New political climate offers challenges to green issues

Written by: Robin Dyet | Published:

Robin Dyet reflects on last month’s surprise general election result, and where Theresa May’s minority government – propped up by the traditionally climate-change-sceptic DUP and including the return of Michael Gove as secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs – is likely to stand on waste management policy

If the past few years have taught us anything in politics, it’s to expect the unexpected. However, despite the recent global trend of political upheaval, it was still unthinkable to most observers that Theresa May would fail to convert her 20-point lead in the polls into an increased parliamentary majority. But that is exactly what happened as the PM’s faltering election campaign, criticised by many as too narrow and negative, resulted in the Conservatives losing 13 seats, and with it their majority.

In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn has been lauded for a positive and engaging campaign in which young people voted in numbers not seen for decades – largely for him – a far cry from the derision he has faced throughout much of his leadership.

To say that environmental issues took a back seat in this election would be something of an understatement, though they were not the only areas to suffer in what was a largely substance-free campaign – the outcome of which looks likely to be a Conservative supply and confidence arrangement with Northern Ireland’s DUP.

While both parties will claim that a deal will provide the certainty that the country needs, it is a long way from the ‘strong and stable’ government May promised throughout the election campaign – and it is possible the UK could be back at the polls again before the year is out.

So what does this mean for the waste and recycling sector?

The Conservative manifesto lacked policy detail, but it did pledge to ensure that we are ‘the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it’, publish a ‘comprehensive 25 Year Environment Plan’, and support ‘comprehensive recycling’. Yet some critics have argued that these commitments are under threat by the likely coalition with the DUP, as well as the prime minister’s choice of her new secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs.

The return of Gove

Gove was a surprising appointment as environment secretary in the PM’s reshuffle, and while insiders say that it is far from his dream job, he has welcomed the opportunity to return to government following almost a year on the backbenches.

May’s decision to bring Leave campaigner Gove back into the fold is seen by many as a reward for his loyalty and staunch defence of the prime minister’s much-criticised campaign – as well as a means of uniting the party and keeping a potential leadership challenger ‘onside’. This turn of events has been concerning for many green campaigners.

In 2013 it was reported that Gove had tried to remove climate change from the geography national curriculum, and move it to science modules, which many in the education sector viewed as a downgrade.

However, this was ultimately blocked by the then Liberal Democrat energy spokesperson Ed Davey. Gove has also voted against reducing CO2 emissions and financial incentives for low-carbon electricity generation – and was in favour of the controversial (and ultimately scrapped) move to sell off England’s public forest estate.

Yet with the Brexit project that he has been so heavily involved in likely to take up much of the government’s time, it is unlikely that this traditionally active and interventionist politician will be able to bring through significant reform. No environment secretary has lasted much more than two years in the role since Hilary Benn (2007-2010), and it would be a surprise to see this pattern broken by Gove.

DUP disaster?

Meanwhile, the DUP are more of an unknown factor, with neither ‘environment’ nor ‘climate change’ featuring at all in their most recent manifesto. Critics have described some in the party as ‘climate change deniers’. Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland have expressed significant concerns about the potential of the DUP to ‘weaken’ the Conservative Party’s ‘already-inadequate manifesto commitments’ on the environment – though whether this will be a priority issue for them is unclear.

For the waste and recycling sector, the minority government means that cross-party engagement increases in importance. Interest groups and coalitions pursuing specific goals will carry more weight.

Even a relatively small group of parliamentarians could damage the government. Labour and, to a lesser extent, the Liberal Democrats are back in the picture.

This febrile environment carries both opportunities and risks, but with Brexit negotiations under way and our future being shaped as we speak, there has never been a more important time for industry to speak up and define what it wants both from domestic governance and the settlement with the European Union.

Robin Dyet is Scotland manager at PLMR, a communications agency that specialises in sustainability issues

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