Waste programmes scale back work after cuts

Following cuts to their budgets, waste support programmes have refocused their efforts - with some disappointing results for councils and businesses.

The full effect of sweeping budget cuts imposed on several government-funded waste and resource efficiency programmes earlier this year is starting to be revealed. Business plans taking into account the new funding show a scaling-back of activities.

In February, the Environment Department (DEFRA) cut the budget of its Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) by nearly a third. Envirowise had its budget slashed even more: by 55%, from £22.19 million to £9.39 million. The National Industrial Symbiosis Programme (NISP) suffered a 42% cut in funding (ENDS Report 398, p 4 ).

The cuts have been roundly criticised. Appearing before the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into waste reduction in May, ministers were pressed on the matter (see pp 62-63 ).

While praising the work undertaken by the delivery bodies in recent years, Joan Ruddock, the DEFRA minister responsible for waste, said many of the programme’s initiatives had run their course. WRAP’s grants to supermarkets to reduce packaging were highlighted as an example.

Yet packaging remains a priority area in WRAP’s 2008-2011 business plan published in June. Indeed, its work with retailers is one of the few areas that will actually benefit from increased funding over the next three years, albeit only by 3%.

WRAP’s other priorities include food waste, improving recyclate quality and advising local authorities on collection systems. More work is also planned with the electrical sector.

In line with the focus on food waste, the budget for WRAP’s organics programme will increase from £6.4 million this year to £10.9 million in 2010/11. Much of that will be spent on capital support for anaerobic digestion.

But budgets for the other priority areas appear to have been scaled back. Most notably, WRAP’s local authority support programme’s budget drops from nearly £17 million a year now to an average of £10.8 million.

For the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme - which brings together producers of waste material with potential users - the reduction in funding curtails its plans for growth.

The reduction is "disappointing", it said in a statement. With less money "there will no longer be a significant effort behind growing the already large membership base", it added. It will be business as usual for existing members, but "some opportunities will inevitably be missed".

Envirowise meanwhile has announced it will no longer offer free on-site visits for businesses looking to cut waste. In the past three years, it conducted about 2,400 such visits. Equally it will be pulling the plug on its local "business resource efficiency clubs". In future firms will be told to "do it yourself and we’ll support you with online guidance, fact sheets and a helpdesk," a statement said. Firms do not need "hand-holding" any more, it added.

The business sector has reacted cynically to the cuts. "When it comes to environmental initiatives, government-funded information and support can be extremely valuable," said a spokesperson for the Federation of Small Businesses.

"The challenge for government is to reach out to the UK’s… small businesses to let them know what’s available in terms of incentives and benefits. Information on obscure websites never works."

While the cuts in funding have been criticised, further changes may be afoot.

In March, the Business Department (BERR) published a report which recommended streamlining the government’s 3,000 business support programmes to just 100.1 Business Link will act as the main route for firms to obtain advice.This is expected to take effect from March 2009.

As part of this work, DEFRA is carrying out a "delivery landscape review" to assess the need for all its advice bodies - and it is known to be under pressure to cut the number of schemes it supports. It is to report on findings at the end of the year.

Addressing the House of Lords committee, Malcolm Wicks, the energy minister, said the array of advice bodies was "confusing". He added that in future Business Link will act as the main route for firms to obtain waste and resource efficiency advice.

However, the likelihood of this being successful was repeatedly questioned by the committee. When asked how Business Link staff could provide advice on waste prevention, Joan Ruddock admitted they did not have the specialist knowledge, but that "they’re going to acquire it".

The committee asked what training the staff would undergo, but the ministers said they could not provide an answer.