Pass The Parcel

phillip-wardWhere should waste and resource policy sit, politically? With Defra, BIS, the DCLG?
Phillip Ward looks back at how it ended up where it is and wonders where it will go to next…


Defra’s narrow view of its role in the resource debate is being challenged increasingly. Laura Sandys MP and her 2020 group, the House of Lords and now the Defra Select Committee of the House of Commons are among those concerned that opportunities for jobs, growth and environmental benefits are being lost.

Perhaps predictably, there are calls to transfer waste/resource policy to the Business Department (BIS) or to put that department in the lead to co-ordinate resource activity across government. Having been up close and personal with a lot of government changes in my career, I am a little cautious about these suggestions. Changes can often be made for the wrong reasons, usually to suggest that “something is being done” rather than because there is a clear commitment to deliver.

Look at the way waste policy ended up in Defra in the first place. Before the 2001 election it was tucked into a large Department (DETR) along with the rest of environmental policy, local government, housing, planning, transport and regional policy. Farming and fishing had their own Department (MAFF). Politically, the Labour Government was seen as out of touch with rural affairs and environmentalists were critical of MAFF’s focus on preserving farmers’ subsidies at the expense of the countryside. So a modest plot was hatched to transfer the rural functions of DETR to MAFF to encourage that department to focus on the wider rural economy and countryside issues. Nearly everyone thought that would be a good idea.

22-11-13(4)picBut then came real politics. On election night, it seems a decision was taken at the top of the Labour Party, for reasons we don’t need to go into here, to move Robin Cook, the then Foreign Secretary, but only if a suitable and safe alternative role could be found for him. That turned out to be Leader of the House of Commons but meant, in turn, that a new berth had to be found for the very senior Margaret Beckett. She was offered the proposed new Rural Department, but refused on the grounds that it was not big enough. At very short notice, it was decided that the whole of DETR’s environment group would merge with MAFF to become the E in Defra.

Where Does It Go?

So if there is no strong policy reason for waste/resource policy to be where it is, does it matter if it is moved somewhere else? For that you need to look at what other functions support waste policy and where they are. As a subject it has already been separated from local government and waste planning, but could go back to Mr Pickles and DCLG… always a risk when people start making machinery of government proposals.

Within Defra it benefits from links to sustainable consumption and production and to the group that manages relations with the EU Environment Council. Importantly it also sits alongside the Environment Agency and its regulatory functions. Assuming the whole of the Environment Group can’t go to BIS – and I don’t think it can – I don’t think it makes sense to move just the waste team.

What about putting BIS in the lead of a cross-Whitehall Resource programme, as recommended by the House of Lords? Cross-departmental working has many attractions compared with machinery of government changes. But it requires something we don’t yet have, a clear objective and commitment from the centre that a resource strategy is important and something to which departments should devote some of their dwindling financial and intellectual resources.

In the absence of evidence that BIS is straining to take this on, making the case for a resource strategy is where the industry and its supporters should focus. The administrative arrangements for delivery can follow on from that.

The evidence base is developing: but remember, the Treasury runs a double lock. It is not enough to show that a resource economy will promote jobs and growth, but that it will promote them more than any alternative approaches for the same investment of effort. Who’s up for the fight?

Phillip Ward was the Government’s director for waste from 1997 to 2001 and was involved in the granting of CIWM’s Royal Charter. Latterly he was a director at WRAP for seven years. He is currently chair of Resource Futures.


Circular Online

Send this to a friend