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Can a small change make a big difference?

When I was given responsibility for waste policy in 1998, I was surprised to find it came with a co-owner in the then Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

At the time the arrangement had some internal logic. The then Department of the Environment’s historic role in relation to waste was chiefly to ensure that it could be ”taken away” and dealt with so that it did not harm human health or the environment.

The DTI’s role was to promote manufacturing industry and minimise regulatory burdens on business. While most waste policy rested with DoE, regulations affecting the motor, chemical and electronics industries - the end of life vehicles (ELV), Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and WEEE Directives for example, sat with DTI.

But even in 1998, as the focus on sustainable development following the Rio Earth Summit began to develop, the tensions between the approaches of the two departments were becoming noticeable. A great deal of time and effort was expended by the two departments arguing about their different approaches to implementing EU producer responsibility directives for example.

On the face of it, therefore, the announcement that the regulatory team from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) will merge with Defra’s Environmental Quality team makes a lot of sense. It is presented as a tidying up of the government machine and, from what has been said, I think that is essentially what is intended.

It will allow for more consistency in the approach to producer responsibility and reduce the need for inter-departmental co-ordination, which neither department can afford in current circumstances.

Like the dog that does not bark in the night, however, what is not said may also be interesting as a signal of the Government’s intentions. First, this is a tiny machinery of government change, but it seems to close the door firmly on those who have been arguing for resources policy to be transferred to BIS in the hope of making it more central to long-term economic thinking.

I was always sceptical about this in the absence of evidence that BIS had any interest in or capability to pursue such an approach. The fact that they are surrendering their existing interests in this area seems to confirm that they do not see themselves leading the charge for either a resource or a circular economy (CE).

Similarly I think it signifies that there is no interest in picking up pre-election ideas from the sector about a new Office of Resource Management.

Nor does the announcement clarify what continuing role, if any, BIS sees for itself in relation to waste and resource efficiency. One concern would be that while they had responsibility for some producer responsibility legislation, their natural aversion to regulating industry may have been moderated. The transfer of those responsibilities, however, may free them to take a more partisan view and enable them to focus on their traditional role of protecting business from regulation.

Another intriguing question, on which the announcement is silent, is whether this has any implications for the CE package presently working its way through the EU. Certainly, to the extent that the Government wants to engage with the CE, these changes are helpful but by no means sufficient.

Much depends on whether the motivation for the change is simply to tidy up an anomaly and remove the need for unproductive co-ordination between two Government departments. If that is all it is, the change will probably not be significant.

If, on the other hand, the change comes from some shrewd positioning by outgoing director at Defra Colin Church and a smart and proactive minister in Rory Stewart, we may see more coming from the change.

Even if it is too much to hope in current circumstances that we see major extensions of producer responsibility, it would be great to see changes in the current regimes. These could level the playing field between domestic and overseas reprocessing, provide some real incentive for the reuse of products or components and increase recycled content, providing much needed demand for recyclate.

They could also help spread the value from recycling so that the efforts of the collectors, especially local authorities, are recognised more directly and provide incentives for them to improve the quantity and quality of materials collected.

We should not rule out extensions of producer responsibility: mattresses, carpets, other textile classes and disposable nappies are all in my view potential candidates.

Let’s not forget, however, that there is an important vote on 23 June in the EU in/out referendum. If that goes the wrong way, Defra’s new team will have their hands full working out what they can salvage from the wreckage.

Phillip Ward is the owner of Falcutt consultancy

Readers' comments (2)

  • Good thinking and some very valid points.

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  • Great article Phillip. I suspect that this change is a minor tidying up - it seems to involve a grand total of four staff moving from BIS to Defra - but I think that it is nonetheless helpful for the longer term, for the reasons you state. If the UK stays in the EU, and if the CE Package is adopted, then the UK producer responsibility regimes will need fundamental review, and having them all brigaded together in Defra should help with that.

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