November 26th, 2013
by Phillip Ward
In some ways it is encouraging that he was honest in explaining the constraints of money and people that Owen Patterson’s decisions have left for his part of the Defra brief. It is both refreshing and unusual for government ministers to be clear about their priorities – or more particularly what they are not going to do. The temptation to appease interest groups by over-promising is not often resisted: after all few ministers, especially in this portfolio, stay long enough to be called to account for commitments they make but don’t deliver.
What Dan Rogerson might come to regret is signing up so quickly to a very restrictive definition of the role of government: confining himself to doing “the essentials that only Government can and must do”. He identifies these as making essential regulations, negotiating with Europe to avoid disproportionate burdens and intervening to correct identified market failures.
I suppose an important question is: what does Rogerson believe constitutes a market failure? Sadly, it seems clear that the letter intends the narrowest neo-classical sense of the term, limiting the scope for government action to preventing monopolies, ensuring proper levels of information and remedying externalities. In practice Rogerson will have little say over externalities, which will be for the Chancellor and the Treasury to deal with. But there is an alternative and broader view that market failure involves the inefficient allocation of resources over much longer periods than markets generally concern themselves with. Dealing with that would require the government to take a view about what they want for material resources much further ahead than their current 2020 target and shape the market and the systems to deliver it.
All it needs is some leadership. At a time when recycling growth in England is stalling, there are concerns about a return to growth in municipal waste arisings, and confusion about commercial and industrial arisings, surely this is the time for the UK government to be giving something like the lead that the Scottish and Welsh Governments are already doing so effectively. The difference in approach between England and the other administrations was highlighted by the government’s curious response to the EU consultation on future waste targets. Described as a “UK Government, not UK, response” it was clearly implied that resistance to new and more challenging EU targets only has the support of English ministers.
Both Wales and Scotland have produced strategies that are forward-looking and which set their waste polices in a much broader sustainability or circular economy context. Relatively unhindered by policy silos (or Eric Pickles) they have looked at waste and resources as part of a much wider set of considerations encompassing the economy, jobs and prosperity. Naturally enough, this has brought them to quite different conclusions from England. They are defining a vision of how they think the world should look and devising policies to enable them to deliver it.
Of course we cannot ignore the reduced capacity in Defra and clearly they will have to develop new ways of doing things, just as local authorities are having to.. As a group of construction businesses put it to me in the margins of the recent WRAP conference, “We don’t need a lot. If Defra can convene and record the meetings, we can provide the knowledge and technical input. It’s not a question of grants or research funding, we need a neutral space and a defined task”.
The recent offer from five leading trade bodies to work with Defra on a range of issues which will otherwise be sidelined, reinforces this approach.
The Rogerson letter was an attempt to hand leadership to “industry” – whatever that means – in those areas that Defra is now defining as outside their new limited role. There is no doubt that some companies, large and small, are carrying out bold and imaginative work in these areas and there are some promising voluntary schemes in place. However, those pushing it forward have to fight internally to justify the budgets and investment, overcoming competition for resources, the cavils of those who don’t take the long view and conflicting short-term market signals. They need more from government than warm wishes: they need reassurance that there is a shared long-term vision to work towards and some confidence that the market will be structured to allow them to succeed economically by playing their part.
Once he has his feet a little more firmly under his desk, perhaps Dan Rogerson will reflect on his role and, despite his early letter, see that he can and should be more active. Even within the limited resources Owen Patterson has allowed him, there is more that government can and must do if England is to really fix the failures of the waste and resources market, and develop the wider social, environmental and economic benefits as the devolved administrations are doing.