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While Defra dithers, industry wonders where policy is heading

Defra’s stuttering progress on its waste review was laid bare as a progress report revealed delays on key projects and sparked fundamental questions about the sector’s strategic direction.

The document, Progress with delivery of commitments from the Government’s Review of Waste Policy in England (2011), represents a self-assessment by ministers against some 62 goals.     

The department’s spin doctors insisted “good progress” had been made on 90% of the targets set out in the review but waste chiefs called for quality not quantity.

And, as MRW reported last week, industry groups were highly critical of Defra’s decision to delay publication of the National Waste Management Plan (NWMP) from “Spring 2012 until, at the latest, the end of 2013”.

Delays to an Energy-from-waste guide for councils and a campaign to develop a new Local Authority Recycling and Waste Services Commitment were also unwelcome.

Waste chiefs further lamented the sector was yet to feel any benefit of from projects reputedly “on track”.    

To suggest the sector is facing a crisis would be hyperbolic but Defra certainly faces charges of not providing a clear enough strategic direction for the sector.

“The industry is crying out for a coherent focal point which the NWMP could provide in order to attract investment and we have not got it,” said AEA global practice director for waste management Adam Read.

Indeed, the pain may run beyond the waste sector.

Nadeem Arshad, a partner specialising in waste projects at law firm Bevan Brittan, warned uncertainty surrounding waste projects could influence other policy areas too, such as energy security.

Arshad said: “The longer there is planning uncertainty around waste infrastructure, the more we will need to rely on other sources of energy for our future supply needs. 

“Recent setbacks for the nuclear power industry only raise further questions over where our energy will come from in the future.”  

The sense of stagnation was further exacerbated by news Defra’s senior waste civil servant Nigel Thornton was stepping down as part of a broad shake-up of the department’s senior waste personnel (see box).

Environmental Services Association director of policy, Matthew Farrow, told MRW recent changes at both official and ministerial level were unhelpful.

“These are complex issues and, however good the people, perpetual change is not helpful either to stakeholders or to Defra’s attempts to build up momentum in delivering the Waste Review,” he said.

He added: “Defra says many of the waste review actions are on target but much is work in progress – the real judgement can only be made when we see the finished outputs from the various initiatives.”  

All this has left those in the sector in need of a boost, which could come later this month in the shape of the UK Green Investment (UKGI)’s waste fund.

An announcement on which fund managers would be charged with controlling the £100m fund by the time of the Budget but arrangements had not yet been finalised. Sources familiar with negotiations maintained an announcement was imminent.

“Funding from the UKGI’s waste fund could give a timely boost for the sector, many of which face problems securing both planning permissions and third party finance, said Arshad.

New faces at Defra

Director for climate, waste and atmosphere, Nigel Thornton, has left his post to head up a new food and green economy portfolio.  

Thornton is being replaced by Colin Church, currently with the department indicating further changes could be made in the autumn.

Household waste and waste regulation director Sabine Mosner will also leave the waste programme as part of the restructuring to lead work on green economy and growth.

Thornton’s said: “Karen Lepper and Clare Hawley will continue as a job-share to lead our work on energy from waste, anaerobic digestion and waste prevention, providing valuable continuity in the senior team. There will also be good continuity on the rest of our waste policy work at team level, though there may be some changes there in the autumn.”

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