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08 June 2018

Annual environment round table discusses DEFRA 25 year plan and Brexit

B P Collins’ annual environment round table took place recently where the focus of discussion was DEFRA’s 25 year plan and Brexit.

The round table comprised of:

Chair: Matthew Farrow, Environmental Industries Commission (EIC)

  • B P Collins’ environment team;
    Alex Zachary, partner, Corporate and Commercial and Environment; David Smellie, partner, Corporate and commercial and Environment; Craig Williams, partner, Dispute resolution and Environment
  • Simon Rutledge, Group External Affairs & Sustainability Manager, Biffa Waste Services Ltd
  • Graham Flynn, Director, Anenta Ltd
  • Matthew Ball, Managing Director, Green Redeem Ltd
  • Peter Charlesworth, Director and Founder, Carbon Statement
  • Richard Collins, Owner, Ecobrand
  • Sam Pentony, Environment Policy Advisor, Engineering Employers Federation (EEF)
  • Bruno Prior, Managing Director, Forever Fuels
  • Paul Britton, Chief Executive, Thames Valley Chamber of Commerce
  • Sean Reel, Investor and entrepreneur
  • Paul Brown, QC, Landmark Chambers

This is what they had to say:

Matthew Farrow

Welcome everyone and thank you for coming to B P Collins’ annual environmental round table discussion. There are two topics that we will be discussing today - DEFRA’s 25 year plan and Brexit’s impact on the environmental sector.

Let’s start with Michael Gove’s arrival which was pretty crucial to the plan being published. When he was appointed Secretary of State, there was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth by the environmental NGO community. There was an assumption that someone like Gove, a strong Brexiteer, who is perceived as pretty right wing, would be the enemy of the environment. However, Gove had the 25 year plan rewritten and published within a couple of months of his appointment.

I believe the plan is an attempt to do three things. It started life as a genuine attempt by civil servants to turn the Tories’ manifesto commitment from the Cameron days - which was to be the first generation that would leave the environment in a better state than it was found - into a document that would outline what that would mean in practice. Clearly it’s also an attempt by ministers to show that they have a plan in place after Brexit. And finally it’s an attempt to make Michael Gove look good.

The sections most relevant to the discussion today are about doubling resource efficiency by 2050 and minimising waste and reducing its environmental impact by promoting reuse, remanufacturing and recycle.

Another ambition is to work towards eliminating all avoidable waste by 2050 and all avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042. So it’s pretty wide ranging.

Are people pleased to see the plan out? What are people’s initial reaction?

Sam Pentony: I think that the fact that we have a 25 year plan at all is something. It is a wide-ranging document which focuses on how the government will tackle the environment post Brexit so in that respect it has some merit. But on the other hand it lacks a lot of detail and I wonder whether some of these points will actually be delivered.

Paul Britton: That’s the feedback I’m getting about the plan. People are asking how much of a difference it’s really going to make particularly with the impact of Brexit and how politics is likely to prevail over pragmatism. So the response is lukewarm in my opinion.

Bruno Prior: I would be very careful about any 25 year plan from the Government. Stalin with all his coercive powers struggled to achieve his five year plans. There is a problem with the timeframe. It’s highly unlikely that the current government will last long enough to achieve anything in the plan. It seems to me that the government came up with a list of what the public might think are issues.

And with all the economic problems that we’ve got, the government doing more is not the issue, the government should be doing less. I would scrap half of it and put more flesh on the bones of a smaller list of actions.

Craig Williams: The plan helps to get the environment back into the limelight and that can only be a good thing particularly when a year ago it wasn’t really on the agenda.

Sean Reel: It seems very thematic, written for the press and more of a campaigning document, than a policy document.  Setting out long term agendas are great but we need urgent action now.Consideration should also be given to how businesses will react to the plan. Most people in the business community might just get past the first and then give up.

So, it’s the public’s behaviour that I am really interested in because this is what really impacts businesses and encourages them to react to what they believe consumers are going to do next.   These policies are interesting, but only useful if they change the behaviours of businesses and consumer. The BBC’s Blue Planet series effect is a very good example of how emotional messaging drives behavioural change in the real world. 

Matthew Farrow: You’re right Sean. If we take EVs as an example, it does show how often issues only move when the impetus from the government, business and the public all reinforce each other. Awareness about air pollution has gone from five years ago where it was a niche issue to one talked about all of the time and frequently comes up in PMQs, while papers like the London Evening Standard have been running air quality stories almost daily. Plus on the legal side you had the government losing on three separate court cases around EU regulations on air quality. And they were on the back foot. The government started to drive the perception that electric cars are part of the answer, then car companies start to think about consumer demand for EVs, then everything came together.

CORPORATE AND PUBLIC REACTIONS

Matthew Farrow: Let’s move on then to the importance of business and the public’s behaviour in driving this plan forward.

Are you perceiving changes after the Blue Planet effect? Or will no one care after Brexit?

Matthew Ball: I don’t think the Blue Planet effect will be going away at all. Since the programme aired, more consideration is being given to the use of single use plastics. But even though everyone is pushing towards the common goal, organisations are doing their own thing. For example, there are three huge campaigns out there at the moment about single use plastic and there’s no collaboration or a body like DEFRA leading them.

Gove is trying to make DEFRA a more effective organisation, as they have been flailing in the wind for the past few years.  But at the moment, everybody is rallying around soundbites but they don’t really know what they’re doing yet. And that’s the problem. Gove is leading and I am impressed by him but the plan is a bit ambiguous. It seems that DEFRA is throwing the plan out there hoping that industry is going to sort it out for them.

But industry needs guidance too. I was at a meeting with a lot of drinks manufacturers and product designers recently and their aim was to find a solution over two days about how to reduce waste, but there was no one there from the waste management industry.  The industry that will be dealing with this waste needs to be consulted.  There is no collaboration and there’s a silo approach at the moment. The retailers and manufacturers would like to put a plan out and hope that the waste sector would deal with it.

Matthew Farrow: But a business has to prioritise running the company and making some money and they don’t have the time to develop a government strategy in a short space of time. Part of the problem with the 25 year plan is that it covers everything so the civil servants don’t quite know where to put the resource.

Simon Rutledge: The Blue Planet effect is enormous. I’ve been in the industry for 25 years and people are asking me about waste and recycling more than ever before. But the government needs to provide direction. Simple things like consistency of collections, needs some central leadership to bring any change.

For corporate customers, I don’t think we’ve seen a massive change, but a gentle ramp up in the past five years on the plastic side of things. For example, there was a WRAP Plastics Pact launch earlier this year and even though there was no concrete action laid out, companies thought they should join because it was the right thing to do.

So the desire is there to do something, but there is an issue with consistency throughout the UK, particularly with the devolved governments. So having a strategic plan is very important. We are starting to see changes in behaviours but often, it’s not being carried through as there is too much confusion at the moment.

Richard Collins: The government needs to be seen to be doing something, but a lot of behavioural change is driven by society.

And Behavioural change is closely linked to the generational change. Millennials have been educated about recycling since Key Stage 1 at school, they’ve grown up with it.

Bucks New University also say that 74% of students would prefer to work for a company with a strong ethical best practice. And one in three Local Authorities insist on environmental and CSR responsibilities in their tendering policies. So we are seeing drivers pushing this along.

Peter Charlesworth: Massive publicity of plastic waste in the public media together with Gove’s 25 year plan are putting unprecedented pressure on Hospitality and Food Sector businesses to respond and implement change. They know the issue is getting business critical. At the Hospitality Carbon Reduction forum (HCRF) meeting on 17th May the biggest companies in the sector agreed that they need to link their activities and response in a coordinated and joined up way. There are many practical challenges that need to be addressed behind the headline hitting ”banning straws and stirrers” that have caught the media attention.

These coordinated initiatives together with bringing along public opinion and enlisting the communities help will drive significant change. Managing and coordinating these is the next step in the process that Carbon Statement is leading with the forum members to make this change.

Gove is smart at getting the message out there and if we look at the 25 year plan, it’s better than nothing. And I think that companies are picking up on its messages - whether it’s Blue Planet driving it, the 25 Year plan driving it or more importantly the public’s change in attitude. But systems need to be developed to address this change.

If we take plastic as an example, even if cafes and restaurants were to ban all plastic straws, there aren’t enough alternatives out there to replace them.

Graham Flynn: We are charged with trying to change behaviour and best practice within the NHS but it is difficult. The staff are so immersed in trying to keep up to speed with clinical best practice and safe guarding. So when we come along saying that we want to reduce the amount of waste , their first thought is  “what’s that going to do for us and our patients” and there is a belief that whatever they are told now is going to change in five mins anyway.

We’ve identified over £300million of avoidable waste in completely usable drugs that are thrown away every year. And that’s down to the behaviour of GPs and pharmacists over prescribing drugs or if cancer patients are asked to administer drugs at home and that patient passes away, there are still perfectly usable drugs that will go to waste.

We are struggling to identify the triggers that could get these people on board to reduce wastage and question their over prescription of drugs.

Peter Charlesworth: The way we effect behavioural change is to make sure you measure what’s going on, compare with what you want to try and achieve and then you set targets around that. Critically those targets are driven from the bottom level all the way up, and aggregated up to manager level through to board level. And then KPIs are set throughout the organisation and you drive those very carefully.

Matthew Ball: The NHS might be sick of targets. I think gentle nudge behaviour might work better. Invariably people want to do the right thing but it’s about giving them easy to understand information and keep talking to them about the same stuff.

Graham Flynn: I think those messages would work in a condensed area like an NHS foundation trust.  But because the NHS has pushed out a lot of care into the community  and homes and they can forget about everything else. So now we have to deal with thousands of individual home and businesses, such as GPs and pharmacies, and there is only so many times you can send an email to them because they have to get on with their day to day care.

IMPLEMENTING CHANGE IN RECYCLING

David Smellie: Recycling seems to have hit a plateau.

What’s going to encourage people who don’t currently recycle to do so? Is there a need to have some prescriptive legislation where people may have to pay if they don’t recycle properly?

Paul Brown: Local authorities started to fine people for putting the wrong rubbish in the wrong recycling bin. But if you ask the local authorities about this, they say that they don’t slap a fine on immediately. Instead, there is a process in place which starts with warnings.

Fines will only go so far with making people sort their plastic waste into what is recycle and can be put out for collection.  You also have to make it easy for people too.

Craig Williams: I agree. It needs to be made simpler for the consumer. In the same way that we use a traffic light system on packaging for nutritional information in food products, people need to be shown very clearly and simply what’s good and what’s bad for the environment in terms of the packaging itself. We then need clarity on what people should be doing with the packaging.

Matthew Ball: The information on packaging and recycling is also inconsistent, as what you can do with packaging often depends on what local authority you live in.

So it’s about consistency of message, consistency of communication and consistency of collections.

But going back to the 25 year plan, we have to start somewhere. We could consult forever and not get anywhere. People are waiting for the silver bullet solution, so that everything can be recycled. But we need to put our stake in the ground and work towards that starting point. It’s not the final solution but we have to start somewhere and improve.

Bruno Prior: You’re talking about recycling as if it is for the moral good but actually it is just an economic decision. I would argue that we recycle too much and some rubbish should be placed in an incinerator to obtain energy.

Simon Rutledge: Hopefully the Resource and Waste Strategy that’s coming out in the Autumn will talk a little bit about recycling targets. But setting targets on their own is not enough. The government really need to major on product design and making the pull mechanisms that require higher recycling content in the products used; that would be a welcome addition.

There also needs to be a requirement to utilise those materials particularly with the Chinese ban on importing many recyclates.  The UK used to send many of our recyclates including plastics to the country for them process but that clearly isn’t available any more. But now there’s more reason for people to think about how much we recycle our plastics.

Biffa has had a polymer recycling plant for a number of years now and we are expanding that. The market place is shifting, in part because WRAP put together a body with a view to putting more recycled content into milk bottles. And today 80% of milk bottles contain around 20% of Biffa Polymer recycled food grade HDPE. If it was 40 or 50% we would process more.

Richard Collins: But it’s about reducing waste at the source too isn’t it? Currently there isn’t longevity built into products either. When our microwave broke it was a lot easier to just buy a new one as opposed to repairing it. It’s a difficult cycle to break and it’s cheaper to do the wrong thing. So it’s a behavioural change and getting people into reusing and using less to minimise waste in the first instance.

BREXIT

Matthew Farrow: Now let’s move the discussion onto Brexit. The EIC published a report with B P Collins over a year ago which looked at a waste policy framework post Brexit . It included points around what we could probably improve if we had more freedom to design our own policies and what EU regulations would be better to keep for stability. One year on, not a huge amount feels like it’s changed. Pretty much every conceivable outcome on Brexit is still possible.

Alex Zachary: I agree. The outcome is difficult to predict. Just recently the government’s EU Withdrawal Bill suffered its 15th defeat in the House of Lords, after voting in favour of adding environmental safeguards to the Bill such as backing the establishment of a statutory commitment to maintaining EU standards in areas around air pollution and waste and recycling.

Matthew Farrow: That’s right. And a new consultation has been launched on a statutory body that will hold the government to account on things like the 25 Year Plan.

It would be interesting to get people’s thoughts on whether you would welcome such a body?  To give you a sense of what they’re going for, it will apply to England only. It is trying to work out whether it would hold the central government to account or local authorities as well? Would it hold the government to account just on what had been EU law or on any environmental policy that’s ever been announced?

But can the government really fine itself?

This body may possibly be able to fine DEFRA if it failed to meet particular targets and the money would go towards an national environmental fund which would be run by people who might decide to spend the money on environmental projects, so it would then become a meaningful break from minsters ignoring what they’d said they’d do.

Paul Brown: The devil will be in the detail. There was a discussion earlier about improving air quality and one of the reasons that this has been so successful is that there are some hard edged duties which the government can’t escape. This hard edged approach will force people to change so this body may need to reflect that.

What is unclear is how that statutory body will fit within the framework. To what extent is it going to be driven by concerns that it also has to keep an eye on costs as well as improving the environment. Or will it look at the bigger picture and instead say, these are the standards and you have to deliver.

I’m not saying no to this body but I can see some questions about how it’s designed, what goes through the minds of people policing it and if there isn’t public support for it or economically it doesn’t make sense to the industries that are going to have to meet the targets, it could become unpopular. So in principle yes, but there is a lot of detail to work out.

Bruno Prior: Ironically Gove called for less government and that’s why we should leave the EU, and now the man is promoting more government than anyone else. It’s extraordinary.  From our perspective although the renewable energy directive was very important, it’s unclear to me whether they will hold the UK to their 2020 targets. I think it would suit everyone for the UK to drop out, including our own government who haven’t wanted them for years. It has provided an excuse to throw an enormous amount of money at certain types of renewable electricity technologies and forgotten about the other 80% of energy.

Conclusion

Matthew Farrow: There seems to be a lukewarm feeling about the 25 year plan from the panel today with the recognition that the politicians’ targets are coming up against the reality of the economics.

There is also a general consensus that the factors around businesses and individuals’ behaviours change are more important in determining whether environmental ambitions will be realised.

On Brexit, I think there’s no surprise that uncertainty is still a key feeling in the sector and that we are no closer to seeing what the future will look like than we were a year ago. Maybe things will be a lot clearer when we meet again in 2019.

Alex Zachary

Alex Zachary

Tel: 01753 279022

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