Resources Minister appears to row back on need for consistency in recycling collection

Rory Stewart at the Resourcing the Future Conference 2016A year after addressing the assembled waste and resources industry for the first time at the Resourcing the Future Conference 2015, the UK’s Resources Minister Rory Stewart returned to the event with a speech that suggested a change to his ambitions for the sector.

Describing himself as “slightly more ground down” than at this point last year, his speech represented a departure from some of the other statements he has made about the waste and resource industry, including in his well-received inaugural speech in which he promised “to champion [the] industry and support [it]”.

Consistency left out

Notably, there was little talk of the need to increase consistency in local authority waste collection methods, something that he has previously championed. Indeed, at last year’s Tory Party Conference, he described the capital’s differing collection systems as ‘Berlin Walls’, adding: “We have about 360 different local authorities, doing different things with their waste. It is completely mad.”

Following that speech, the minister set up the Harmonisation and Consistency Working Group with the aims of realising Stewart’s vision of giving LAs a limited choice of ‘five or six’ different collection systems within the next 10 years.

The group is still due to present its findings before Parliament’s summer recess, which starts on 21 July, but there was no mention of his ambitions for it in the speech. Instead, the minister sounded a very different note, saying that his “gut instinct” told him that “all of this stuff is deeply, deeply local”.

Responding to a question from a representative of Sevenoaks District Council, Stewart said: “This goes back to my gut instinct that all of this stuff is deeply, deeply local. And it is all about you in Sevenoaks being able to tell us what the problems are in Sevenoaks, and how the problems of Sevenoaks differ from the problems in Bexley, and what the obstacles are that you face. I take on board the bigger picture.”

Earlier, in his brief prepared speech, he had also highlighted a new ‘no-one-size-fits-all mindset’, saying: “It only makes sense in grand terms to talk about reducing the size of wheelie bins if you can really get your head around the fact that in South Kensington, for example, most people are putting their waste into the basement, and the bin men can’t move a wheelie bin out of the basement, they have to move it back, et cetera et cetera – this is stuff that you live and breathe all the time.

“But the more we can get away from the big, abstract, generic headline things that nobody’s going to disagree with – nobody’s going to disagree with or not many people are going to disagree with the general theory that we would be in a better world if we were better at separating waste. [But we need to get] into the real problems. How much is it going to cost this council? How much is it going to irritate this particular voter? What are the concrete problems in this city of actually doing this? [If we don’t do these things], we’re not going to win this problem at all.”

Disagreements in the industry and ‘path dependency’ issues

While not explicitly making the link, a few of his responses in the extended question and answer session hinted at possible reasons for the change in tone. Responding to a question about introducing variable taxation rates to encourage resource efficiency (something he insisted was “a Treasury issue”, saying that if he “suddenly start talking about taxation, a huge hand will descend from Number 11 and cuff me around the head”), he noted: “One of the issues that we keep butting against is, again to use the pompous phrase, is path dependency. In other words, once the country has set off down a particular track, it’s often quite different to re-engineer it to go back down a previous one, even if that one works better.”

Later, responding to a question about the need to promote the work of the sector more, he said: “Something that I think is very important… is being honest with each other. If the government isn’t doing something, it’s very easy to feel that the government is incompetent, dishonest, idle.

“My experience of the last year in government is that, frequently, the reason we’re not doing things is that there are very often profound disagreements, that you don’t necessarily pick up because often people I speak to are from a particular group and they tend to agree with each other. As soon as I step out of the room of you guys, and talk to citizens or talk to producers, you suddenly end up with quite different views. Now, I think they can be resolved, I believe in argument, I believe in openness, I believe in honesty…”

Less emphasis on leadership

Another notable difference from last year’s speech was the absence of the desire for the UK to lead when it comes to resources.

At Resourcing the Future 2015, he had said: “In five years’ time, I want to be able to give a presentation highlighting 15 to 20 ways the UK is leading the world when it comes to resources.”

That statement differed markedly from some of his pronouncements this year, including: “It’s always quite reassuring for government to see that somebody else has already tried it out. So, a really good example would be the plastic bag tax. The fact that the devolved governments had already done it suddenly put me in a very powerful position to be able to introduce it, because I was able to see what they’d done in Wales and Scotland and reassure officials who are always extremely creative in thinking of potential problems – and that actually if Wales can do it, there’s no reason we couldn’t do it.”

Need for better communication and to ‘win arguments’

Stewart focused a great deal of his prepared statement on the need to better communicate the issues, both to the public, to key figures within councils and within the industry. He said: “I think that we all need to be much better at communicating… to the public. It’s very easy sitting in a room for everybody here to agree that recycling is important. But of course, what I discover going to doorsteps and indeed occasionally even meeting council leaders is you suddenly meet people who say: ‘To be honest, I don’t agree with any of this.’

“I met a very senior individual who astonished me by coming into my office and saying: ‘Personally, I think we should just be burying this stuff in the ground and I don’t know why you’re wasting your time trying to recycle.’ This is a highly educated individual with an enormous amount of power saying this to me. We need to win the arguments with those people. If we don’t win the arguments with those people, we’re not going to be able to get money out of the government, we’re not going to be able to get legislative support out of the government, and that means that all of us need to keep getting back to basics, keep remembering why we’re doing this stuff in the first place, to make sure that we keep those people on side.”

The minister also repeatedly called for open and honest debate within industry, concluding: “We need to learn from each other. I think we can do that and hopefully, when I come back, if I’m luck enough to be invited back next year, we’ll be in a better place next year than we are this year, because we’re more rigorous, we’re more detailed, and ultimately we’re more honest.” 

Hope for the future of England's waste strategy

Reviewing Stewart's speech, Resource Association Chief Executive Ray Georgeson said that while the minister did not follow up on his consistency claims, his comments did give hope that the government is starting to take note of other nations leaving English waste policy in their dust: “It was a well-crafted intervention by the Minister, given the constraints of referendum purdah, in which what he didn’t say was probably as important as what he actually said. There was barely a mention of the ‘consistency’ agenda he championed so strongly last year and has continued to champion since, and I was also looking forward to hearing a progress report from him on how we were doing towards his stated objective last year of making England 'the best recycling nation in the world'. It didn’t come, but what came was a clear message that he says his interest is in taking established successful practices from other nations – I hope this leads to a proper review of England’s waste strategy once the referendum issue is (hopefully) settled, which so many delegates called for during the conference.”