Defra's 'culture of delay' in spotlight after National Audit Office report

In a damning report, Government watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) criticises Defra’s failure to lay the foundations for projects outlined in the Resources and Waste Strategy. 

Defra sign Nobel HouseIn its review of Government progress to deliver on its plans to overhaul how waste is managed, the NAO is calling on the Government to immediately ‘establish firmer foundations for its work on resources and waste’ and take a more holistic approach, rather than ‘relying primarily on a project-by-project perspective’.

The report, released today (30 June), is a review of the Government’s progress on ‘Our waste, our resources: a strategy for England’, which was published in 2018 with the aim of establishing the circular economy. The Strategy aims to double resource productivity and eliminate avoidable waste of all kinds by 2050, including measures to cut food waste and promote waste reduction overseas.

To meet the goals of the Strategy, Defra developed a programme of three interrelated projects: extended producer responsibility (EPR), the consistent collections project, and the deposit return scheme (DRS).

The NAO report findings indicate that Defra has not done enough to put in place essential aspects of programme management for all three projects. These weaknesses in the set-up – amongst factors which the report acknowledges were out of Defra’s control – have led to delays.

The NAO says that Defra lacks an understanding of the nature and extent of the changes that will be required to realise the benefits it expects from the reforms, and needs to do more to improve businesses’ confidence in the reforms.

Commenting on the report, Gareth Davies, Head of the NAO, said: “Reducing waste is critical to reducing emissions and achieving some of government’s wider environmental goals, but Defra does not have effective long term plans for how it will achieve its ambitions for reducing waste, and there has been delay to its implementation of reforms.

“Defra must now establish a clear and coherent plan for its work on waste and resources, addressing the weaknesses in the reforms already in progress. If Defra takes these steps, it will be in a much stronger position to achieve its ambitions.”

In particular, the report highlights uncertainties surrounding the benefits of DRS. The impact assessment for the DRS showed that more than 90 per cent of the benefits that Defra expects are based on an estimate of the value to society of reducing litter – which is inherently difficult to determine. Defra has no current plans to test the scheme through piloting.

Response to the report

The report lays bare the lack of progress, prompting widespread criticism. Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts commented: “We all need to reduce waste and recycle more to protect our environment. However, today the NAO reports that having missed its 2020 target on household recycling, Defra still lacks good long-term delivery plans for its work on waste.

“It's another example of Defra's culture of delay. Nearly five years on from its 2018 strategy, Defra has much to do before it can implement major reforms like the deposit return scheme. Defra must give households, local authorities and businesses the confidence they need to substantially change behaviours, or risk further setbacks to our environmental objectives.”

This view is matched by the response of industry stakeholders. Tim Duret, Director of Sustainable Technology at Veolia UK, commented: “We all want to push for higher recycling rates and help more items find their way into the circular economy. Waste reduction, ecodesign and consistency in collections will all help us to reduce the amount of waste we produce and help create a recycling society, but we need the Government to act now.

"The sooner the Government puts the Resources and Waste Strategy into practice the faster this will happen. Businesses, local authorities and the recycling industry need clarity so we can prepare for the changes in the most viable and sustainable way.”

Highlighting the lack of ambition as well as progress, Libby Peake, Head of Resources at Green Alliance, added: “Virtually nothing has changed in the four and a half years since the UK government promised to transform the country’s resource use and minimise waste.

“As the National Audit Office sets out in meticulous detail today, the initial reforms promised to recycling are well behind schedule. Worse, by sinking so much time into dealing with waste better, the government has completely neglected to develop policy to prevent it in the first place.

“Every year, the UK consumes more than twice as many resources per person as the UN says is sustainable – the government must come up with ambitious targets and a long-term plan to deal with this.”
The Recycling Association chief executive Paul Sanderson said: "The Resources and Waste Strategy was launched in 2018 and we'd have hoped to have seen more progress by now. It is especially concerning that NAO found that effective delivery plans for this policy do not exist.

"How can recyclers, waste management companies, local authorities, retailers, manufacturers and other stakeholders plan for change when Defra hasn't even done the delivery planning itself?

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