Government seeking outcome-driven environmental policy post-Brexit

Therese Coffey
Waste Minister Therese Coffey says that the government’s environmental policy following Brexit will be “focused on outcomes” and that certain elements of the Circular Economy Package could end in “perverse” results.

Coffey was speaking yesterday (7 September) at an Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) inquiry into the ‘Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum’, focusing on the government’s plans for environmental law and protections that originated in the EU.

The inquiry follows on from a letter written by EAC Chair Mary Creagh MP to Brexit Secretary David Davis and Therese Coffey, the new Waste Minister at the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), expressing concern about the future of EU-derived environmental policy.

According to Creagh, about 80 per cent of our environmental legislation has its origins in European law, and Coffey attempted to reassure the committee, saying that rather than “trying to get out of any environmental commitment” or scale back on any environmental directives, exiting the EU offers an “opportunity to take an approach that might be more holistic and focused on outcomes” rather than “prescriptive inputs and specific rules”.

She added that the current Tory government, as per its manifesto under David Cameron’s leadership at the 2015 general election, is “committed to having a better environment” and that she “wouldn’t want anyone to be under the illusion that just because we’re leaving the EU that has any difference in our environmental ambitions for the people of this country”.    

Defra plan on the way

However, Coffey would not be drawn on any clarification on Defra’s future plans in the period up to and following Britain’s departure from the EU.

The committee pressed for an idea on more specific details on what the government sees as its priorities for a post-Brexit environment, but in response, Coffey referred several times to Defra’s forthcoming 25-year framework as the long-term model for the government’s intentions for the environment. The plan was originally meant to be published this summer, but was delayed after the new administration was formed in government (including the arrival of Coffey and Environment Minister Andrea Leadsom at Defra) and the result of the referendum became the top priority.

Coffey said that the 25-year plan would be published in the near future and that it would provide the framework for a full environment plan that will follow next year. The plan was not particularly highly-anticipated by the waste and resources industry after a five-year plan released at the beginning of this year virtually ignored the sector.

Waste industry looking for strategic lead

Creagh made a point to highlight that the waste industry is looking for a strategic lead from the government and that there has not yet been any response to that desire: “There’s a very strong feeling in the waste sector – your predecessor in the role [Rory Stewart] was saying go away, do the research yourself and come back with what you would like to see me do – of why should we be doing the work of government?

EAC Chair Mary Creagh highlighted the exasperation of the waste industry at a perceived lack of guidance from government
“You’ve spoken a lot about outcomes… you talked about the 45 per cent recycling rate which of course fell back last year and we’re not sure if it’s going to fall back again next year, one of the things that has driven massive improvements in this area is having that [EU-imposed] 50 per cent target by 2020. Do you think a 60 per cent target by 2030 [as proposed in the EU's Circular Economy Package] is reasonable, achievable, desirable?”

Coffey would not give a response, but said that she is interested in the recycling field and is “appalled” at the low recycling figures of some areas of the country.

Circular Economy Package ‘must be looked at carefully’

Indeed, discussing the Circular Economy Package, currently in a stage of negotiation in the three main institutions, Coffey didn’t seem to be entirely convinced of its merits. While the government under David Cameron had refused to support any new recycling targets from the EU, Coffey went even farther and refused to agree that the UK should embrace the possibilities of the circular economy and saying: “The word circular economy to me is at risk of implying there isn’t growth, we can continue to grow, it doesn’t just need to be a closed loop.”

She added: “The general principles I think most in industry would get: do more with resources, do more with design. But sometimes we need to be careful… we should focus on outcomes. That’s what really matters rather than being prescriptive. So we’ll be taking a particularly close look at this policy issue.

“Some stuff we have to look at really carefully. Proposals about changing the definition of what constitutes recycling could have a big impact on the UK. So we need to be careful in our approach to this: we don’t want, just because of some specific rules and regulations, to end up with a perverse outcome.”

She said that the UK will continue to play a full and active role in negotiations for the package up until its departure from the EU, and that it is too early to say what stage it will have reached by the time Brexit is finalised, and whether the measures included in any finalised deal would be taken on.

However, she vowed to involve industry with negotiations to ensure it was not damaged by uncertainty: “In waste, people always want certainty – I recognise that – but we’ll be seeking views on what outcomes matter so that people can go ahead and invest with some certainty.

“We did increase the recycling rate from 11 per cent to 45 per cent… we want to go further and we’ll continue to work with WRAP and industry and interested sectors to make better use of the resources we have today.”

The full questioning of Therese Coffey and Robin Walker, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Exiting the European Union, can be watched on the Environmental Audit Committee’s website.

An interview with EAC Chair Mary Creagh, covering her role and what she has learned since taking it up, can be read in this summer’s Resource .

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