Remember RWM 2014? The presence of communities secretary Eric Pickles packed the main theatre and his lively keynote speech was a significant talking point for weeks. Few in the audience sympathised with his observations about household collections and the then chief executive of CIWM Steve Lee was on the receiving end of an admonishment from a combative politician who headed a significant department relevant to the resource and waste management sector. But it was good for a senior politician to be so engaged.
Since then, we have not been blessed with much engagement from ministers, either at the Department for Communities and Local Government or, particularly, Defra. At the junior level, continuity within Defra has been almost impossible because of 12-monthly baton-changing (Rogerson to Stewart to Coffey to…watch this space.) None has had a real chance to get to grips with being the resource/waste minister. None seemed to try that hard, either.
As secretaries of state, Liz Truss and Andrea Leadsom have come and gone but the appointment of the new boy, Michael Gove, has at least piqued the interest of the ‘waste media’ because one thing is for certain – his residency won’t be a quiet one.
The key questions for us, though, are threefold: how engaged Gove is with resource efficiency; how his Brexit stance affects the adoption of EU-driven environmental regulations; and the impending arrival of the circular economy measures. And waiting in the wings, of course, is the department’s 25-year plan, so far away in the long grass that even publication of the framework document is at least six months late (and that’s being generous).
Gove’s appointment to environment – a sector in which research, analysis and data are key – has prompted many to revisit his “experts” quote during the referendum campaign. It has too frequently been paraphrased to suggest a disregard for experts, full stop. He actually said: “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts with organisations from acronyms saying that (italics) they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”
Defra is proud of being a department where data-backed analysis is important, even when the ministers have not always been in the same mindset (think of Owen Patterson in 2013 arguing that badgers had “moved the goalposts”).
I don’t really believe Gove’s comment on experts: it was a politician’s escape in a referendum campaign facing a pretty long list of reputable bodies challenging the economics of his Brexit view.
Theresa May’s appointment of him has been criticised by the environmental lobby but some speeches have been relatively encouraging (see box). And his work in the education and justice departments suggests he applies himself with intellectual rigour.
We must hope Gove accepts the tenets of sustainability that require 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 other nations are forging ahead on sustainability while England is suffering from indifference and inaction.
The real issue may be that whichever politicians are in power at the moment, the future is very uncertain and we could have another Tory leadership battle and even another election. In both outcomes, I wouldn’t expect Gove to remain at Defra.
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.”