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Waste & resources

June - September 2017

Summary

Environment Secretary Michael Gove has made a welcome announcement that England will have a renewed strategy on waste and resources after a decade without a domestic strategy paper, but it remains unclear when this will be published, how far it will see us diverge from European practices, and whether or not we will adopt the measures in the European Circular Economy Package (CEP) and other waste and resource legislation. Most worryingly, Defra has already indicated it does not expect England to meet the CEP’s 2030 headline recycling target (which will be between 60 and 70 per cent): the department says the current targets are “too high to be achievable”, despite Wales already achieving a level of 64 per cent, and multiple reports and Defra analysis showing both the economic and environmental benefits of higher recycling.  The UK is already on course to miss the existing target of 50 per cent by 2020.

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Principles & strategies
While the waste hierarchy, a fundamental principle, is enshrined in the Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2011, the EU Withdrawal Bill fails to give a clear commitment to extending beyond exit day the other general principles in the EU treaties that underpin waste and resources policy. These include the goals of sustainable development and a high level of environmental protection, the precautionary principle, the proximity principle and the polluter pays principle. The bill also fails to carry across the directives that set the policy frameworks, and the strategies that set out trajectories for achieving policy goals.

In his first speech as environment minister, Michael Gove highlighted the problem of marine plastics and indicated a desire “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 announcement is welcome insofar as, although there was a Waste Strategy Review in 2011 and a waste prevention plan, Prevention is better than cure, as mandated by the EU Waste Framework Directive in 2013, England’s last dedicated strategy for waste and resources was published a decade ago in 2007. There has been no indication yet of the timeline for the new strategy, however, and there are concerns that it could see the country diverge from European policy and standards. The new strategy should sit alongside the government’s wider environmental ambitions as set out in the upcoming (and delayed) 25 year plan for the environment.
Legislation
At an EU level, the Estonian presidency has made the Circular Economy Package a priority. it is still expected to be agreed by the end of the presidency’s term in December. The package is currently in trialogues between the EU’s Council, Commission and Parliament, and will have headline 2030 recycling targets between 60 and 70 per cent. Defra maintains it is negotiating “in good faith”, but, worryingly, has indicated  it does not expect England to meet the CEP’s 2030 headline recycling target: the department says the targets are “too high to be achievable”, despite Wales already achieving a level of 64 per cent, and multiple reports and Defra analysis showing both the economic and environmental benefits of doing so. The UK is already on course to miss the existing target of 50 per cent by 2020.      
Capacity & funding
Although Defra has recently announced a recruitment drive for 72 new policy advisers, none of the advertised posts are in the waste and resources field, and this does little to bring the department up to historical levels of staffing. Moreover, the department is still due to see a 15 per cent reduction in its resource spending between 2015 and 2020, and it remains unclear whether it (and the Environment Agency, which it funds) will be able to cope with the transposition of the environmental acquis into domestic law, and then the monitoring of existing policy and creation of new policy. 
Governance
Although Michael Gove has recognised the need to “create new institutions to demonstrate environmental leadership and even greater ambition”, the EU Withdrawal Bill does not make clear what, if any, domestic governance arrangements will be put in place to replace the European Commission and European Court of Justice (ECJ) and the systematic oversight they provide in the monitoring, accountability and enforcement functions, ensuring the effective implementation of waste and resources legislation. The UK government has not yet set out an adequate plan for filling the domestic governance gap.

The government’s continued insistence it will end the direct jurisdiction of the ECJ in the UK is very significant for resource policy: there is a large body of case law that sets the rules for waste treatment, and compliance on waste targets and product standards is ultimately subject to ECJ decisions. While the government’s position paper on the ECJ indicates that it may take account of EU decisions after we leave the union, considerable room for divergence remains, with the paper noting: “The extent to which this approach may be valuable depends on the extent to which there is agreement that divergence should be avoided in specific areas.” As EU decisions continue to be made, therefore, the UK may end up with conflicting rules on product standards, which would hinder trade, and on waste rules, which could strand investments in UK waste treatment facilities.
Co-operation
The Prime Minister’s speech in Florence stated that the UK and EU share a commitment to high environmental standards, and outlined her preference for a new economic relationship that is underpinned by those standards. While it is still an EU member, the UK is continuing to engage in the Circular Economy Package negotiations, but the degree of future collaboration remains uncertain, making it difficult to judge the risk involved.