25 July 2019
Will a no deal Brexit impact the waste sector? B P Collins hosts round table discussion
B P Collins, a law firm which has advised the UK’s waste management sector for over 20 years, has hosted a round table discussion with a series of leading UK waste management and recycling companies. The discussion was chaired by Matthew Farrow, the executive director of the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) and focused on the impact of a ‘no deal’ Brexit on the UK’s waste management sector.
Now that Boris Johnson is the Prime Minister, he has made clear he is willing to countenance leaving the EU on 31 October without a deal. Matthew Farrow asked what people’s views were on the impact of a no deal Brexit on the waste and resources sector?
Some participants believed that Brexit is causing an issue in the industry:
Peter Donoghue, P B Donoghue: The biggest impact of Brexit for us is that there is currently a huge shortfall of operational staff in the industry at the moment. We have a number of Eastern European drivers, who form the core of our business, but since Brexit, long term employees are choosing to return home as they feel quite unsettled. The biggest challenge is to keep staff levels up.
Paul Britton, Thames Valley Chamber of Commerce: What I hear is that the process for leaving the EU has given the Government little time to focus on those local and national priorities that need attention. I’m concerned that the Government’s waste strategy will not get to see the level of investment that can meet ambition.
Others argued that Brexit won’t have much impact and there are more pressing issues:
Jeff Rhodes, Biffa: I think in terms of UK operating businesses, such as Biffa, the impact of Brexit will be quite modest. Yes, we export and trade recyclables and RDF (refuse derived fuel) to Europe and elsewhere but those markets are changing anyway due to China’s recent restrictions on what recycling it will accept, other countries also now following China’s approach, plus foreign exchange rates and other, natural market dynamics. It’s the UK infrastructure that really needs to be improved so we don’t have to rely on recycling export markets as much, whether we’re out of the EU or not.
David Smellie, B P Collins agreed: Gove has been instrumental in a fundamental change of DEFRA’s policies and in the department publishing strategies which had been promised for some time including the government’s overhaul of the UK’s waste strategy. But there is still much more to do. The UK still exports a large amount of waste and something has to be done to reduce the level of waste being produced.
Matthew Farrow, EIC agreed: That broadly fits with the view of the EIC’s waste and resources working group which consists of a wide range of waste operators. Despite the scare stories such as waste being stockpiled in Kent in the event of a no deal, most companies seem to have contingency plans in place for no deal.
Lee Underwood, Veolia Group: Veolia has already made contingencies in France for our business. We don’t see Brexit having a massive impact. Generally, we have made significant investment, tripled our stock levels in certain parts of the world to compensate for any issues with Brexit, but on a waste level we don’t expect to see anything major.
Craig Williams, B P Collins: Having spoken to waste management clients with domestic and international operations, they all started their preparations for a potential no deal Brexit two years ago, so everyone is now relatively comfortable with that prospect.
Peter Charlesworth, Carbon Statement: The Hospitality Carbon Reduction Forum members do not expect Brexit to cause any significant problems for waste management. The hospitality sector will however be monitoring the situation closely for any issues with labour and their F&B supply chains. Availability of personnel and disruption to supply chains both have the potential to cause operational management issues for the sector.
Others went further in highlighting the positives around Brexit:
Jeff Rhodes, Biffa: Brexit has actually stimulated Mr. Gove to push through the development of a new waste strategy which we haven’t had in the UK for around 10 years. It means that work has been done in DEFRA, which probably would not have happened without the need for post-Brexit policy planning. That new policy framework will be important for when we leave the EU but will still be important if we don’t, because either way we clearly need more recycling, more waste management infrastructure and more end markets within the UK and that’s what the new policy measures are meant to support.
Others hoped to have a freer market with the government giving overall guidance, rather than micro-managing, while the market is able to make the millions of small decisions.
But Alex Zachary, B P Collins highlighted the need for accountability: At present, the EU can take enforcement proceedings against the UK should it fail in its environmental obligations, but when Mr. Gove took over at DEFRA, the lobbyists believed that once we leave the EU there would be no constraints on future governments in terms of sticking to environmental targets set by their predecessors. One of the key principles for Brexiteers is that parliament is sovereign and should hold ministers to account, but there is concern that no one will have the power to stop the government changing course after Brexit.
Mr. Gove has proposed that a green watchdog - the Office of Environmental Protection – should be created to hold DEFRA ministers to account. There is ongoing debate about how this would work but in theory it will have powers to hold future governments to account if they fail to meet environmental targets.
Matthew Farrow, EIC concluded: We have seen a lot of progressive policies coming out of DEFRA over the last 18 months, but that does mean that there is a lot of consultation and potential complexity for business to deal with.
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