Future of waste sector ‘hangs in balance’ after Tory conference

The future of the waste and resources sector ‘hangs in the balance’ after Theresa May signalled intentions to bring about a ‘hard Brexit’ at this week’s Conservative Party Conference, says Steve Lee, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM).

Lee’s comments come following the conference, which saw speeches from various members of the government including May and new Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom. He said that while May’s intention to begin Brexit negotiations next year provides a ‘degree of certainty’, the lack of any clarification on existing environmental legislation and the government’s approach to the EU’s Circular Economy Package, which is currently in development, means it is hard to say when the industry will again be given any sort of ‘long-term certainty’.

Leadsom offers few answers

The conference was Leadsom’s first major appearance since being made Environment Secretary in the governmental shake-up this summer, and her speech focused mainly on food exports – a topic also diligently detailed by her predecessor Liz Truss’s maiden conference speech – and the development of mobile phone coverage for rural communities.

Future of waste sector ‘hangs in balance’ after Tory conferenceOn resources, she commented on the success of the introduction of the carrier bag charge in England, which, a year old today (5 October), has seen more than five billion fewer single-use carrier bags taken from major retailers, and the recent announcement that the government will seek a ban on microbeads in cosmetics and personal care products.

However, besides these brief mentions, there was no look forward to any policy stances that the government may take, though Leadsom did mention Defra’s ‘ambitious’ 25-year plan, which is in development after a delay caused by the upheaval in the department this summer.

Landfill tax no longer an adequate driver for recycling – Coffey

At a fringe session organised by waste management company Suez and the Policy Exchange think tank during the conference, new Waste Minister Therese Coffey, whom Leadsom described as “taking forward [Defra’s] highly ambitious plans for the environment”, did elaborate on some aspects of her attitude towards certain issues facing the industry in the UK.

She said that she wanted to remove any excuse urban authorities have for under-performing when it comes to recycling rates, saying: “It is a real mindset about what we are going to do to get people, whether they are in an urban environment or the countryside, to recognise their responsibility.”

As with her predecessor Rory Stewart at the Resourcing the Future conference earlier this year, Coffey suggested that action to improve rates would be council-led, but questioned whether the financial incentive created by the landfill tax was enough to usher in improvements.

“I don’t want central government to be decreeing everything because councils know their communities best, but I do know there are some outstanding examples,” she said. “Given we have seen the plateauing, is the financial incentive of landfill tax just enough anymore? My impression is that it has stopped being a sufficient penalty to make a change.”

‘Myriad questions’ remain on industry’s outlook

Commenting on the outcomes of the conference on behalf of CIWM, Lee said: “The future of the waste and resources sector… hangs as much in the balance today as it did before the Conservative Party Conference.

“Beyond promising both a tailored and ambitious approach to environmental protection in Defra’s 25-year environment plan, Andrea Leadsom’s speech yesterday offered up little detail on the department’s approach to Brexit, despite the fact that UK policy in this area is largely framed around and driven by EU legislation.

“Myriad questions remain, including the outlook for the EU Circular Economy Package, which could be on the EU statute book before the UK departs. We must also keep an eye out for more detail on exactly how changes to the existing legislation will be made when the time comes. Will it be a truly consultative (and potentially, therefore, long drawn out and complex) process as May promises or will ministers be given executive powers?

“Looking on the positive side, there is everything to play for, and CIWM is and will continue to engage with all four UK governments to ensure that the UK has a robust and ambitious waste and resources strategy in the future. On the down side, investment in services and infrastructure requires long-term certainty and it is hard to say when our industry will have that luxury again.”

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