It is now a year since the unexpected result of the EU referendum threw the political world into confusion, and the aftershocks are continuing.
There had been no contingency planning for a Leave vote, and there was - and still is - no consensus on what Leave should look like. I also think it is fair to say that the complexities involved in quitting the EU after over 40 years of membership have been consistently underestimated. Witness the fact that, one year on, exit negotiations have barely started.
So far, the debate about what Brexit means has been framed in terms of a binary choice between controlling immigration or remaining part of the European Single Market. Initially the government decided to prioritise the former over the latter. At the time of writing, it remains to be seen whether the equally unexpected result of the 2017 General Election will confirm that order of priority, or reverse it.
Where is environment policy in all this? It was not clear last year, and in many ways it is not clear now. Is Brexit seen by the government as an opportunity to get rid of the EU’s environmental “red tape”, or as an opportunity to maintain and even improve UK environmental standards by tailoring policy and legislation more closely to UK conditions?
For the waste and resource management sector, there are some grounds for optimism.
Since Defra’s 25 Year Environment Plan failed to appear in the last Parliament, we are none the wiser. This is one of many judgment calls the new Defra Secretary of State Michael Gove will have to make, as he wrestles with the impact of Brexit on UK farmers and fishermen.
For the waste and resource management sector, there are some grounds for optimism. Ministers such as Therese Coffey, who remains at Defra, have said that the UK will look to maintain high environmental standards post-Brexit. And the premise of the elusive 25 Year Plan is said to be a desire that this should be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than when it found it.
Furthermore, even under a so-called “hard” Brexit, which would take the UK outside the Single Market, it is likely that any UK/EU Free Trade Deal would require the UK to continue to meet EU environmental standards as a condition of access to the Single Market. And in the wake of the 2017 Election result, the Norway option may be back on the table: in other words, a UK which is outside the EU, but inside the Single Market and following most EU rules.
In short, as of now, the sector is no closer to knowing how much “wriggle room” the UK will have as regards EU waste legislation after we leave.
The EU Circular Economy legislation, though far from perfect, sets out a fairly clear direction of travel for 2030.
The EU Circular Economy legislation, though far from perfect, sets out a fairly clear direction of travel for 2030. But the proposals have yet to be agreed, and may not be finalised until Autumn or Winter 2017. If Member States are then allowed two years to bring it into their national laws, the UK may be out of the EU before it has had time to do so.
What would that mean for the UK waste and resource management industry? That depends on whether UK Ministers like the deal which the Council Presidency, European Parliament, and European Commission will eventually reach. If they do, they might import all or part of it into UK law, but if they don’t, they presumably won’t.
...the targets look problematic as they are not backed by measures to create more resilient recycling markets.
Up to now, UK Ministers have opposed the idea of higher municipal waste recycling targets for 2030 at EU level. Therese Coffey has gone further and questioned the efficacy of weight-based targets altogether. Up to a point such scepticism is commendable – the targets look problematic as they are not backed by measures to create more resilient recycling markets.
But eventually, Ministers will have to engage with the industry and decide what future direction they want the sector to take. Given the problems we face – waste crime, falling recycling rates, insufficient treatment capacity - the sooner the policy vacuum is filled, the better.
Roy Hathaway is a consultant on waste and resources policy, and since 2011 he has been advising the Environmental Services Association (ESA) on European and UK waste policy issues affecting the industry.
Prior to that Roy was a senior official at the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for many years, where he dealt with a wide range of environmental and sustainable development policy areas, including the European legislation on waste and recycling.
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