Crunch time

Emma Tilbrook, Principal Consultant at Eunomia Research & Consulting, says new policies may promise a ‘step-change’ in recycling performance in England, but it is not the policy makers who will translate this into reality.

The waste industry is eagerly awaiting the outcome of last year’s Defra consultations on consistency in collections, producer responsibility and a DRS for beverage containers. For some, the delay has lent a certain unreality to the prospect of real change, but in the likely event that the measures consulted on are taken forward, it will mean a rapid transformation in the way local authorities design, budget for and deliver their waste collection operations.

Increasingly, the key questions are likely to be how fast is change required, and can change at that speed be resourced?

New policies may promise a step-change in recycling performance in England, but it is not policy makers who will translate theory into reality. It is local authority officers who will decide on local service design and guide internal stakeholders and elected members through the process of service change.

They – or those working on their behalf in environmental services contractors – will be the ones to figure out how many and what type of vehicles are needed to deliver new services, and to recruit, train and retain additional staff (which has been far from easy over the past two years), as well as developing new household communications.

Eunomia’s experience of working with local authorities across the UK is that most have dealt with substantial reductions in head count over the last decade. In many cases, the specialist skills and experience from the last major changes to services have been lost.

New policies may promise a step-change in recycling performance in England, but it is not policy makers who will translate theory into reality.

Where authorities have retained staff, officer portfolios are now so wide-reaching that for many there simply isn’t enough time to manage the day-to-day workload and think in detail about what changes in policy mean for them and what the pathway is to deliver them.

Historically, where budgets allow, outsourcing some or all of this work to an independent consultant has been a way of managing the pressure and obtaining specialist advice. Within our local environment team, we are already seeing an increase in the volume of collections options modelling and waste strategy work being commissioned.

While consultancies will welcome the additional work, and will try to staff up to accommodate it, there is still a finite amount of resources available within the consultancy sector that limit what can be delivered within a short timeframe.

Therefore, as an industry we face a resource crunch on two fronts: firstly, within local authorities and front-line service delivery and secondly within the companies they would typically turn to for support.

However, we would suggest that this issue can’t be resolved by simply employing more people to increase capacity. If consultancies recruit in skills from councils and waste contractors, or vice versa, it will simply shift the problem from one place to another; while people with less experience will take time to learn the ropes. It seems there is a fundamental skills and knowledge gap that needs to be filled.

Skills for the future

CIWM’s 2021 Presidential Report ‘Skills For the Future Journey to 2030’ highlighted six key skills needed in our industry over the next 10 years to support the shift towards a more circular economy. Three of these – communications and behaviour change, soft skills such as project and change management, and data/IT – are all critical to successfully delivering the ‘on the ground’ operational service changes that local authorities are going to need to make.

These are also areas of experience that are in particularly short supply. A few consultancies, including Eunomia, deliver this kind of support alongside their strategy and modelling work – and while this skill set clearly exists within the private sector waste contractors, increasing pressure to change services nationwide will leave even the strongest operational teams stretched.

So, what can we do collectively to manage this impending resource and skills crunch? While the uncertainty due to the delayed consultations makes it difficult, planning is the key. Authorities need to begin work in the near future to work out what changes they are likely to need to make and the operational implications they will have.

The next five years are going to change the waste landscape within the UK, and in England most of all.

This will put them in a position, once there is greater certainty, to move quickly. Vehicle and container procurement lead times are likely to increase when so many authorities are trying to make changes at the same time, as will those for technical support required for strategy, modelling, site design, Environmental Permit variations and household communications. All of these factors will impact the practical time scales in which change can be delivered, particularly for those who delay taking action.

Meanwhile, the shortage of expertise across the sector in delivering operational change means that local authorities requiring external support will need to get in early to secure services in what will be a competitive market.

By understanding these constraints and having a clear view of what change looks like locally, budgets can be set, expectations managed more effectively, and external support can be brought in within sufficient timeframes.

The next five years are going to change the waste landscape within the UK, and in England most of all. Though the results of the consultations remain uncertain, local authorities know that they will be on the front line of delivering change.

A crunch in resources, both in councils and in consultancies, is readily foreseeable and authorities that have not already started planning for change should begin as soon as possible if they’re to be able to proceed as quickly as they may need to.

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