Fighting resource scarcity

Written by: David Burrows | Published:

As the various voices calling for the UK to get to grips with resource scarcity and security get louder, the prospect of an Office for Resource Management seems increasingly likely – and widely welcomed, writes freelance writer David Burrows

Compared to other major manufacturing economies, the UK has done little to protect itself from resource scarcity. The recent difficulties for waste processors Closed Loop Recycling and ECOPlastics have provided a stark reminder of the country's exposure, but this is not a new phenomenon.

In five of the past six years, CEOs surveyed by the manufacturers association EEF cited resource scarcity and commodity prices as top-five concerns. Meanwhile, powerful Westminster committees have, in various inquiries during the last parliament, highlighted how the UK's waste and resource policy lacks leadership, direction and data.

For these reasons, few would disagree that an Office for Resource Management (ORM) is a sensible idea. But is it a practical one? How much will it cost? Who will lead it? And is the next government (which should be in place by the time you read this) likely to consider it a priority in its five-year term?

Unusual partnerships

As the general election neared, support for an ORM or similar new policy unit certainly snowballed, with some unusual partnerships having emerged: EEF and Friends of the Earth, as the shadow environment secretary Ed Balls put it, "are not usually the most comfortable of bedfellows".

They, along with five other members of the Material Security Working Group, wrote to all party leaders in April urging for cross-party agreement that the "cost-neutral, government-based" ORM be made a priority, whoever gets the keys to Number 10.

Manifestos gradually emerged. Labour committed to a review of resource scarcity, while the Liberal Democrat manifesto made reference to the establishment of a "senior Cabinet Committee to coordinate action and bring together officials in inter-departmental units on issues like air quality and resource management".

The inclusions have been welcomed. Some argue they were essential.

"No party can credibly claim a long-term plan for the economy and the environment without treating resource efficiency as a priority," says Julian Kirby at Friends of the Earth. Of course, manifestos are not always worth the paper they are written on and, by the time you read this, there could be another coalition manifesto in place.

New order

Like a football manager arriving at a new club, the prime minister/coalition leaders will be keen to reshuffle their packs. A Whitehall departmental rejig is not out of the question. Just prior to the election, The Sunday Times reported that senior civil servants are – at the behest of the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems – "creating a blueprint potentially to scrap or merge up to nine departments to save money and create super-ministries".

The resources industry is under no illusions that setting up an ORM-style policy unit will be top of the 'to do' list for Number 10, but all eyes will be on ministers with environmental and business responsibilities. "We do need a minister to take ownership of this [policy area]," says Nigel Mattravers, chair of the Waste and Resource Management Panel at the Institution of Civil Engineers.

In Whitehall, resource policy needs strong leadership. Dan Rogerson, the parliamentary under-secretary of state for resource management at Defra up until the general election, had his wings clipped early on, however: as flooding and farming took priority, he wrote to the resource sector admitting that his department would be stepping back on policy work relating to waste. His hands had been tied.

Roy Hathaway, who from 2006 until 2011 was one of the top waste officials at Defra, says any new unit needs to have a senior minister in charge who "believes in this". Now an adviser with the Environmental Services Association, Hathaway explains that a policy unit, perhaps sitting within the Cabinet Office, wouldn't work as part of a junior minister's responsibilities because "they are more interested in other things".

Someone at minister-of-state level, on the other hand, can "knock political heads together" and persuade other departments to get involved. It's interesting to note that Labour wants any resource review to be carried out by the Treasury to "galvanise real action across Whitehall", suggests Hathaway.

Steering in the same direction

Resource management is a cross-departmental issue. One of the great challenges for resource policy – and one of the principal arguments in favour of the new office – is to steer the whole ship in the same direction.

"Delineation of scope and reach is key," says Adam Read, practice director for resource efficiency and waste management at consultancy Ricardo-AEA.

"Currently, too many departments have an interest and [their] competing agendas, personalities and funding needs ensure we don't get to the ultimate end game."

As one expert notes, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that the approach to waste taken by Eric Pickles, secretary of state at the Department for Communities and Local Government, is at odds with that across the way in Defra. Like Rogerson, Defra had its wings clipped too (some would argue the swingeing cuts to its budget are more akin to a shearing). The removal of the climate change portfolio to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC ) in 2008 was always going to see Defra drop down the Whitehall pecking order, says Hathaway.

ORM's remit

So what if there is a departmental streamlining? Support is already growing for waste and resource policy to be shifted across to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Last year, a BIS minister was tasked with "championing the bioeconomy", following a recommendation in a report by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee. The committee stated that the new minister "should be a champion for waste as a resource and coordinate activities across government", and "should ensure that a long-term [15-year] plan is produced to support the development of a high-value, waste-based bioeconomy".

However, the abolition of BIS is reportedly one the options being put forward by senior officials for the incoming government.

A merger between DECC and Defra is also under consideration. The idea is to save money, but "rearranging the furniture", as Hathaway puts it, "does take a lot of time and energy".

In the meantime, the UK's resource and waste policy stagnates further, resources continue to dwindle and investors will be beginning to consider spending their money in other countries. This is where an ORM could step in.

"It could start as an umbrella body in the Cabinet Office," Hathaway adds. "At the outset it would make sure the policy areas being pursued by different departments were all on the same page.

"Further down the track, [the team] can start thinking about the things that are not being considered at all. For example, where in the UK government, if anywhere, is product policy being talked about?"

Indeed, there are short-term actions (household waste recycling targets) and medium-term thinking (the circular economy) to align. But a focus on how to tackle resource scarcity is urgently needed.

UK falls down on the job

"There has been a conspicuous lack of support to improve resource security in the UK, compared with other major manufacturing economies," notes the Green Alliance in its report UK resource governance for the 21st century, adding: "Such was the success of resource production in the 20th century that, in the standard theory of economics, resource availability is simply assumed."

Dustin Benton, the think-tank's head of resources, says a combination of short-term tactical action and long-term thinking is required to cope with resource volatility.

"We've identified £1.7bn worth of opportunities now and [if I were in charge of an ORM] I'd be pursuing these.

"But the UK is also flying blind in terms of some of its resource risks, so we also need a long-term strategy."

In the short cycles of UK politics,that is often easier said than done.

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