Considering its crumbling waste strategy, ongoing Brexit hangover and dilapidated IT systems, the last thing Defra needs is question marks over the safety of its buildings.
So news that more than 500 of them are being investigated and 43 are so far suspected of containing Raac − the infamous concrete at the heart of the scandal over school premises – comes as yet another blow.
Defra bosses told MPs yesterday they were confident no “mission critical” work would be disrupted by the discovery, despite 19 sites alone being sealed off at its Animal & Plant Health Agency in Weybridge, Surrey.
Let’s hope this is true, because yesterday’s grilling by the public accounts committee provided more evidence, if it were needed, of the extent of the problems facing the mission in question, many of which have been previously exposed by The Grocer.
Plans for consistent local authority collections
The Resources and Waste Strategy, launched in 2018, is floundering. Its three key pillars – extended producer responsibility (EPR), the deposit return scheme (DRS) and a revamp of local authority waste collections – are all woefully behind schedule and facing major question marks over their deliverability.
Yesterday Defra bosses provided some cause for optimism. It emerged alongside a shake-up of its management that no less than 100 extra staff had been brought in to the department in the past 12 months, to bring new focus to the misfiring reforms.
Meanwhile, the long-awaited publication of plans for consistent local authority collections, without which many argue it is simply impossible to lay the foundations for EPR, is to be published “imminently” we learnt (watch this space for news).
Defra officials also told MPs there had been a “reset” both in terms of resourcing and also mentality – not least with the department acknowledging yesterday it needs to treat these three major strands of the reforms as part of one joined-up strategy rather than separate silos of work.
Yet it seems incredible it has taken five years to get to that obvious conclusion.
And anyone expecting a smooth road ahead better think again.
Defra has all the DRS evidence it requires
Defra told MPs yesterday it had rejected calls to opt for a scaled-down pilot of DRS, despite pressure from supermarket bosses and the National Audit Office,
That’s likely to go down like a Raac ceiling with many in the industry, who claim that without the expected evidence from the Scottish scheme, it would be sheer folly to launch a fully-fledged DRS scheme – one retailers claim could cost the industry almost £2bn a year to run.
Defra’s argument that it has all the evidence it needs from DRS systems in Demark, Norway and a pilot in the Orkney islands doesn’t sound overly convincing, especially when paired with the £90m collapse of CSL. Ultimately it could well be the Treasury rather than Defra officials that makes the final call.
Defra may at least be making an attempt to get its own house in order, but its waste strategy is sadly built on such dodgy foundations, these problems will be mighty difficult to put right.