I hadn’t planned to return so soon to the frustrating and bemusing topic that is Whitehall’s policy vacuum over the waste industry. After all, it was only in January that I remarked how a 90-minute ‘grilling’ of environment secretary Liz Truss by the Efra committee took in flooding, farming and high-speed broadband but not resource efficiency.
That hearing came when floods were still very strong in the memory so it would have been charitable to accept that, at that time, Defra was preoccupied.
But now the department has been looking ahead and on 19 February unveiled its strategy plan until 2020. The emphasis continues to be on flooding, farming and the rest - but not waste (or resource efficiency in any guise).
I am not alone in being frustrated or bemused. Senior figures in our industry are not prepared to give the politicians any more time to listen or - more worryingly - to ignore their needs in these difficult times.
First off the blocks was CIWM chief executive Steve Lee who issued an extremely critical appraisal of the 2020 strategy. One sentence was damning: “The stark picture here is of a department that is utterly depleted in terms of resources, funding and vision”.
The 2020 plan acknowledges the need to fight waste crime but that is all. As Lee indicates, it is remarkable that the European Commission’s Circular Economy (CE) package had not been recognised somewhere in this report.
Ray Georgeson of the Resource Association has had enough. He made public a letter to Mary Creagh, the new chair of the Environmental Audit Committee that monitors the work of Whitehall in a ‘green’ context.
Georgeson echoes Lee’s concern but goes further by alleging that, based on informed sources in Brussels, the UK Government “is taking negative positions on many of the [CE] proposals and yet none of this has been properly shared or communicated with stakeholders at home”.
Georgeson wants the committee to call in Truss and her officials for a full scrutiny of the 2020 plan and Defra’s position on the CE proposals. Creagh, a former shadow environment secretary, can be expected to empathise with the call in a way that the Efra committee may not - after all, its members chose NOT to grill Truss about our sector in January.
This week also saw a very public affirmation of the CE philosophy from the Scottish government, welcomed with delicious irony by CIWM as: “a thoughtful and pragmatic vision to shape and drive Scotland’s progress”.
Lee is pleased at the leadership on display in Holyrood from “a government that is prepared to take action and provide funding support where it is in a position to do so”.
Back in England, resource minister Rory Stewart was congratulated when he took office last year and said he wanted to listen to the sector. He must surely have had time to do that by now?
It is clear he has heard enough about the stalling UK recycling rate to have convened an industry-wide group to consider ‘harmonising’ household collections. But, for all the listening, his public silence on the CE has been deafening and we need more from Defra, and more transparency.
I have now had a response from Defra on all this.
The official line is: ”Waste and resource management remain important priorities for the government. That is why reducing waste is one of the key aims in our departmental strategy that was published last week. Furthermore, we are developing our 25 Year Environment Plan to cover all aspects of the environment, including waste.”
This is all very well but the Single Departmental Plan (SDP) (click on the link to view) does NOT have the word ‘reduction’.
When this was pointed out, the press office told me (correctly) that ’reducing waste’ was mentioned (er, once) in the related, glossy, strategy document (click here to view) .
This is curious because the blurb for the latter document says the former one (SDP) goes into more detail. So much detail, in fact, that this single reference to reducing waste fails to make it into its bigger brother version.
But I’m nit-picking. What isn’t pedancy, though, is my inability to find any reference to recycling or the circular economy in either document.
Roll on the 25 Year Environment Plan.