Is Michael Gove already a lame duck Defra secretary?

Written by: Maxine Perella | Published:
Freelance journalist Maxine Perella

Environment Secretary Michael Gove doesn’t seem to have much of a plan for waste and resources, while Defra has rejected calls to reform the packaging note recovery system.

And cynicism continues in the House of Lords, which has highlighted householders’ confusion over what happens to their recycling.

Public scrutiny of environmental regulation has reached new levels in recent weeks following the government’s publication of its Great Repeal Bill, which seeks to convert existing EU legislation into UK law. I’ve said before in this column that Brexit offers a golden opportunity to reform the direction of travel for English waste policy, but I’m getting the impression it’s just not a priority issue for ministers right now.

It was interesting to hear Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s speech at the Green Alliance’s summer reception in London last month in which he talked about post-Brexit potential for reshaping green laws – for fisheries, farming and the countryside. No mention of waste or resources.

According to reports, industry leaders did have an opportunity to bend Gove’s ear after his speech for an impromptu spot of lobbying, but again, the message they got back was: tell the government what the waste industry needs. Haven’t we been here before with Rory Stewart, and countless other Defra representatives?

An economy boost

The government has already been told on many occasions precisely what measures are required. For a start, there’s growing cross-sector support for extended producer responsibility (EPR) – not just calls, but an emerging evidence base that suggests such intervention is needed. The Environmental Services Association has even scoped out in-depth alternatives to the current packaging note recovery (PRN) system for packaging waste, which is deemed to have shortcomings.

There’s strong recognition, not just among industry leaders, but wider stakeholders too, that billions could be added to the UK economy by integrating circular economy principles into the country’s industrial strategy. Suez, in association with Eunomia, has undertaken detailed modelling to demonstrate just how this can be done through the adoption of a new set of policy and legislative measures. Let’s face it, the government hasn’t just been told – it’s pretty much been handed instructive blueprints.

Going for Gove

Ironically, Gove has a commanding enough stature to hit the ground running and move waste swiftly up the political hierarchy, if he cared enough. But I personally think he has bigger fish to fry – he’s already talking on current affairs well outside of his Defra remit, and I suspect he’ll land himself a more prominent portfolio before long.

I’m encouraged at least by the re-appointment of Mary Creagh and Neil Parish as chairs of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee respectively. Both have been adept at holding the government to account over issues of waste, and with the Repeal Bill providing few assurances over how such laws will be enforced going forward, I suspect their grilling skills will be much needed over the coming months.

Interestingly, calls to change the PRN system appear to have failed, at least for now. A recent Defra review of PRNs published last month concluded the regulations should be maintained in their current form. In its assessment, the review noted that the regulations have enabled the UK to meet “all necessary targets to date” and that it is “expected to meet these targets at least until EU exit, and possibly after this”.

The PRN system is unique to the UK compared with the rest of Europe as it is effectively a market-based EPR scheme for packaging, as opposed to fee-based. The PRN system has long been criticised for its lack of transparency in terms of how revenues are spent, and whether these revenues are funding the level of infrastructure needed to collect packaging materials in the first place – for example, from householders. It is perhaps telling then that the Defra review doesn’t mention local authorities, nor how the PRN scheme might better support them.

Cynicism and confusion

Last but not least, I was intrigued to read of recent debate inside the House of Lords questioning whether local authorities in England will be issued with further guidance on recycling. Various baronesses and lords were clearly frustrated and confused over whether certain materials could or could not be recycled. And perhaps cynical about what happens to these materials further downstream.

One remark from Lord Tomlinson particularly stuck in my mind: “I take stuff that I have rigorously separated according to the instructions of Bromley Council, but when I get to the tip, I have to throw it all in the same container.” Right there is a quality control fail in the mind of the householder. Until there is greater evidence of consistency in frontline collection methods, public communication on this will remain challenging.

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