One of the first speeches made by Prime Minister David Cameron, after the formation of the Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition, included a pledge to be the “greenest Government ever”.
Fast forward to its 100th day of power on 18 August and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) have remained true to Cameron’s word, announcing dozens of waste and renewable policies as well as opening a wide range of consultations. But how effective has the Government been on waste issues so far?
The Whitehouse Consultancy environmental consultant Carl Thomson believes that the effectiveness of the coalition on waste has been hamstrung by a truncated parliamentary timetable.
“In the last 100 days we’ve really seen a flurry of announcements, but in terms of delivery so far it’s been quite limited.
“A large part of that is a rather limited parliamentary timetable that means we’ve had Parliament in recess for most of the last 100 days and also they’ve had a backlog in terms of consultations and reviews that were taken forward by the previous Government. Certainly consultations on grandfathering are things DECC started in February and March this year.”
In the coalition’s first hundred days of power, DECC has been among the most prolific of departments, announcing plans for a “huge investment” in anaerobic digestion (AD) technology in the coalition’s Programme for Government, as well as 32 other policy pledges, including the protection or grandfathering of the Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) at a certain level, in DECC’s Annual Energy Statement.
Thomson welcomes the announcement of wider investment in AD and other renewable energy sources, explaining that it represents a solution to a number of the coalition’s inherited problems:
“After looking at the energy statement, it’s not just AD, they’re trying to encourage all forms of renewable energy generation. The grandfathering statement – that included biomass, alternative conversion techniques and Energy from Waste (EfW),” he explains. “The government is really keen on renewable energy for a couple of reasons, its energy strategy as a whole is based on security of supply, emissions reduction, meeting the EU 2020 renewable energy target - certainly renewable energy and particularly AD helps to resolve those goals.”
“Incentive schemes might encourage people to consume more and to throw away more, rather than actually minimising waste or reusing waste”
One of the most surprising developments of the last hundred days has been Communities secretary Eric Pickles’ growing involvement in waste management policy. In this time, Pickles has made no secret of his love of weekly waste collection systems, ordering the independent Audit Commission to repeal guidance which Pickles alleged encouraged local authorities to take up alternate weekly collection rounds (AWC). Not long after, Pickles announced he was scrapping the Audit Commission altogether. The Whitehouse Consultancy’s senior environmental consultant Kris Verlé remains sceptical of the financial viability of Pickles’ plans.
“AWC has been a bugbear of the Conservatives for quite a few years, and Eric Pickles has made it quite clear he wants to return to weekly collections. The main question of course is who’s going to pay for it? As I understand it, he made a pledge back in the days when he was an opposition spokesperson that the Government could potentially foot the whole bill or part of the bill [for weekly collections] which amounts to £120m. It would be interesting to see how that develops, but as far as I understand it, he’s very serious about taking that forward,” says Verlé.
Pickles’ other significant recent announcements have been to remove the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC) as well as the regional tier of planning bodies, including regional spatial strategies, regional planning bodies and regional partnership boards – something that has many in the waste management industry deeply concerned that future planning applications will be decided on a hyper-local level. Yet Verlé believes any impact on the waste management industry, for better or worse, is purely incidental.
“The reason for abolishing these authorities is mainly to do with freeing local authorities from regional housing targets. Whatever the impact on waste is, it’s probably not intentional, it could be beneficial, ultimately putting decisions in the hands of local residents rather than regional level, but it remains to be seen what the impact will be of abolishing those.”
Perhaps the most wide reaching announcement of the last hundred days has been the opening of Defra’s review of Government waste policy – which has not been reviewed since 2007. However, both Verlé and Thomson remain sceptical.
Verlé explains: “One of the criticism of the review and the terms of reference is that it’s been quite vague really, so it’ll be interesting to see what the outcome is. It’s clear they want to give a slightly different direction from the previous Government and I think they’ll probably be quite keen on taking that forward.”
Thomson agrees: “Across a lot of these areas, there’s an understanding that targets haven’t been that successful, and what you then see is a lot of attention focused on the end target, not so much attention being paid to the result.
“The [coalition] Government has this realisation that the best way to do it is through incentivisation, which is where you don’t try to prescribe policy from the top down, but by the Government setting an example and making it clear what preferred behaviour is. This is the approach we’re seeing in terms of waste management and recycling. The language being used is very different, not used in terms of ‘restricting’ or ‘forcing’ it’s really about incentivisation and encouragement, and in rhetorical terms that’s the big shift away from the Labour Government.”
Yet, incentivisation schemes, such as the RecycleBank scheme lauded by Defra environment secretary Caroline Spelman and hailed as waste ‘policy preference’ are still open to misuse, explains Verlé: “You might actually be encouraging people to consume more and to throw away more, rather than actually minimising waste or reusing waste, which technically comes a lot higher in the waste hierarchy than recycling does, so it might have some perverse effects.”
The waste hierarchy – which prioritises prevention and reuse over recycling and reprocessing will also play a significant role in the forthcoming EU Waste Framework Directive (WFD) which must be transposed into UK law by 10 December.
“The important thing to remember about the WFD is that even though it puts a legal obligation on member states use that hierarchy, it doesn’t set it in stone. So what the Government needs to do is look at the best environmental outcome and technical feasibility, so it’s not as much a straitjacket as it might sound,” explains Verlé. “I’d be quite interested to see how they deal with any potential criticism [that certain solutions are] not as high in the waste hierarchy as any of the other waste options – whether or not they will put similar incentives in place for reuse or waste minimisation.”
Despite a significant amount of policies announced by the Government, Thomson believes this is an administration still in its infancy and that we will have to wait until next year before we are truly able to decide on the effectiveness of the coalition’s waste stance.
“I think we’ve had a bit of a phoney war so far in terms of lots of announcements, not too much end results,” says Thomson.
“I think the time we want to see the Government start to deliver on some of these promises is going to be January or February next year and I suspect that by then we’ll have a lot better idea of where we’re going.”