Gove raises prospect of waste stockpiling in the event of ‘no deal’ Brexit

The Environment Secretary Michael Gove has outlined Defra preparations for the stockpiling of waste in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

He made the suggestion in a letter to Lord Teverson, Chair of the European Union Energy and Environment Sub-Committee in the House of Lords, which discusses the Brexit preparations of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

In his letter, sent on 15 January, Gove states that the Environment Agency (EA) began assessing the UK’s waste disposal capacity, ‘particularly in the South East of England’, as part of contingency plans for a ‘no deal’ Brexit. In the event of a ‘no deal’, potential disruption of the export of waste to Europe may mean that this waste will now have to be disposed of domestically.

Gove raises prospect of waste stockpiling in the event of ‘no deal’ BrexitThe Environment Secretary wrote: ‘Staff across the Environment Agency are engaging with operators to identify where issues, including stockpiling, may arise. The Environment Agency is ready to respond to requests from industry for additional storage of waste and will process any such requests as promptly as it can. In the event of a ‘no deal’ scenario causing stockpiling, the Environment Agency is able to issue an ‘enforcement position’ to allow waste sites to go over permitted levels on a temporary case-by-case basis.’

The EA’s focus on the South East of England derives from the fact that 15 per cent of the UK’s exports of refuse-derived fuel (RDF) – the largest single waste stream destined for export to EU countries, at 3.6 million tonnes a year – are sent from the port of Dover.

The admission from Gove that stockpiling is a real prospect in the immediate aftermath of the UK’s departure from the EU is a major departure from the ‘confidence’ expressed by Resources Minister Thérèse Coffey in January 2018, when she told the the European Union Energy and Environment Sub-Committee that Brexit would have ‘little or no impact on the UK’s trade in waste’.

The UK waste industry has previously underlined the importance of maintaining the frictionless trade in waste currently enjoyed by the UK as a result of its membership of the EU, with the Environmental Services Association (ESA) and the Dutch Waste Management Association (DWMA) calling it “essential” back in April 2018. The RDF Industry Group called for urgent action from the UK Government and the EU to allow the export of RDF to continue unhindered from the UK to Europe after Brexit.

Ray Georgeson, Chief Executive of the Resource Association, was quick to take to Twitter to express his dismay at the prospect of the stockpiling of waste, calling for a “rethink” in the government’s approach to Brexit.

Georgeson also raised further issues with a 'no deal' Brexit for the sector, adding: "As well as this stockpiling issue and the possibility of extra landfilling of waste previously due for export, other issues remain concerning the reliance of parts of the recycling industry on EU labour forces and the ability to retain and recruit after Brexit. This issue has been underestimated by many, as it doesn't carry the profile status of matters such as food and medicine shortages.

"It is a sorry state of affairs we find ourselves in as a nation when we are contemplating waste stockpiling at the same time as fresh food shortages. Be in no doubt, a 'no deal' Brexit will be damaging for many parts of the British economy and our sector will not be immune from this."

Shipments of waste and Statutory Instruments

Stockpiling aside, Gove’s letter also sought to assuage fears regarding the state of import and export licenses for the shipment of waste between the UK and the EU in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

The letter states that ‘substantial progress’ has been made in ‘agreeing with EU counterparts that shipments of notified waste which had previously received consent can, in a ‘no deal’ scenario, continue to be shipped with no requirement for a new application by UK exporters.’

It continues: ‘The regulators have agreed that 77 per cent of notifications to export waste from England to the EU can be rolled over. This represents 92 per cent of the tonnage of proposed waste exports from England to the 27 EU Member States.’

Gove added that while eight member states are yet to provide a response regarding notifications, Defra officials are in contact with these countries and a working on obtaining responses. In the event that responses were not received by 15 January, the letter stated that ‘UK regulators will re-submit the previous applications to the relevant EU regulators who will have 30 days to process these applications once they have acknowledged receipt.’

Gove expressed his confidence that it would be possible to obtain re-approval of the remaining shipments before 29 March 2019 given ‘progress made with other member states on this issue’, adding that that ‘it is in the interest of EU competent authorities to roll over existing notifications in order to avoid the burden of re-approving applications at a later date’.

Gove also stated that ‘good progress’ had been made on Defra’s EU Exit Statutory Instrument (SI) programme and that he was ‘confident’ that Defra could deliver a ‘fully functioning statute book’ by 29 March 2019. A Statutory Instrument is a form of secondary legislation that allows a government minister to make law according to the contents of an Act of Parliament, in this case the EU Withdrawal Act.

These SIs are required to carry over EU laws into UK legislation. Gove stated that there were currently drafts of 111 of the 120 EU Exit SIs that Defra is working on, including 25 SIs for Northern Ireland, with the remaining laws relying ‘on future EU regulation which will come into force while we are a member, and will be drafted once the requisite change comes forward’. So far, 83 SIs have been laid before Parliament or parliamentary sifting committees.

Defra’s Brexit troubles

It would not be remiss to suggest that Defra officials will be glad to see the end of the Brexit process – whenever that will be – given the sheer amount of departmental work and time that has been dedicated to it.

Defra has been responsible for 70 Brexit-related government work streams, the most of any department. Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) initially expressed concern over the lack of clarity surrounding the Defra’s plans back in May 2018.

The department has taken on significant numbers of additional staff in order to carry out its Brexit work. In October 2018, officials informed the PAC that Defra was still short of 1,400 staff needed to work on Brexit preparations, even after having recruited 1,300 new employees since April 2018.

Not all of these recruits were new employees, with Gove revealing to Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) that around 400 staff had been moved from various environment bodies to work on Defra’s Brexit work streams.

All of this is being carried out while Defra is having to accommodate £147 million of cuts across 2017/18 and 2018/19, while its departmental resource budget is set to be reduced by a further £100 million between 2018/19 and 2019/20.

You can read Gove’s letter to Lord Teverson in full on the Parliament website.

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