All change at the top in Defra -Again? The contradiction of politics and progress on environmental issues

Appointment of sixth environment secretary in five years

The internal rivalries and divisions within the Conservative Party continue to create drag, impeding progress on policymaking. The cabinet reshuffle resulting from the conflict between Suella Braverman and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak have rung the changes at the top at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Steve Barclay, Conservative MP for North East Cambridgeshire, was moved from his role as Health Secretary to take up the reins as Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on 13th November 2023.

Steve Barclay arrives at Defra with a reputation for making policy reversals. As the Health Secretary he oversaw the reversal of plans to help tackle the obesity crisis, such as bans on junk food ads.

As PM Sunak tries to assert himself, one recent Conservative government narrative that has taken hold is that policies on the environment and green energy that support net zero place a burden on businesses and consumers, something that only heightens the effects of the cost of living crisis.

What this might all mean for flagship waste management policies such as DRS and EPR under Steve Barclay’s stewardship, only time will tell.

Six in five: The need for a concerted joined up effort

Steve Barclay replaces Thérèse Coffey who became the Environment Secretary in October 2022. He is the sixth such appointee in five years. This exposes a serious weakness in how we tackle the most pressing issues.

Taking on the most difficult problems requires a concerted, joined up effort by all stakeholders. At the top level, however, waste management and related environmental matters remain a slave to politics, with the result that policy is subject to sudden change.

Investment by businesses is pivotal to achieving net zero, and companies need certainty. They need to know that the money they put into projects that either make their own businesses more sustainable, or into developing solutions that enable others to become greener, is not going to be devalued or even junked by flip-flopping policy decisions.

Some regard the expression ‘climate emergency’ as an overheated exaggeration. But whatever the terminology, the outlook remains stark, and the evidence is mounting year by year. 2023 is now officially the warmest year since record keeping began. There are already serious, likely some irreversible impacts, for the entire world, and unless we make rapid progress the problems are going to deepen.

The invention of the fossil fuelled steam engine by James Watt in 1764 can be taken as the start of the first industrial revolution. In just 260 years since then, rapid human population growth and economic activity has resulted in the release of CO2 that took millions of years for the Earth to lock away. We now need to slam on the brakes, and even better go into reverse gear, just as rapidly.

Fundamentally, there is a need to overcome the contradiction between short term political cycles and the need to make rapid progress. They are quite simply incompatible.

Is it time for a new independent net zero policy organisation?

One way forward is to elevate environmental matters above politics, where they are governed by an executive body that is independent from government.

In the pursuit of achieving net zero emissions, is it time for the UK to create an independent environmental policymaking body? What might this look like?

This organisation would adhere to the principles of transparency and accountability, while providing clarity and guidance for businesses and consumers. It could be comprised of a diverse panel of experts from the scientific, business, and environmental communities, bringing together a wealth of knowledge and perspectives. This would enable the dots to be more effectively joined up.

Specific areas such as waste management could be better served. Policies could be developed and implemented through established public consultation methodologies, providing businesses and consumers with the certainty they need to make informed decisions in line with net zero goals.

This would involve carefully considering the economic implications of proposed environmental policies, avoiding unnecessary and unaffordable costs for businesses and consumers. It would also maximise the potential for economic growth and job creation.

Importantly, this organisation would be free from the disruptive influence of the political cycle as governments and ministers come and go, ensuring a faster, smoother and more cost-effective journey towards a sustainable future.

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