Resource Use

Defra ‘stepping back’ on waste

Newly-appointed Resource Minister Dan Rogerson has written to members of the waste and resources industry warning them that from April 2014, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) will be ‘stepping back’ on some of its waste policy work.

In his first official address to the industry, Rogerson wrote that he ‘regretted’ that the first contact he would have with many in the industry was to ‘inform [them] of reductions to [Defra’s] activities’ due to funding cuts. He added that waste management was however, ‘one of [his] priorities’.

He wrote: ‘[T]hese are challenging times, and the Government has had to prioritise its work to make the best of public funding. It is because of this that I am writing to you today…

‘We have been reassessing Defra’s activities on waste management for 2014/15 to focus on the essentials that only Government can and must do. This recognises that Government’s role should reduce as businesses increasingly realise the economic and commercial opportunities that arise from resource efficiencies and tackling environmental challenges. It also reflects that public funding is under extreme pressure and Government must ensure that this limited funding is focussed on the key priorities.’

As such, Rogerson said that ‘from April 2014’ Defra will be ‘stepping back’ in areas ‘where businesses are better placed to act and there is no clear market failure’.

Areas affected by reduction in activities

Rogerson opened the letter by praising the ‘great work being done across the sector to reduce waste, build efficiency and create a vibrant and growing sector’, adding that a ‘a sustainable and resource efficient economy can and should be delivered with little Government intervention as industry responds to the clear business case for action’.

Specifically, Rogerson mentioned that Defra will ‘not have the capacity to take forward new policy work in areas such as commercial and industrial waste and construction and demolition waste, as well as proactive energy from waste policy development’.

The department’s work on anaerobic digestion and food waste is also expected to be scaled back as current programmes are ‘nearing completion’. Rogerson said that ‘responsibility for taking [this] work forward largely rests with the industries concerned’. He added that waste prevention would also only receive a ‘limited programme of work’ from Defra, following the publication of the Waste Prevention Programme for England (expected ‘later this year’).

Local authorities will also receive less ‘generic support’ from central government on waste and ‘related areas’, given the ‘strong financial case for Local Authorities to realise efficiencies from their waste contracts’.

Despite the roll back of activities, Rogerson outlined that upcoming work, such as the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) Regulations, will not be affected.

Defra will ‘continue to support business’

He concluded: ‘We will continue to support business, including by ensuring the negotiation and implementation of proportionate EU waste agreements. This is likely to be a key priority over the next year as the European Commission brings forward proposals on waste and resource efficiency.’

The news follows on from government’s announcement earlier in the year that Defra will have its departmental spending budget cut by 9.6 per cent for 2015/16. This, in turn, led the department to announce that it was again cutting its funding to the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP); for the seven years running to 2015/16, the department will have reduced WRAP’s funding by 72 per cent (£40.5 million).

Industry calls for ‘more vision’

While reaction is still coming in, the letter will come as a blow to many members of the waste and resources management sector, as many bodies have expressed concern over funding for waste initiatives.

Acknowledging the ‘economic pressures facing the department’, Steve Lee, Chief Executive of the Chartered Institution for Wastes Management, responded to the letter with disappointment. He said: "[T]here are areas where government has to take a lead role, particularly in the interface with consumers... Waste prevention should be a top priority moving forwards, and we are disappointed at the mention of 'limited programme of work on waste prevention' in the letter. We have already called for more vision from the government in this area – which is widely acknowledged as being challenging to deliver. Real progress will require sustained communication and intervention beyond what we have so far seen put from the department, and we will be raising this with the minister at the earliest opportunity."

Lee added that reducing support to local authorities at a time when many are facing "unprecedented budgetary pressures" and when "improvements in recycling are starting to struggle" could "threaten much of the strong progress made to date".

He concluded: "[T]o deliver at a national level the more ambitious [waste] targets that are likely to result from the European Commission's waste policy review... will require robust policy, more infrastructure, better planning for waste at a strategic level, and better integration with energy, carbon, climate change and general business development policies. This can only be delivered by government, and taking our foot off the accelerator now will damage our ability to move towards a more resource efficient and 'green' economy in the future."

Chief Executive of the Resource Association, Ray Georgeson said that Rogerson was to be "applauded for his directness and honesty about the reduction in Defra policy capacity, even if some of this message may be unpalatable to some in the industry".

He continued: "In the present economic and political climate there is an inevitability about this announcement and it is right for government to step back where the business case for action is made and markets are working to drive resource efficiency forward.  However, tone and signals are important and so as a first major announcement from him it does generate concerns, as there is a real danger it sends a negative message to investors and the public alike that the government is disengaging.

"We sincerely hope this is not the case, and note that the Minister seeks to reassure and states that resource efficiency and waste remains a priority for him. We therefore look to him for some early practical signs of this. A good starting point would be clarity on the timetable and detail of the proposed MRF regulations, which we are pleased to see he specificaly mentions in his letter and commits to implementing."

Members of the Environmental Services Association (ESA) acknowledged the "resource constraints" government is under, with Barry Dennis, ESA Director General adding that members would be "very concerned if cutbacks at Defra undermine efforts by the Environment Agency to tackle waste crime".

Chairman David Palmer-Jones commented: “Government’s call to the private sector to take the lead will come to nothing unless Government continues to take firm action to implement and enforce regulation. With a looming capacity gap, flat lining recycling rates and difficult market conditions, Defra's ongoing involvement is vital.”
Read Dan Rogerson’s letter to the industry.