Landfill tax changes deal blow to Biffa's research plans

Mass-balance enthusiasts will be among those hoping for a slice of the new public spending programme for waste and resources management announced by Chancellor Gordon Brown last November. In the meantime, his decision to withdraw two-thirds of the landfill tax credits scheme has thrown Biffaward's ambitious research programme into disarray.

Biffa Waste Services has funded its research programme using landfill tax money (ENDS Report 317, pp 4-5 ). Biffa director Peter Jones told ENDS that he was "downbeat" about the Chancellor's announcement but he estimated that, with the £9-10 million already committed, approximately two-thirds of the 50 or so studies planned would go ahead over the next two-three years.

Already, mass-balance studies for London, the Isle of Wight, certain chemicals, waste streams and now the construction industry have been published. Another for the chemical industry is due next year.1The goal is to marry the available data to produce a fledgling set of national resource flow accounts for the UK in 2004. Biffaward has commissioned Forum for the Future to oversee the projects and pull together the final analysis.

Biffaward and the Forum want to convince the Government of the need for sound material flow data to help steer the economy towards sustainability - in line with the old maxim that "if you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it." They see the Office for National Statistics as the natural candidate to collect standardised data and disseminate analyses alongside conventional economic data. Indeed, the ONS began publishing headline material flow data in 1998 (ENDS Report 281, pp 11-12 ).

Biffa and the Forum would like to see a much more detailed set of accounts of incomings and outgoings, using the same sectoral, economic and geographical categories that the ONS uses for economic data.

Professor Paul Ekins of the Policy Studies Institute remarks that when the ONS began collecting economic data no-one would have envisaged the extent to which this would become essential for economic modelling and policy-making. He believes the same will be true for material resource data.

He told ENDS: "This is an effort to show that these data are useful and should be collected and synthesised systematically as a basis for policy-making."

Mr Jones predicts that if the Government does not pick up the project, "they will have to return to it within 10 years and pick it up again. Governments everywhere are realising they need these sort of data."

He believes that shifting the economy to "a higher paradigm" will require greater use of fiscal instruments to send the right price signals. But detailed knowledge is required in order to apply these strategically.

He also argues that it is in the interest of trade associations to understand the resource flows in their sectors. It enables them better to assess the pros and cons of potential fiscal initiatives, and argue convincingly for these to be applied in a balanced way.

For instance, he points out that for a waste management firm, "it is no good to design purpose-built waste treatment facilities for a 10-30 year contract unless you understand the dynamics of what's changing the composition of that waste."

The impact of the Biffaward studies will depend on how convincing a picture they paint. The construction industry study shows the potential weaknesses and pitfalls but drums home the message that the first step in any such project officially undertaken will have to be the gathering of reliable data.

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