Time for audacious policymaking

A sideways view: Issue 82

To say a lot of water has passed under the bridge since my last notes for Resource magazine would be an understatement. Not least of the changes in recent months was the election in May of a majority Conservative government that appeared to take everyone (apart from the Conservative Party) by surprise. The secret Tory voters spoke clearly in just enough numbers in just enough places to deliver a majority on a remarkably low overall proportion of the voting population – just 24 per cent. What has happened since in terms of the stream of unpalatable policy changes and reversals of the better bits of the coalition government programme (including most of the progress on green energy) has been seen by many as audacious and far removed from the plurality that voted Labour, Liberal Democrat and Green – it is probably even unsatisfactory for those that feel aggrieved at having voted UKIP in millions and getting only one seat to their name. It is a curious alliance that now supports electoral reform, all united in frustration and lack of fair representation.

But audacity is the name of the game in these racing early days of the new majority government, making the most of the disarray of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition and of the mandate they have claimed. On the big stage, no one is more audacious than the Chancellor of the Exchequer, best illustrated by his remarkable post-election budget in which he reversed 20 years of Conservative opposition to the minimum wage and claimed the implementation of the living wage as his own. At the time, I recall commenting that perhaps he could display the same audacity with regard to our own policy world and go on to claim pay as you throw as a newly discovered Conservative policy and push it forward as an answer to the fiscal challenge that councils face on waste management. Funnily enough, he didn’t reply to my letter. However, more of that shortly.

Of course, at the time he promulgated the living wage, the full agenda around his proposed changes to tax credits hadn’t been fully exposed, and now we see the appropriation of the living wage for what it is: a smokescreen policy to mask the bigger negative impact that changes in the tax credits regime will bring.

This article was taken from Issue 82

This brings me to the next bit of audacity, this time much closer to home. Our new Resources Minister, Rory Stewart, perhaps took his cue from the Chancellor but his opening gambit was in its own way no less audacious. At his first major industry event (the CIWM, ESA and Resource Association conference in June), he said he wanted the UK to be the “best recycling country in the world”. It was audacious indeed, and displayed great ambition, which was widely welcomed and applauded at the time. However, in the next breaths he was busily reminding us all that the government is deregulatory by nature, favours voluntary agreements, and looks first to industry before considering any legislative approaches.

It feels like he is asking us to win the Rugby World Cup with only 10 fit players on the pitch and no clear game plan or tactics for tough opposition. But enough about England...

Trouble is, it is about England and how we can turn around a flatlining recycling performance in the context of depleted local government with little incentive to meet targets, a recycling industry under pressure through everything from oil prices to costs of cleaning contaminated recyclate in the face of commodity price volatility and a waste management industry falling in love again with disposal technology.

As ever, it is a mix of interventions and policies that could turn this creaking ship around, and looking around mainland Europe in the last 20 years or more, like it
or not, every major step change in recycling in a nation or municipality has come on the back of the introduction of pay as you throw for residual waste.

In the 1980s, the Tories audaciously commercialised the provision of domestic water supply. Is it time for them to do the same for household waste collection and carry on with their audacious words and deeds? This would be one burst of audacity we would welcome with open arms!