The long-awaited Resources and Waste Strategy shows level of distraction

Written by: David Burrows | Published:
David Burrows

Finally the Resources & Waste Strategy is here, but it’s a bit of an anti-climax thanks largely to the government focussing most of its attention on Brexit.

“I want to improve incentives for reducing waste and litter, and review the penalties available to deal with polluters – all part of a renewed strategy on waste and resources that looks ahead to opportunities outside the EU.”

The words of Environment Secretary Michael Gove in July 2017 were music to the ears of those in the resources sector. And he has made good on that promise with the Resources and Waste Strategy, which was published last month.

Good things come to those who wait, I suppose, but 18 months is a long time to hold out. So why has it taken so long? In a word: Brexit.

I don’t want to blame our departure from the European Union for everything, but it’s hard not to wonder just how much could have been achieved if it weren’t for this all-consuming distraction.

And not just on waste. There are much bigger environmental problems that have, by and large, been put on hold. “Global warming is quite real and scary,” went a letter from Tony Howarth in London to The New European last week. “What is the UK’s response? To turn in on itself, disentangle us from our closest allies and push all our resources into Brexit.”

Few could disagree with Howarth’s assessment. Even environmentalists seem to have temporarily forgotten some of their messages.

Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston, and the man who helped David Cameron turn the party from “nasty” to “nice” by focusing on the green agenda, didn’t even mention the environment in his 1,150-word speech during December’s debate on the withdrawal agreement.

I’m not saying Goldsmith has turned all Donald Trump on us; merely that politicians have all been far too distracted for far too long.

Indeed, you might say that Gove deserves a knighthood for managing to get the strategy published at all. He has surprised almost everyone but, again, imagine what he could have achieved without Brexit hoovering up all his time.

This is a man who carries increasing political and economic gravitas. The pound fell 2% in a day during the turmoil that followed publication of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal in November (yes, it does indeed seem like a lifetime ago).

However, our currency steadied after Gove confirmed he would remain in the Cabinet. I don’t know about you, but I sense that Andrea Leadsom (Defra secretary between July 2016 and June 2017) never quite carried the same oomph.

Leadsom, of course, was energy minister before her stint at Nobel House. On arrival at the now-defunct Department for Energy and Climate Change, one of the first two questions she asked was: is climate change real?

And the closer we get to 29 March, the more ministers the government seems to be employing with absolutely no idea. Dominic Raab, the former Brexit Secretary, admitted (in a public speech, no less) that he “hadn’t quite understood” the importance of cross-Channel trade to the UK economy. Yes, dear Dom, you do live on an island.

As Marina Hyde put it in The Guardian, Brexit seems to have delivered a Tory roll-call of the talentless, where “seemingly every Cabinet job these days is an outrageous fish-out-water comedy”. Is it therefore a surprise that two-and-a-bit years on from the vote we have seemingly got absolutely nowhere?

Hyde’s cutting analysis struck a chord with me. In the early days of my career, I decided to sit on the other side of the media fence as a press officer at Defra. Looking after the waste and resources beat, this was the role in which I first came across the lovely Geraldine Faulkner, former editor of RWW.

After days of being stripped down and barked at by national journalists, a call from Geraldine would be like receiving a hot cup of a tea on a cold day: “I’m so sorry to bother you…”, she would always begin.

Anyway, when the chance came up to move to the farming desk, I jumped at it – I had a degree in agriculture, after all, so it made sense. Instead I was offered biodiversity – I was told that I knew too much about the subjects covered in the farming portfolio. So I left.

I understand why they wouldn’t want partisan press officers, but I was hardly president of the NFU – I just knew a little more than the difference between a dairy cow and a beef one. Bygones. Or so I thought.

The other day I caught myself wondering if I’d ever go back. Defra has been recruiting so hard these past few months that they might even consider me (provided they haven’t read these columns).

At the last analysis, the department’s headcount was 3,877, according to Ends Report. By comparison, at the first reliable count in July 2011 it was 2,390 (though it shrunk to a low of 1,719 in October 2016).

The chance to help steer resources policy should the shackles of Brussels be removed is tempting: as the boss Michael Gove said back in that 2017 speech, this Brexit process, however painful, will allow us to “recast our ambition for our country’s environment, and the planet”. Still, I wonder if I’d be considered an ‘expert’, and we all know what he thinks about those.

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