Waiting for the Strategy with bated breath

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:
Maxine Perella

Defra’s Resources and Waste Strategy is still due to be published before the end of the year.

Yet with Brexit negotiations mounting in intensity and that all-important parliamentary vote now postponed, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the strategy doesn’t surface or the publication of it is conveniently ‘buried’ during the Christmas festivities.

Truth is, a prime ministerial leadership challenge is now on the cards, and there's no predicting what will happen next.

Worst-case scenario for the government is that it is forced to resign, thus triggering a general election. That effectively would put the Resources and Waste Strategy on ice, if not halt it altogether.

Given this, the appointment of Labour's first-ever dedicated shadow minister for waste and recycling in October should come as no surprise in terms of timing.

Ipswich MP Sandy Martin has picked up the baton, which includes a dedicated focus on the global plastics pollution agenda. No doubt Labour has taken note of environment secretary Michael Gove's influential and positive stance on green issues, which has defied many people’s expectations.

When appointed, Martin stated that there was an urgent need to move beyond the “piecemeal, campaign-of-the-month approach from the government” and work towards a “whole-systems approach” to reform the UK’s waste and recycling infrastructure.

Martin is a regular writer for the Ipswich Labour website, and has penned a few columns connecting the dots, so to speak, talking about how simple actions such as recycling and buying more-durable goods can help reduce CO2 emissions when it comes to climate change.

But whether Labour can deliver on this holistic vision remains to be seen. The party’s former manifestoes have been somewhat weak on waste and resource issues, containing a brief nod to producer responsibility here and there, but not much else.

In the same month that Martin was appointed, Labour published an environmental policy paper entitled Green Transformation that failed to even mention resource efficiency – baffling, to say the least.

It has been reported that Labour intends to publish a separate set of policies on waste and resources at a later date.

But excluding these issues from its policy paper suggests that they may be treated in isolation from other interventions or measures around climate change, energy and air quality, which would be a mistake. And it’s certainly not the “whole-systems approach” that Martin is calling for.

Personally, I think Labour’s immediate priorities on waste may be clustered around operational and governance issues, rather than those related to the economy, technology or low-carbon innovation. It’s worth noting that Jeremy Corbyn has a lot of support in Momentum, the grassroots socialist activist movement, with its strong focus on re-nationalisation.

Previously Corbyn has talked of the benefit of voting for local authorities that would bring services back in-house. Under a Labour government, could we see a big push to return privatised household waste and recycling collections back to public ownership? Certainly, more councils are examining the case for insourcing, which would help pave the way for this.

Some industry experts argue that outsourcing can deliver significant cost and efficiency savings over the lifetime of contracts for local authorities. Like many aspects of waste management, to insource or outsource often comes down to local circumstance and is dependent on a number of factors such as geographical coverage, housing stock, internal resources and skills, and infrastructure.

But one thing is clear. Any re-nationalisation of kerbside collections would have to be accompanied by significant central funding given the continuing austerity climate, and I can see council taxes rising in some areas as a result, which would prove unpopular with voters.

On a wider level, while such services are being re-engineered, where might this leave the nation’s wider zero waste and resource efficiency agenda – out in the cold for a while?

In my opinion, Defra’s Resources and Waste Strategy can't come soon enough. If nothing else, it should hopefully offer a well-thought-out vision for the industry, some much-needed reform and, crucially, a direction of travel for the next five to 10 years.

If it doesn't surface because of Brexit, and the current government gets defeated, then we don't really have that reference point from which future policy-makers can learn.

Maxine Perella is freelance journalist.

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