Public sector feedback on the consultations

19th May 2021 Posted by

Blog by Dr Adam Read, External Affairs Director, SUEZ recycling and recovery UK

The clock is ticking, but dialogue continues

Seven weeks in to the EPR and DRS consultations and there remains a great deal of uncertainty and concern about many of the proposals being put forward. Add to this the short overlap period in which to consider the consistent collections proposals (in England only) and you can see why interest in the plethora of online discussions, working groups and webinars remains so high. It seems that everyone is looking for insight, hoping for a little direction or a sign of where to focus their remaining time and effort before the submissions on 04 June 2021. This is why SUEZ recycling and recovery UK have been running a series of deep-dive workshops for our customers on key topics like consumer engagement, payment mechanisms, and data and evidence to help build a common understanding of the key proposals and implications for our customers and ourselves. Alongside this, a series of open webinars with trusted experts from a large array of trade bodies, industry representatives and local authority associations help to build a picture of what good looks like, where there are inconsistencies in the proposals, and to help our peers to build their own judgements ahead of any formal submissions.

Today’s sessions lived up to expectation with another excellent panel made up of Jarno Stet from Westminster City Council (and also representing NAWDO), Wendy Barrett from Devon County Council (and ADEPT) and our own Stuart Hayward-Higham, Technical Development Director for SUEZ, focusing on a public sector perspective on the three consultation and what these may mean for local authorities, their service providers and their households. As always, I thoroughly enjoyed chairing the session, with the right blend of fabulous insights, a great deal of honesty, and few thought provoking statements from our panel helping to kick things off before we settled into our usual mix of audience questions and comments, plus a few polls to determine what the audience were thinking around some of the big topics.

What are the big issues?

Jarno was quick to point out that perhaps the proposals were asking for too much change in too little time and this was a risk, what happens if it doesn’t work? He remains concerned that many of the proposals remain unclear and will be fleshed out after the consultations, but that makes it hard to select a preferred answer/solution/proposal right now – what are we voting for? Although local authorities will welcome additional revenue streams from EPR, the risk of materials loss from the kerbside to DRS was a major headache and even with a lot of modelling and analysis he was uncertain of what the real implications would be for service cost or performance. He was also keen to stress that none of the three major consultations really addressed waste prevention in any real way, although he acknowledged that the English Waste Prevention Plan is also out for consultation, but are these strategies suitably aligned? Developing robust markets for current materials and the new target materials in the coming years (cartons, films and food waste etc.) still worries him and he doesn’t think the consultation proposals offer enough certainty to drive the level of investment needed, but he hopes to be proved wrong! His final theme was about the current dysfunctional commercial waste and recycling system (recycling rates below 35%) and that all of the complex solutions proposed for incentivising and regulating this area were flawed, and that the system needed a radical overhaul before any tinkering is done to payments, reporting and enforcement – we need a new data baseline that we all have confidence in.

Wendy identified that the EPR proposals do move us closer to a circular economy, with clearer labelling and consistent collections offering greater clarity for consumers. But she also identified a number of uncertainties around payments and reporting that were causing her peers to have sleepless nights, including how will modelled and actual costs be determined, and what system will the Scheme Administrator decide to use when determining local authority payments? She was clear that local authorities definitely want the new funding streams promised from producers through EPR but they want that money as soon as possible to help fund changes in services and more importantly pre-change engagement with consumers and residents so they are prepared for the significant impact on their actions and services. She was full of praise for the amount of good quality data held by her peers and expected the new data requirements and reporting demands to be a tough ask, but more than doable and well worth the effort if additional monies were to be realised. She was less positive about the DRS proposals as packaging is not the dominant litter stream, and is too much disruption from the outset – perhaps allowing EPR and consistent collections to become embedded before deciding if DRS in any form is necessary? Consistent collections on the whole was as expected, which might reflect why we only have an eight week consultation window, but she still has real concerns about not letting local authorities determine if three-weekly residual collections are part of the solution for driving up recycling and capturing food waste, and where all the transition funding was really going to come from.

Finally, Stuart brought a contractor’s perspective to the discussion. He felt sure that EPR modulation would help deliver waste prevention, by helping to remove the hard to recycle packaging, but that the devil was in the detail, and we wouldn’t know the final modulation approach until long after the consultations close. Although he raised concerns about DRS simply moving materials from kerbside to a DRS system at a large cost, he did acknowledge that it could prove effective in driving specific behavioural changes around littering and help drive up the quality of the recyclate recovered. Stuart’s biggest concern however was about the sheer number of options being considered (36) and in some cases the lack of real evidence to help us decide in which direction to travel, although he noted that consolidation points (materials recycling facilities and transfer stations) would be critical in the new system with significant upgrading of these sites and their data capture and handling capabilities required. Stuart strongly advocated for local authority payments to be performance related, as a large base payment might disincentivise any significant effort to change things locally, and reminded everyone that we are only one or two budget cycles away from needing to have some firm budget lines for new services, new communication and potentially new income too.

How did the audience vote?

There was strong support across the board for prioritising EPR before any other policy reforms (72% favoured EPR first) with the clear priority list seeing EPR, then consistent collections followed by DRS, whilst 21% favoured consistent collections first and EPR second. It seemed that the audience were very much aligned with the thinking of our panel when it came to prioritising EPR and consistent collections to build the momentum and to sort the funding out.

When asked what we should do with DRS then, the feedback from the audience was just as strong. Forty-eight per cent wanted to delay it until ‘it was deemed necessary’ and a further 38% favoured waiting to learn from the planned Scottish roll-out before deciding on how to move forward. However, Stuart challenged this common belief suggesting that delaying the DRS decisions would simply disrupt services and consumers at a point in the future, making it hard to plan effective services, and that we should either introduce it at the same time as the other policy reforms to avoid constant changes happening, stop it completely, or allow a seven year delay so that investment in new vehicles isn’t undermined.

There was quite a bit of discussion around scheme governance and the independence of the Scheme Administrator. Local authorities would like some form of representation on the body, but there is no guarantee this will happen, whilst there was general agreement that Scheme Administrator must be professionally appointed and independent of compliance schemes as this could offer certain brands too much control in the system.

The audience were asked if they thought the system would be ready to make payments to local government on day one of the new scheme as set out in the proposals, and the panel were unsure about this as there is a lot of procurement work to be done, systems to be set up, and data captured and processed. This was reflected by the poll result with 68% ‘not confident at all’ or ‘not very confident’. Jarno rightly stated that the system might be working on day one but it won’t be perfect and we should expect refinements over the first couple of years as we all learn and adapt.

One of the more contentious issues in some of the meetings I have been in over recent weeks has surrounded baseline/guaranteed payments for local authorities for having a service in place (whether compliant or not was up for discussion), or whether more of the payment should be performance linked. All of our speakers have referenced this during their early pitches and many of the audience questions focused on this too. Given the audience mix, a strong public sector perspective, most favoured a baseline payment for core service provision and a top-up payment linked to performance against a benchmark group for similar authorities (85%), but surprisingly only 4% wanted a baseline payment only, whilst 11% favoured the performance only approach. Jarno reflected that this approach is similar to many of the EPR models in use around Europe, whilst Stuart acknowledged that there is a basic payment required for having any form of service (the baseline payment) but that we need real aspirational performance targets to improve the overall system performance, and as such making too much of the local authority payment a baseline offer rather than an incentivised, performance linked one might result in less progress than was being hoped for.

When we discussed whether the 80% proposed baseline payment felt right or not, there was a mixed response: 34% favoured the 80% figure, whilst 35% suggested a lower baseline at 70%, and 23% favoured a much lower 50% basic payment with the other 50% being performance related. Clearly more work is needed to determine the sweet spot and the panel confirmed that all responses to the consultation should think long and hard about what would incentivise them going forward.

What next?

Other topics that recurred throughout the question and answer discussions were the opportunity for pay as you throw, green waste collections (chargeable or not?), and regional collaboration on collections to drive efficiencies and possible local government reformation to enable greater economies of scale (as in Cornwall).

It really was a full on 90-minute debate, and I would like to personally thank the panel for their candour, honesty and openness, and the audience for participating in all of the polls and asking some brilliant questions – sorry for not being able to get them all answered in the time available. But we will be sharing all the questions with the panel and will be circulating some additional notes/answers in due course.

But in the meantime the recording can be viewed here so if you missed it, settle back and enjoy the frank discussion and collective humour. There is little doubt that the largest significant reforms to hit the waste & resources sector ever are just around the corner, and no aspect of local service provision, payment or reporting will be the same again. As such, it is critical that you dedicate some time to get your responses to the consultation in, not just answering the questions through the online portal but written submissions that link the key issues, the concerns you have, and the certainty you need in a unified document, as so many of us agreed to while on the webinar.

So, in summary, and recycling some of the closing remarks of the panel: it is our duty to respond to the consultations and to respond fully; we must collaborate and stop thinking in silos if we are to get the system we all want and believe in; the world is complicated, and we must understand the new systems fully before responding – this is too important to get it wrong!

I look forward to seeing you online soon, and I wish you well with your ongoing dialogue, collaboration and written submissions, time is now very much of the essence.

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