Forget the general election and concentrate on Brexit

Written by: Tim Knight | Published:
Tim Knight, head of energy and sustainability at PLMR

What does next month’s general election mean for waste management? Tim Knight, head of energy and sustainability at PLMR, suggests the industry should concentrate on guiding the next Government – on whichever side of the political divide it sits – when it comes to waste policy in relation to Brexit negotiations

On 18 April the prime minister declared: “We need a general election and we need one now, because we have at this moment a one-off chance to get this done while the EU agrees its negotiating position and before the detailed talks begin. I have only recently and reluctantly come to this conclusion.”

These were the words Theresa May said on the steps of Downing Street which took everyone, but a handful of party insiders, by surprise. Number 10 had repeatedly ruled out an early election, and apparently even some Tory MPs only found out about the snap election after reading about the announcement in the news.

The unexpected development has left the waste and recycling sector, along with the rest of the country, scrambling to make sense of the implications.

Safeguarding waste legislation

The prime minister has couched this election, three years earlier than planned, as an opportunity to build a stronger leadership for the country as it enters testing Brexit negotiations.

It is Brussels which sets much of the rules and regulations in waste and recycling, but industry will be heartened by pre-existing commitments from Government that current laws derived from EU legislation, such as the Waste Framework Directive, the Landfill Directive, and the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, will be safeguarded prior to Brexit.

It is widely expected that the Conservative manifesto will include the Great Repeal Bill, binding the party to copying across all EU policy onto the UK statute books. In short, there will be no ripping up of the rulebook, at least not in the medium term.

And nor should there be, given the progress that has been made. Municipal recycling rates increased from 12% in 2000 to 43% in 2014 in England. Since 1990, there has been a 75% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from waste management, while dioxin emissions from waste incinerators have fallen by 99%.

Traditionally the announcement of an election would come many months in advance, giving industry the chance to work closely with those responsible for drafting manifestos, and the opportunity to influence their outcome.

That is not the case this time round, particularly in the case of the Conservatives, where the ink is already drying on the final document. No new announcements on waste policy have been made since 2015, so anything other than business as usual for the sector in this manifesto was always going to be unlikely.

How industry can ‘do its bit’

Rather, industry would be better served to invest its efforts into influencing the Brexit negotiations, where there is far more scope to have an impact on what the future legislative landscape will look like.

In areas like this, where the EU has been the primary legislative body for decades, civil servants and ministers in Whitehall will eventually have control over policy areas affecting the sector that they have very limited experience of, or knowledge in. This is where industry can play a major role, both in educating and supporting Whitehall with policy expertise, as well as helping shape future UK regulations.

Additionally, the general election, whatever the outcome, does raise the possibility of new faces in key government departments such as Defra and BEIS. Thérèse Coffey, the minister responsible for
resources and waste, has been in the post less than a year, but it has become almost traditional for a returning Government to shuffle its hand after victory, and there has been a revolving door in Defra in recent years.

Start all over again

This presents another challenge for the industry, which would then have to work with the new minister to help him or her come to terms with a complicated and challenging brief.

So while opportunities to have a say on the manifestos of the major parties may be limited, the waste and recycling sector must be ready to engage with government at the earliest possible opportunity as soon as the dust settles after 8 June.

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