A civil servant with a real understanding of the complex waste sector, Colin Church, director of climate, waste and atmosphere at Defra, spoke to Neil Roberts about finding the right solutions
Hunched quietly over a laptop in the corner of a drab meeting room, Colin Church does not strike you as a stereotypical civil servant; he is no ‘Sir Humphrey’. But listening to him describe his role, his relationships with industry and ministers, his words seem to exemplify the ideal of the state as a neutral arbiter of competing interests.
And if there is a sector of the economy that needs a neutral arbiter, it is the waste and recycling sector.
We meet at Defra’s Westminster headquarters a few days before the department finally publishes its long-awaited, long-delayed and long-contentious MRF code of practice plans.
Negotiations dragged on for months with MRF operators, waste firms and reprocessors at loggerheads. The Government’s role, says Church, was to balance those interests. Defra ruled out mandatory contamination thresholds partly because “whatever number we picked, it would be criticised [by one of the parties]”.
“Surely that is something the market should decide, the commercial signals should decide,” he adds. “The problem is that, at the moment, the information is not there to allow the [recyclate] purchaser to make a rational decision.”
So in the debate about recyclate quality, Church explains, the problem arises because the signals expected to inform participants in a normal market just do not work in a sector created by regulation and “without its own economic rationale”.
“We have to intervene in a way that we wouldn’t want to if it were a rational marketplace,” he says.
The coalition Government has been enthusiastic about deregulation, cutting red tape and rolling back the state. So how does an official like Church, with an expert understanding of this complex marketplace, work with ministers who may be politically opposed to state intervention?
Part of Church’s role is persuading ministers about the relatively new concepts of waste as a resource and the circular economy. “For a lot of politicians, that way of thinking has not caught on yet. For a lot of politicians and business leaders, they don’t think of [waste] in economic terms.”
Church’s CV, with vast experience in regulation and science, exudes objectivity and impartiality. Unassuming and softly spoken, his precise descriptions of the operation of the sector suggest he has been in the industry for years. In fact, he was appointed Defra’s top waste official just last April.
There are concerns about spending cuts hitting Defra and the Environment Agency (EA). WRAP has already revealed an 11% funding squeeze this year and faces a review of its value to Defra later this year.
“It’s still £30m-odd a year that we are giving to them,” he says. “We need to make sure we are getting good value for money, still doing the things we want to do, and that WRAP is the right vehicle for delivering that.”
Church says the deep cuts to Defra during the next five to eight years will mean the department does less and less unless changes are made.
“What is clear is that the status quo, for the EA, for Defra, for Natural England, for the whole Defra network, is not something we can afford if we want to deliver anything like the same quality of services going forward. We have to find new ways of doing it.”
A significant change during Church’s time in the civil service is the devolution of powers to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments. In the waste sector it has become almost a cliché to talk about the devolved governments’ more ambitious policies when compared with England’s.
While those policies are interesting, Church doubts they are scalable from nations of several million to England’s 50 million. But, he adds, the governments do co-ordinate when necessary, for example over the MRF code of practice.
As for frustration among some in the industry about diverging policies: “We decided to go for devolution, and that’s life.”
Similarly Church often has to co-ordinate his work with other Government departments that cover aspects of waste policy. Industry leaders are often frustrated with this departmental split of responsibilities and having to deal with several sets of officials. But Church says the real problem is that, for other departments, waste is a “minor player”.
“For example, in terms of renewable energy, waste is a minor player and therefore why would a rational policy maker looking at energy policy spend a disproportionate amount of his or her time on energy from waste?” he asks.
“So you can quite understand the frustrations because, for the waste industry, energy from waste (EfW) is really quite important, but to the energy industry it’s much less so. One of my roles is to try to help the industry understand that reality. But also to have those dialogues with other departments.”
Church cites the energy department’s (DECC) recent U-turns on cutting Renewable Obligation Certificate (ROC) support for EfW with combined heat and power, and removing the overlap between Feed-in Tariff and ROC support for small-scale anaerobic digestion: “Those are things where we were able to work with the industry to make sure DECC understands the particular industry perspective, and DECC was able to take that into account.”
Days after our interview, Church is at the launch of the quality action plan and MRF code of practice at Veolia’s south London facility. He chats warmly with industry leaders from all sides of the fraught debate.
As soon as those leaders and the wider sector have seen the detail of the proposals, a new round of discussions begins. And Church will be working to arbitrate, to bring the arguments to ministers, and to find the best solution for the economy as a whole and the wider public.