‘No one else to blame’: A vision of a post-Brexit waste and resource industry

I’m sure that I won’t be the only reader who woke up on 24 June and thought, ‘What now?’

I’d written in a blog that I was bemused by the referendum choice: the electorate was asked to make a choice with a reasonable idea of what ‘Remain’ might mean, but none whatsoever about what ‘Exit’ would mean. Voting to ‘take back control’ gave no certainty as to how that control would be exercised. When leave campaigners were putting their case, there was a notional reference to some ‘we’ that would be making the decisions, but exactly who it was that was being referred to as ‘we’ was never made clear: there was, and is, no ‘leave party’ (though the Tory leadership may yet look like one), still less a linked manifesto (though do those retain any credibility?). The fall-out from the referendum vote is merely highlighting that the future is an uncertain one.

What, then, of the future for waste management? Well, in the short-term, it’s not so easy to say: the waste management sector is – and needs to be – one where regulation plays an important role, and where the influence of the EU has, of course, been strong. One aspect of the leave campaigners’ optimism was that the UK would have favourable access to the single market whilst gaining control over its borders, but this looks like a position that is already unravelling in the unedifying scramble to disown ‘things that other people said’ as part of the campaign that the diversely embodied ‘we’ were engaged in. Which position will dominate: market access, or control over borders?

Given that it’s likely to be difficult to have both, then if market access ‘wins’, this seems likely to be the course that leads to least change in existing legislation because we’d most likely still be bound by EU environmental legislation. It’s interesting to consider, in this scenario, how the ongoing negotiations around the circular economy package will be affected by the decision that has been made: the UK is unlikely, for perhaps obvious reasons, to seek to hinder negotiations that are ongoing in this regard, which is not to say that these negotiations are necessarily a cake-walk. But how those negotiations end up may yet influence what happens in the UK.

If border control ‘wins’, then the terms of market access are unlikely to be as good, and the UK would be far less likely to be bound by existing EU directives. The big question, then, becomes how, in this scenario, that greater freedom of manoeuvre would be used.

It goes without saying that there are opportunities here, as well as the concerns that many environmentalists have expressed. Unless some centralised – and rather limited – process of legislative change is initiated (in which case, at least in the short-term, then a ‘no change’ situation seems most likely), then we could also imagine a flurry of activity in Defra. Presumably, this means it would need to be more heavily resourced than it is currently, given the range of the EU waste-related legislation that would need to be reviewed. That review process is the moment that we should seize if we are to forge a genuinely forward-looking future: we know that we can develop new, and support existing, industries with a view to developing our economy through bolstering domestic activity, and the export of technology and expertise.

If, within the waste and resource management industry, we’re going to make sure we are in a position to seize the opportunities that could arise in the months ahead, then – and frankly, whether we’re more or less closely bound to the EU – we all have an interest in articulating a vision for the approach to resource management in the UK over the longer term, and to have a plan as to how we get there. I’d like to see an emphasis on outcomes, and achieving the best results in the most efficient ways. England needs its own home-grown plan for managing wastes as resources, just as other devolved administrations have already started to pursue theirs.

Brussels officials have long recognised that they are every country’s whipping boy when it comes to national scandals: the Germans are only marginally less likely than the UK to blame Brussels for the latest press outrage. One thing that we (and the Daily Mail!) no longer have is anyone else to blame. Let’s do the right thing.