Has Defra acquired a new sense of purpose?

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:

When Brexit finally happens, Defra, like its other departmental counterparts, will be busy deciding which EU laws to keep on the British statute books and which to either alter or scrap completely, which provides both opportunity for effective reform, and uncertainty for the waste management sector, Maxine Perella reports

At last, a glimmer of light has emerged at the end of the tunnel – and we might actually have Brexit to thank for it. Last month, Defra resources minister Thérèse Coffey gave her strongest indication yet that the Government is considering a remodelling of English waste policy.

Questioned by Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross MP Paul Monaghan as to what steps her department was taking to remove barriers to a more resource-efficient economy, Coffey replied in a parliamentary written response: “As part of our planning for the UK’s exit from the EU, we are considering the options for reshaping our waste and resources policy and regulatory framework to encourage the more sustainable use of resources.”

She hinted that more might be revealed in Defra’s forthcoming 25-year environment plan, writing that the department would “consult stakeholders early this year on the priorities for resources, waste and recycling. Views on the key barriers to resource efficiency and ideas for addressing these will be welcome.”

She added that any reshaping of policy would aim to be aligned with other development plans such as the Government’s new industrial strategy and emissions reductions. These are welcome signals indeed, and perhaps point to a renewed sense of purpose inside Defra when it comes to policy-making.

Certainly the hard Brexit we are now heading for – out of the single market, no less – does create massive opportunity in that regard. However, I doubt any new proposals will be as far-reaching
as the EU’s Circular Economy Package, especially when it comes to legislating for extended producer responsibility or introducing stretching recycling targets (around the 70% mark).

Meanwhile north of the border, Scotland continues to press on with its progressive agenda. The Scottish Government is consulting on an integrated ‘authorisation framework’ to merge the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency’s four main regulatory activities – water, waste, radioactive substances, and pollution prevention and control – into a single structure that would operate under one standardised procedure.

Simplifying regulation?

The consultation closes on 12 April, and if the plans go ahead, it should effectively simplify waste regulation. The consultation document notes that Scotland’s waste regime “has evolved over decades and relies on at least eight different pieces of legislation” and argues that streamlining regulation would increase enforcement accountability and make environmental compliance quicker and more cost-effective.

At the time of writing this column, the Scottish Government is due to publish its third draft Climate Change action plan, which will set out proposals to reduce emissions over the coming years. It’s worth noting that Scotland has already exceeded its 2020 emissions reductions target of 42% (six years early) and that Scottish environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham believes the waste sector has played a significant contributing role in this. It will be interesting to see if waste gets a mention in the new plan.

But back to Brexit. Going forward, it’s difficult to assess what future role EU policy will play in matters of domestic waste – especially over this coming year. By the time this column is published, the European Parliament’s environment committee will have voted on the 2015 waste package proposals put forward by the European Commission. These proposals form the legislative thrust behind the Circular Economy Package, so I feel this is a bit of a watershed moment for domestic policy-making.

Future eco standards

In delivering her hard Brexit speech last month, Theresa May promised that there would be full parliamentary scrutiny of any changes to EU law once transposed to the UK through the Great Repeal Bill. What she didn’t do, however, was offer any certainty on the future of UK environmental standards and protections. And this is concerning, given the prospect of new global trade deals – where we could well see such protections compromised during negotiations.

It was a point picked up by environmental thinktank the Green Alliance. Amy Mount, head of the Greener UK unit at the organisation, expressed deep disappointment that the prime minister did not offer any assurances in this regard.

I have also talked to several NGOs, including some within the waste sector, who are desperate not to see a rolling back of environmental safeguards.

Think about the long-running issue of waste crime, and the lack of enforcement under existing EU laws. If those laws were to be weakened even further, it could cost England dear – considerably more than the yearly £1 billion bill it already foots for illegal waste activity.

Maxine Perella is a freelance journalist

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