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Little vision on show over sector woes

When Defra’s senior politician addressed the Conservative Party conference this week she mentioned waste just once.

Liz Truss told delegates she was going to fulfil a manifesto pledge and tackle fly-tippers with on-the-spot fines. So a senior representative, charged with managing the UK’s material resources, has an answer to the ugly result of current policy but offers nothing to help prevent the problem being created. No mention, though, of that other promise to allow councils to impose similar fines for litter.

I would not be surprised if the double whammy of local authority spending cuts and record low prices for secondary materials combines to make fly-tipping an acute embarrassment for Truss and other ministers at some point during this Parliament.

In fairness, resource minister Rory Stewart is talking about harmonising council collections and obviously addressing some of the key issues. Separately, the mandatory sampling of MRFs in England and Wales has been welcome, but the continuing woefully low number of MRFs registered under the Environment Agency’s ‘light touch’ regime shows the dangers of adopting such an approach.

It is interesting to note that the Scottish regulator is actively pressing all operators liable to take part in the new scheme north of the border to do so.

We can hope that the chancellor’s proposed Infrastructure Commission will have an impact on the waste sector, but there is little to cheer elsewhere. First, there is the troubled steel industry. While George Osborne was in China, manufacturers in the UK were bemoaning cheap Chinese imports. For the first time in recent years, merchants have been telling us that one of the key ferrous grades, light iron 5c, is down to just £5 a tonne in some areas. 

And at the end of September, the Confederation of Paper Industries warned that four mills and 13 paper-making machines will close in the UK this year amid concerns over energy costs. The textile market is also very gloomy, although the energy-from-waste sector seems brighter. 

It is difficult to see anything other than market failure across much of the waste sector. Instead of trumpeting a campaign to reduce red tape, it would be better if the secretary of state and others took action today to support those who will have a key role when the security of vital material resources becomes even more acute tomorrow.

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