Acting Up: A Local Authority Perspective On Wales’ Environment Act

Mark Williams, head of community and leisure services at Caerphilly County Borough Council, gives a local authority’s perspective on the new Environment (Wales) Act. He says the volume of new legislation is concerning at a time of austerity.

National Assembly for Wales

The general ethos of the Act (improving our management of natural resources) is laudable and broadly welcome, as is the aim of simplifying and giving greater coherence to the existing legislation regime.

However, Welsh Local Government is at a crossroads in terms of significant financial austerity and the need and expectation to work collaboratively. The volume of new legislation with implications for local authorities is, therefore, concerning at this time, as austerity has reduced – and will further reduce – local government capacity to deal with the required changes.

Turning now to Part 4 (Waste), and local government expressed a view at the Bill stage that the waste proposals were not considered helpful and should have been dropped, as they added to an already complicated legislative position in relation to local authority waste collection and disposal responsibilities and options. It is certainly the waste provisions within the Act that have generated the most concerns from a local authority perspective.

The Act will attempt to drive a change in practice such that waste is segregated by businesses and public sector organisations, and segregated recyclables are then collected separately by commercial waste collectors.

The aim of diverting more waste in the supply chain (eg, commercial) from the residual stream into recycling is welcome. However, the Act could have included provisions aimed at targeting the supply chain at the outset,  ie the excess packaging used by manufacturers/producers. There has been no attempt made in the Act to curb waste at source, so that consumers and sellers produce less waste.

The Act will attempt to drive a change in practice such that waste is segregated by businesses and public sector organisations, and segregated recyclables are then collected separately by commercial waste collectors. Again, the aim is laudable, but the practicalities of such a regime give rise for concern.

The practicalities of separate receptacles for separated waste fractions at small commercial premises, such as high street shops and certain SMEs, have not been thought out – some of these premises struggle for space to store a single residual container.

There has also been a well-rehearsed debate in Wales relating to kerbside sort versus the commingled collection of recyclables and any system for local authority-collected commercial recycling would need to be consistent with that authority’s household collection system and operation. I do not intend to re-run the commingled versus kerbside sort debate here, however, as the arguments for and against each have been well publicised over recent years.

Level Playing Field

A further issue for local government is the operation of a “level playing field” in terms of commercial waste collection. Competition across the industry for this market often makes it difficult for local authorities to develop and maintain sustainable (in environmental and financial terms) commercial waste services. It is therefore important that all commercial waste collections are regulated consistently in accordance with the spirit and provisions of the Act so that the “level playing field” is maintained across the private sector and local authorities.

The Act also introduces the concept of banning recyclable materials from energy from waste (EfW) facilities. There are clear questions over who is liable for determining the composition of the waste – the collection company? The EfW operator? – and how such a determination over whether there are recyclables in the waste stream can be made. It is therefore unclear whether these provisions may penalise organisations that have little or no control over the quality and composition of the products they receive.

There are questions within local government over the practical enforcement of the Waste provisions within the Act; if Natural Resources Wales (NRW) is the enforcing body, how will the provisions be effectively and consistently enforced and is NRW sufficiently resourced for such a role?

These provisions may also raise concerns for recently procured and developed EfW facilities, where their efficient operation and resultant contract price is predicated on a given composition and calorific value of waste that was determined before the Environment Bill was considered.

Finally, there are questions within local government over the practical enforcement of the Waste provisions within the Act; if Natural Resources Wales (NRW) is the enforcing body, how will the provisions be effectively and consistently enforced and is NRW sufficiently resourced for such a role? In this regard, there would be an expectation from local government that a pragmatic and realistic approach to enforcement is adopted.

It is also noted that the Act will be implemented via regulations made after 2017; in terms of the waste provisions, it is important that implementation is aligned with other relevant legislative and policy drivers (eg, statutory recycling targets) and that local government is consulted on regulations and guidance to be issued under the Act.

The views contained within this article are those of the author, and not necessarily the those of the author’s employing authority 

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