The only thing certain is uncertainty for environmental politics

Written by: Adam Read | Published:

Many things remain uncertain in Britain today – but one thing we can be sure of is that we have a general election looming.

There are just four weeks until we decide who will lead the country and finalise a Brexit deal.

As we lead up to casting our votes, we might want to ask, what are the different parties saying about the environment right now?

We have seen the opposition parties criticising government for not progressing their plans faster, not banning more single-use items and for slowing progress on the complicated EPR issue.

But from my perspective, Labour and Liberal MPs have little to show that goes beyond what the existing government has already planned in the form of the EC circular economy package and the new Defra Resources and Waste Strategy.

So perhaps we just need to hang in there and help the civil service finish what it has started.

The environment hasn’t really been a major part of any political manifesto in the last 20 years or so, unless of course you look at the Green Party.

It has always been a critical issue locally, with debates raging about the colour of bins and the frequency of bin collections, and everybody offering opinions on the need for reprocessing and recovery infrastructure.

But even with all the media attention focusing on plastics, climate change, and recycling this past year, I still can’t see the environment surpassing Brexit, immigration, the health service, education, or the wider economy in any political manifestos – much as I hope I am wrong.


Brexit uncertainty: still on the horizon

As a business, it seems like we have been planning for Brexit for the last two years. Yet we still are no closer to knowing the actual circumstances, rules, and regulations that will govern the environmental space come early 2020.

As a resource and waste management company, SUEZ remains focused on international commodity trading and the impact of customs checks at ports.

We’re also concerned with the possibility of tariffs being applied to commodities being exported from the UK and what that might do to our partnerships and contract performance.

In addition, we need to keep an eye on the convenience of appropriately trained drivers, access to spare parts for our fleets and infrastructure, and even the availability of diesel in the early weeks of exiting if no deal is in place.

But we have no concrete idea what the future looks like – and with all that uncertainty it can be hard to plan ahead.


The Environment Bill: lingering questions

Brexit isn’t the only uncertainty we face in our sector right now. The Environment Bill, which has just had its second reading in the House of Commons, is also still in a state of uncertainty, progressing through parliament with a far-from-defined timeframe now that there’s an election on the agenda.

I recently completed an evidence submission for the Efra committee who have been considering the bill’s suitability as legislation that replaces, for the UK, all the existing EU environmental regulations, targets, and responsibilities.

The major criticisms of the bill, coming from many sectors and commentators, can be classified in three broad groups:

  1. The bill’s chapters still read as siloed. The interconnectivity and integration of the air, water, waste, and biodiversity sections are not as obvious as many of us would like if we are to deliver a better environment for future generations.
  2. ‘Natural Capital’ is a key theme for improving the UK environment and conceptually underpins many news policy decisions and targets – but it remains a term which is hard to define and even harder to apply. And finally;
  3. Will the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) really be able to hold government to account for failure to meet targets or specific timeframes? Given it will report to the environment secretary, will it truly be independent?

The Environment Bill is essential in that it translates many of the existing EC rules and regulations into UK law. But there is a degree of uncertainty about its ability to adequately replace EC rules and powers.

Perhaps more importantly for those working in the resources and waste sector, the Bill will establish the primary legislation needed to accommodate many of the proposed changes proposed in Defra’s Resource and Waste Strategy and associated consultations with regards to Extended Producer Responsibility, Deposit Return Schemes (DRS), and consistent collection of materials from households and businesses.

Many commentators say this bill is likely to be the most significant piece of environmental legislation for many decades here in England, but the Bill will only apply to England and, probably, Northern Ireland.

It will be subject to devolved authority approvals for specific aspects to apply to Scotland and Wales. Having already seen Scottish government consult on its enabling legislation for DRS, it’s clear things continue to progress at differing speeds across the UK.

It is unlikely the bill will be fully ratified until the end of 2020, leaving just a short window to get all of the regulations in place for the planned changes as laid out in the resources and waste strategy. More uncertainty, then, I fear.


Defra’s plans: more we don’t know

And now I return to an issue which has dominated my life for much of the last year – namely, the details underpinning Defra’s plans for DRS, EPR, and consistent collections.

If it weren’t for ongoing delays surrounding Brexit, we might have expected to be commenting on Defra’s plans and approaches around environmental concerns late this year or early in 2020.

The Environment Bill is reliant on such comments and consultations to complete detailed proposals and associated implementation plans for changes in kerbside recycling, producer funding for recycling systems, and DRS, among other things. So, we need to get on with it if we are to meet the 2023 delivery timeframe for these fundamental changes.

None of us would want to rush the necessary consultations or cut any corners on the impact assessment, so I urge you all to offer support in helping Defra ensure its timeframes do not slip too far. Can you act as a peer reviewer, join an advisory group, provide some data, or gather feedback for your supply chain?

I continue to work informally on the next stage of proposals, but am ramping up for a busy second quarter in 2020, when the consultations are expected to be shared, possibly with a shorter timeframe for responding than before.

However, uncertainty surrounds us. Because of the general election, we do not now know which political party will hold power, nor do we know which MPs will be elected, and as such who will be driving the environment agenda in this country. And the uncertainty of Brexit does not look likely to go away anytime soon, so who knows when we’ll have greater clarity about environmental policy.


The light at the end of the tunnel

The one thing we can be certain of right now is that this period of uncertainty will continue well into 2020.

Our job is not to lose heart, to stay focused on the key issues, and contribute as best we can to the development of new policy, legislation, and systems through formal consultation and informal meetings and data gathering.

So if you didn’t submit evidence to the Efra committee, then make sure you are ready to provide feedback on the next phase of Defra consultations in 2020. After all, we all certainly want the best for our environment.

Adam Read is external affairs director at SUEZ Recycling & Recovery UK.


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