intent and displaying a lack of leadership, especially when so many industry voices are calling for more.”

Despite worries from industry over “lack of clear policy”, Rogerson has been praised for presiding over the signing of the MRF Regulations and his announcement on tackling waste crime.

Interestingly, Georgeson says that his announcement has had the effect of “galvanising several industry associations into closer co-operation to try and unite our diverse industry around key issues and messages we have for Government, and you will see more of this as the general election gets nearer”.

In addition to this, Ricardo-AEA’s Victoria Hutchin says that organisations have become more efficient, out of necessity due to austerity, rather than as a consequence of the letter and the actions outlined within.

For example, she says councils are “getting smarter about procurement, through procuring integrated environmental services contracts and joint contracts with neighbouring authorities”.

All in all, Georgeson concludes that there should be no more talk of stepping back but more talk of stepping forward. He says: “I think it is time to move on from the ‘stepping back’ letter.

“Like it or not, all the major political parties including those in Government have a major challenge to address in winning the confidence of our industry as we see better than them the potential of better resource management and the emerging circular economy to deliver jobs, growth and resource efficiency.”

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