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An uphill climb for the new minister

Rory Stewart got off to a good start as resources minister at last month’s Resourcing the Future conference.

His declaration that he wanted the UK to be the best at recycling and that his department was “here to help” was a light year away from that of his predecessor.

In my own presentation to the conference I identified some of the barriers he will face. The UK now has four governments, each led by a different party with their own vision and approach. Devolution is a good thing but not at the expense of effective collaboration.

The resources sector urgently needs effective arrangements at ministerial and official level to co-ordinate national policy choices. To be an effective participant in such arrangements, England needs to develop its own long-term vision for the resources sector, as they have done in the other countries. Stewart will not be able to do that without bringing other Whitehall departments – BIS, DECC and DCLG – on board.

In Singapore, the civil service has identified a class of complex crosscutting issues which they call ‘wicked problems’. Resource security and the circular economy are such issues for us.

The solution in Singapore is to create cross-departmental ministerial taskforces. Prime Minister David Cameron has already announced some implementation taskforces for other Government priorities, but not yet for resources. He should.

We have to confront our outdated local government structures. Wales and Scotland got rid of two-tier authorities 20 years ago. England resisted the change but, for waste authorities at least, the split is no longer viable. Councils are strapped for cash and skills are spread too thinly. Too many collection authorities means too much effort is put into procurement.

The resulting patchwork of service provision confuses householders and confounds businesses that want to advise customers how to recycle but often cannot. More importantly, the split provides conflicting incentives to collection and disposal authorities, leading to inefficient decisions about services.

The current council responsibilities go back to the Public Health Acts of 1875 and 1936, and bear no relation to the needs of a resource economy. With these structures come the requirement for free waste collections. These remove a major incentive to behaviour change and create a subsidy for the producers of waste which have the legal responsibility to arrange for recycling.

Waste collection and disposal functions should be co-located, even if we decide to keep two tiers for other functions. This will reduce the variation in service patterns, cut procurement costs, allow skills to be pooled and encourage holistic decisions.

There is scope for more producer responsibility schemes. Recent suggestions have included mattresses and carpets, which are both problematic. I have thought for a long time that disposable nappy producers should make a contribution to the costs of collecting and treating 800,000 tonnes of waste.

Local government structures on waste

If we really want to be the best recyclers, we need to resolve the argument about how many energy-from-waste (EfW) plants should be developed. Scotland and Wales are aiming for 70% recycling. Flanders is already there. Yet the Local Government Association in England, in its submission to the EU circular economy consultation, says that 70% recycling may be beyond us because of the EfW capacity already committed to.

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing our new minister is simply to survive in office. As his Scottish opposite number Richard Lochhead pointed out, the turnover of English resources ministers is prodigious. It is highly unlikely the Government will get through the EU referendum without a forced reshuffle.

Stewart is clearly very able but is an expert in defence and foreign affairs. I doubt he was ever intended as a long-term appointment in the resources slot. In the meantime let’s make the most of his ambition.     

Phillip Ward is the owner of Falcutt consultancy

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