Government is reducing its waste and recycling activities in 2014 in order to focus on negotiating EU waste agreements as these are “likely to be a priority”, it says.
And, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has also defended its decision to wait until 2015 to implement plastic bag charges, adding that it will only legislate for biodegradable bag exemptions “once a suitable bag has been developed”.
This comes as Defra minister Dan Rogerson wrote to apologise this week for the continued delay in responding to a report by the Environmental Audit Committee in February, which described the department’s proposals as a “complete mess” but he did not indicate when a response would be given.
Elsewhere, regarding budget cut backs, Defra said that £8million had been cut from the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) budget this year. However, because of the additional funding to tackle floods, Environment Agency job and budget cuts would be lower than previously expected.
Overall, Defra is expecting its 2014/15 budget to be £130million less than its budget for the previous year.
The revelations come in the government’s response to recommendations made in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee’s annual report, published in January.
Government’s initial response was rejected in March by the EFRA Committee, which wrote to the secretary of state “requesting a response which better addressed the points made by the Committee in its report”.
It is this further response which has now been published by the Committee today and sees Defra defending its budget cut backs and reduction in waste activities during the coming year.
These changes [reducing waste activities] will enable Defra to focus on its priorities, as a government department, in ensuring the negotiation and implementation of proportionate EU waste agreements. This is likely to be a priority in 2014 as the European Commission is expected to bring forward proposals on waste and resource efficiency.’
The EFRA Committee – which has also launched an inquiry into Defra and waste management in England – had previously raised concerns about the impact of departmental budget cuts on Defra’s ability to respond to emergencies and the impact on the waste industry of reduced Defra activity in this area.
Defra explained in response that in 2014/15 it is “reducing activity in areas of waste policy where business is better placed to act and there is no clear market failure, for example, commercial and industrial waste, construction and demolition waste, and on proactive energy from waste policy development’.
The department also said its current work on AD and food waste was nearing completion, leaving the organics industry to take further work forward.
And, it said it would reduce its level of generic support for the local authorities on waste and instead focus its support through the Waste Infrastructure Delivery Programme in order to help councils “realise efficiencies from their waste contracts”.
But, Defra said that these changes would enable it to focus on its priorities in “ensuring the negotiation and implementation of proportionate EU waste agreements”, adding that “this is likely to be a priority in 2014 as the European Commission is expected to bring forward proposals on waste and resource efficiency”.
With regards to carrier bag regulations, the EFRA committee had called for planned plastic bag charges to be brought in sooner than 2015, adding that genuine biodegradable bags needed developing and should be exempt from the charges.
However, Defra said the charges were coming in in 2015 because of time needed to prepare secondary legislation and work on details, as well as to give retailers time to prepare for the changes.
According to the department, the charges will not include biodegradable bags that “meet certain standards”, which will be worked up with the industry. It added that it had also just awarded four contracts for feasibility studies into developing better biodegradable bags.
Defra said: “We will legislate for the biodegradable bag exemption once a suitable bag is developed and standards are set.”
According to Defra, the Environment Agency will “simplify its structures and is moving from a three-tier (national, regional and area) to a two-tier (national and area) structure from April 2014’.
However, following additional funding earlier this year to tackle flooding, reductions in overall job numbers will be “lower than previously thought”. By October 2014, Defra said, it is ‘likely that job numbers will be approximately 10,250, an estimated reduction of around 350 on current staffing levels.’
Furthermore, the government highlighted the additional £5million in the Chancellor’s Budget 2014 earmarked for tackling waste crime as a reflection of its “commitment to tackling this serious problem”.
It said: ‘Defra is working with HM Treasury and the Environment Agency to ensure the funding is targeted effectively. We want to see the legitimate waste and resource industry flourish: that means taking a tough approach with those who deliberately flout the rules.’