Cuts increase risk to waste and resources sector post-Brexit

Budget cuts and lack of funding at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) could undermine ambitious government plans for waste and resources policy after Brexit, keeping the sector a ‘high risk’ policy area on Greener UK’s Brexit Risk Tracker.

Greener UK, a coalition of 13 major environmental organisations, published the first assessment from its Brexit Risk Tracker back in June 2017, with the latest update covering October 2017 to mid-January 2018.

The Risk Tracker, a tool set up to reflect the risks to environmental policy throughout the Brexit process, uses a traffic light rating system to evaluate risk based on analysis of the government’s actions and commitments. Secure policy areas are given a green rating, those with medium risk get an amber rating and those at high risk are assigned a red mark. The overall risk mark for a particular sector is based on individual risk marks for five sub-sections: principles and strategies, legislation, capacity and funding, governance, and co-operation.

Previously considered a ‘medium risk’ policy area after the first Risk Tracker assessment in June 2017, waste and resources was upgraded to a ‘high risk’ policy area in October of last year after Defra predicted it would not be able to reach the 60 per cent recycling target set by the EU’s Circular Economy Package, agreement on which was reached in December 2017.

Government’s Clean Growth Strategy targets landfill obsolescence by 2050That prediction was compounded by the fact that the UK is currently on course to miss its 2020 recycling targets, while the government continued to insist that the UK will be leaving the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), an institution that provides crucial oversight for environmental protections.

This time around, despite a renewed interest in waste and resources policy from government in recent months and a series of strategy papers in the form of the Clean Growth Strategy, the Industrial Strategy white paper and the long-awaited 25 Year Environment Plan (25YEP) - which has committed the UK to zero avoidable waste by 2050, no food waste to landfill by 2030 and no avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042 - the sector retains its ‘high risk’ status due to concerns over lack of funding and capacity.

Significant extra workload

The National Audit Office stated in December that Brexit creates a significant extra workload for Defra, which it will have to carry out while accommodating £147 million of budget cuts across 2017/18 and 2018/19, all with what is likely to be a reduced workforce: Defra estimated that 1,200 new posts need to be filled by March 2018 to support Brexit work, only 650 of which have been filled as of November.

Defra, more than most departments, has built strong ties with the EU and is currently responsible for 43 of the 313 EU-related work streams across government. A substantial amount of funding for a number of Defra policies comes from the EU, which only increases the budgetary pressure on the department as that funding is gradually withdrawn, while the EU provides regulatory functions in many of Defra’s areas of responsibility.

Funding issues at Defra have also had a negative impact on the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), the charity tasked with delivering the government's waste and resources policy. Defra’s budget allocation dedicated to WRAP has fallen from £56 million for 2009/10 to £15.5 million for 2015/16, a decrease of 72 per cent. Its current budget for 2017/18 is below £10 million and continued cuts are set to force the charity charged with delivering much of the government’s resource policy to make 25 members of staff redundant.

Also concerning, on top of capacity and funding issues, is a continued failure to incorporate the EU’s general principles into the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, while granting ministers powers to alter the contents of the bill during the two years following Brexit, although Environment Secretary Michael Gove has launched a consultation on a new environmental monitoring body to plug the governance gap left following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

Commenting on the latest Brexit Risk Tracker, Libby Peake, Senior Policy Advisor in Resource Stewardship at environmental think tank Green Alliance, which hosts the Greener UK unit, said: "Despite the increasing interest in resource and waste matters and several welcome announcements and strategies from government in recent months, it remains unclear how government will deliver on its ambitions.

“Defra civil servants have an incredibly large Brexit-related workload to tackle in addition to developing the first resources and waste strategy in more than a decade. And this quarter - just days after releasing the 25YEP - WRAP announced that it would have to make more than 10 per cent of its staff redundant following years of budget cuts. This is especially unfortunate as WRAP is a key delivery body for many of the sorts of programmes needed to deliver the ambitions in the 25YEP."

To find out more about the outlook for UK environmental protections, visit Greener UK’s Brexit Risk Tracker online.

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