Gove commits to ‘significant’ funding to local authorities

Local authorities will be given “hundreds of millions of pounds” in order to help them boost their recycling rates and waste management performance following the publication of the Resources and Waste Strategy, Environment Secretary Michael Gove told MPs yesterday (19 December).

The Secretary of State made the commitment during an evidence session with Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) on Wednesday afternoon where he had been summoned to answer questions about no deal planning by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the publication of the Resources and Waste Strategy, which outlines the government's ambitions for moving the UK towards a more circular economy and to increase its resource efficiency.

The strategy had been eagerly anticipated since being announced after Gove’s appointment as Environment Secretary back in June 2017 and contained several significant policy commitments.

Gove commits to ‘significant’ funding to local authorities
Gove giving evidence before the Environmental Audit Committee.

Among the strategy’s key actions were proposals to introduce mandatory separate collections of food waste across England by 2023 and a full net cost recovery extended producer responsibility (EPR) regime for packaging, in addition to plans to set a core set of recyclable materials to be collected by all local authorities and to introduce a deposit return scheme for single-use beverage containers by 2023.

2020 targets and funding

Gove was bullish in defence of the strategy and the future for the UK’s resources and waste sector, beginning with the affirmation that the UK will reach its 2020 recycling target of 50 per cent despite it currently lagging behind at 45.2 per cent, and held up his belief that the Resources and Waste Strategy provides “clear pointers towards improving collecting and recycling” as evidence that this could be achieved.

When asked what extra funding would be given to local authorities to help them meet the 2020 target, Gove stated that a “significant sum”, to the tune of “hundreds of millions of pounds… whenever they need it”, will be made available to local authorities and the funding would be “harvested from the EPR extension”, though it was not clear quite how soon the funding would be made available and how it would make a difference to progress towards the 2020 target as the packaging EPR regime is not due to be in place until 2023.

Extra funding would be welcomed by local authorities considering they currently shoulder the majority of the burden for the costs of managing packaging waste, spending nearly £700 million in 2017, while budgetary pressure due to austerity has halted the expansion of recycling services for many councils.

Gove also stated that he wanted to see “rivalrous emulation” between the UK and the EU following Brexit to push up performance towards targets, likening the competition between the two entities to the Premier League title race, comparing the UK to Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and the EU to Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp – Mary Creagh MP, EAC Chair, said the UK was more likely to represent the recently sacked Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho.

‘Subject to consultation’

Creagh took the Environment Secretary to task regarding the number of policy commitments in the strategy that were subject to consultation. She pointed out that plans for a deposit return scheme (DRS) for single-use beverage containers are once again subject to consultation and not expected to be implemented before 2023, despite an initial consultation being launched in October 2017 and the commitment from Gove in March 2018 that a DRS for England would be introduced by the end of the year, while a consultation on extending EPR to other waste streams is not expected to end before 2025.

Gove stated that government policy commitments provided assurances to businesses about the direction of travel and they could then make preparations for the new policy, even launching action themselves, identifying the UK Plastics Pact – a voluntary coalition of businesses committed to eliminating ‘unnecessary’ single-use plastic packaging by 2025 – as a case in point.

He defended the use of multiple consultations to ensure Defra “gets policy right”. He continued: “I would always like to do more, I would also like to move faster but I also want to make sure policy is delivered in a way that is coherent”.

Food waste

The issue of food waste was raised later in the session, with Kerry McCarthy MP calling for a ban on sending food waste to landfill, rather than an ambition to “eliminate” food waste in landfill by 2030, to which Gove stated he was “not averse” to further restrictions to tackle food waste, stating the government “hadn’t done enough” on the issue.

McCarthy questioned the lack of mention of supermarkets with regard to food waste generation and monitoring in the strategy and asked what was being done to ensure surplus food is distributed to those in need, to which Gove responded with details of the £15-million fund spread over two years to support the redistribution of surplus food to charities he announced in October.

When she called for mandatory food waste audits, Gove stated that he “completely agreed” that more transparency was needed, though he didn’t want to implement a “universal one-size-fits-all requirement which would mean that small retail outlets that produce less food waste and are vital to the health of the local economy find that there is a requirement placed on them that is properly designed for chains and larger outlets that makes life more difficult for them”.

No deal planning

Gove also revealed during the EAC session that Defra had been handed £410 million for no deal planning, with some of the money to be spent on making sure the IT systems that will be needed in the case of a no deal are in place, some going to Future Farming Initiative (replacing the Common Agricultural Policy) and fisheries control and enforcement, some to the new Office of Environmental Protection and some going towards preparing databases needed for no deal.

Gove also failed to guarantee that all 50 staff seconded to Defra from Natural England to aid with no deal preparations would be returned to the body after Brexit, saying “we will make sure that Natural England, in consultation with the new Chair and Chief Executive, and should that Chair feel we’re not funding them appropriately, I would hope that that Chair would say not just to me privately but also to this committee”, though did say that he wouldn’t do anything to prevent them returning if the new Chair requested them back.

You can view Gove’s appearance at the EAC on the Parliament website.

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