Remember RWM 2014? The presence of communities secretary Eric Pickles packed the main seminar theatre, and his lively keynote speech on household collections was a talking point for weeks. Few in the audience backed his observations but it was rare for a senior politician to be so in touch with our sector.
Since then, we have not been blessed with much engagement from ministers, either at the Department for Communities and Local Government or, more particularly, Defra.
At the junior level, continuity within Defra has stuttered because of ministers passing the baton at 12-month intervals. That Therese Coffey was retained as part of the latest minor reshuffle is to be welcomed because few of her predecessors in recent years have had any real chance to get to grips with the role.
As secretaries of state for Defra, Liz Truss and Andrea Leadsom have come and gone. But the appointment of Michael Gove has at least piqued the interest of the ‘waste media’ because one thing is for certain: his residency will not be a quiet one. It is to be hoped that he takes up the offer from the Trade Association Group, representing leading organisations, for a meeting.
There are several key issues currently facing the waste industry: engagement with resource efficiency, how Brexit will affect the adoption of EU-driven environmental regulations and how ministers react to the impending arrival of circular economy measures. Waiting in the wings is Defra’s 25-year plan, which is buried so deep in the long grass that even publication of the framework document is at least six months late.
Gove’s appointment to environment – a sector in which research, analysis and data are key – prompted some to revisit his “experts” quote made during the referendum campaign. It has too frequently been paraphrased to suggest a disregard for specialist knowledge. He actually said: “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”
I took it to be a politician’s escape during a campaign when he was facing a list of reputable bodies challenging the economics of his Brexit view.
On top if that, the appalling Grenfell Tower fire is having far-reaching consequences across British life. Among the many issues raised, can ministers sustain a dismissive attitude to red tape that the new de facto deputy PM Damien Green has described as “slightly jeering”? Could Gove ever be so publicly dismissive of experts again? He has also been a long-term campaigner on the “threat” of red tape to businesses.
Of all Whitehall departments, Defra is proud of being one where data-backed analysis is important, even when ministers have not always embraced their officials’ guidance (think of Owen Patterson in 2013 arguing that badgers had “moved the goalposts”).
Gove’s appointment by Theresa May has been criticised within the environmental lobby but some speeches have been relatively encouraging. And his work in the education and justice departments suggests that he applies himself with intellectual rigour.
Although his anti-EU stance indicates an unwillingness to sign the UK up to the circular economy package, we must hope that Gove accepts the tenets of sustainability which encourage recycling and a drive up the waste hierarchy. His reputation for seeking new ways of doing things might well work in the sector’s favour, especially if he sees that Wales and Scotland are forging ahead on sustainability.
Another potential bonus from the lack of change in Whitehall is that the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy department has all the main players back in place. Hopefully, that will mean no additional obstacles as it develops a vital strategy for UK infrastructure.
But whichever politicians are in power at this time, the Government’s future is very uncertain and we could well have a Tory leadership battle and/ or a general election. In both outcomes, I would not expect Gove to remain at Defra anyway.
Q&A with Michael Gove at the Conservative Environment Network launch, March 2014
“It seems to me unarguable that Man has an impact on the climate. It seems to me unarguable that climate change can have a devastating and damaging impact on societies and economies that are even less developed.
“And therefore it seems to me unarguable that we should seek first to lessen the impact that Man might have on the climate and, secondly, invest appropriately in measures to mitigate and protect individuals and societies from the impact of climate change.”
Who’s who in the new Government
BEIS: secretary of state – Greg Clark
DCLG: secretary of state – Sajid Javid
Defra: secretary of state – Michael Gove
Ministers – Therese Coffey, George Eustice and Lord Gardiner
A previous resource minister Dan Rogerson failed to return to Parliament in his former constituency, North Cornwall. Rogerson, a Liberal Democrat, came second as sitting MP Scott Mann held his seat with a slightly increased majority.