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English councils need policy reboot

As councils increasingly look to introduce charges at their household waste recycling centres (HWRCs), it was intriguing to see one authority, Leicester City Council, predict that such a change would reduce its recycling rate by nearly three percentage points.

What is notable is that, despite this anticipated adverse effect and a possible increase in fly-tipping, the Leicester report still backed the change.

DIY waste disposal is a popular target for the charge, and the main reason cited by the authorities is to save money in the face of continued cuts from central Government.

Outlining the severity of the situation earlier this year, Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (Larac) chair Andrew Bird warned that efficiency savings had been exhausted and the time had come for councils to “do less with less”.

But what does this mean for recycling targets? As it stands, the UK still has the target of 50% recycling from household waste by 2020 but is languishing below 45%.

Resource minister Therese Coffey has suggested this target will remain after the country’s exit negotiations from the EU are completed. The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has said it remains “determined to boost recycling”.

The DCLG has repeatedly criticised councils that have introduced HWRC charges “by the back door”, sending letters to Norfolk and Northamptonshire county councils in 2014, and has pledged to take action against those charging for DIY waste disposal.

There appears to be some confusion about the definition of household waste, with councils under the impression this does not include DIY waste while DCLG asserts it does.

Nor does the department seem to accept that councils are having to cut services, repeating a previously issued line that authorities have “nearly £200bn to spend during the course of this Parliament”.

With limited financial tools at their disposal, it looks as if some English councils may have given up on boosting their recycling rates and helping the UK to hit its 2020 target. Those with higher rates already over 50% may also feel less pressure to sustain ‘above-average’ recycling rates.

A report on councils in the north-west of England by the support agency Local Partnerships, owned by the Treasury and the Local Government Association, found that boosting recycling rates did not take priority.

“There was a strong feeling that action will not necessarily be taken simply to generate an increase in percentage points for recycling; the main priority is generating value for money services within a limited public budget,” it said.

The picture is different in the other home nations.

Wales is leading the way with a 60% recycling rate and the Welsh Government has set a 70% target by 2025 which, under current trends, looks achievable.

To support its local authorities’ improvements, the devolved administration provides funding through its Collaborative Change Programme for struggling councils and holds the power to fine those that continue to miss targets.

Scotland’s recycling rate is more comparable with England’s, but it continues to improve and the Scottish Government has introduced similar measures to its Welsh counterparts.

As English councils have no direct, enforceable statutory recycling targets to meet, no financial support to increase their rates and no potential fines if they miss them, they surely have less reason to improve.

With Coffey unsure about whether longer term European recycling targets will be transposed into UK law, English councils could be left with no targets of any kind.

Now could be an opportune moment for England to introduce its own target, which Larac said could work if combined with similar funding to Wales and Scotland.

The waste industry would hope the introduction of such targets would form part of a new waste strategy, an agenda which Defra has been criticised for not producing.

With the department’s framework for its 25-year plan expected in November, all eyes will be on whether it includes any measures the sector needs to reboot the industry.

It is difficult to see how that can happen if English councils remain left in the cold.

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