Jonny Hazell
February 2017

Devolution and resource management

environmental SCIENTIST | Quadrophilia: How decentralisation has helped the environment | November 2016

For a subject that is far from the top of the Westminster Government’s in-tray, waste and resources policy has proved a surprisingly hot topic for the Scottish and Welsh governments. This reflects a desire to distinguish themselves using one of the fully devolved policy areas and a greater sense of the economic and environmental rewards of greater ambition on resource management. By contrast, Westminster’s ambition has been limited to a desire to comply with the objectives set by the EU. So what are Scotland and Wales doing that England isn’t, and what will the consequences of the UK’s vote to leave the EU be on the growing gap in policy ambition between Westminster and its devolved partners?

Resource policy in Wales

Wales has long had great ambition and been a pioneer as a champion for waste and resource management, which has been driven by their constitutional commitment to sustainability and one planet living. They were the first country to introduce a charge for single use carrier bags (in 2010) and they have the highest recycling rate of any part of the UK, hitting 60 per cent between March 2015 and March 2016. Their success is rooted in their 2010 strategy “Towards Zero Waste”. This sets out a long term framework for making Wales a zero waste country by 2050. Key provisions include:

  • A reduction in the amount of waste generated in Wales of 1.5% a year up to 2050;
  • A target of 70% recycling in 2025.

These economy-wide targets are complemented by sector specific strategies for municipal waste, commercial and industrial waste, and construction wastes amongst others1.

Of these, their municipal waste strategy is particularly noteworthy given its success in both preventing waste and increasing recycling. At the centre of this strategy is the Collections Blueprint, which sets out the Welsh Assembly government’s preferred approach to organising local authority waste and recycling collections. To help local authorities adopt their preferred system, the Government has implemented a “Collaborative Change Programme” which provides advice and financial support to pay for the capital costs of change. The success of their strategy is reflected in the facts that between 2006-7 and 2013-14, waste arisings declined by an average of 2 per cent per year whilst recycling increased from 33.4 per cent to 54.3 per cent.

Whilst their achievements are undeniable, it’s worth considering the costs involved. In 2013/14, Welsh expenditure on all waste and recycling activities was £82 per capita, as opposed to £67 per capita in England. The Welsh Government argues that this reflects higher capital investments that will be recouped from lower operational costs (as well as the challenges of their geography), and it is true that in 2015-16, Welsh expenditure per capita had reduced to £78.

Resource policy in Scotland

Like Wales, Scotland also has an ambitious plan for reducing waste and increasing their recycling. Their "Zero Waste Plan" includes a 70 per cent recycling target, separate collection requirements and landfill bans for particular materials such as food waste. As well as these measures, the Scottish Government's "Household Recycling Charter" has a similar ambition to Wales'' "Collections Blueprint", in trying to increase the consistency and quality of materials collected by local authorities for recycling. 

Scotland’s Zero Waste Plan is largely focused on improving the treatment of waste. So to complement this, the Scottish Government has developed a circular economy strategy, “Making Things Last”, which includes a holistic focus on waste prevention activities such as eco-design and remanufacturing. A notable feature of this strategy is support for the Scottish Institute of Remanufacturing, one of just six centres of remanufacturing expertise in the world and the only one in Europe. The Scottish Government is also providing extensive advice and financial support to increase the resource efficiency of Scottish businesses and help them adopt circular economy business models through the publicly funded Zero Waste Scotland, Resource Efficient Scotland, and Scottish Enterprise campaigns. 

Despite these strategies, action on the ground is taking a while to catch up with the political ambitions. For example, Scotland’s recycling rate was 44.3 per cent in 2015, lower than both England and Wales. But given the willingness to invest in improving resource management in Scotland, it seems likely that their performance will improve. 

Policy in England and the impact of Brexit

​Unlike its neighbours, England has not developed any strategy or policy framework to go beyond the current EU targets. This raises a potential headache for the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales as their efforts to improve resource management could be undermined by opportunities to dispose of waste in England at lower cost, particularly for commercial and industrial wastes. Whilst there are proposals in the EU’s “Circular Economy Package” to raise the targets and ambitions of the EU policy framework to similar levels to those of Wales and Scotland, it is now uncertain whether England would have to comply with these. If the UK are to remain members of the single market on terms similar to Norway, all the Directives that provide the framework for most of England’s waste and resources policies will still apply. 

But, if it’s a hard Brexit, the future is much less certain. Some targets, such as the 2020 50 per cent recycling target nominally remains in force having been transposed into UK legislation, but whether it would be enforced without the threat of an EU legal challenge is doubtful. Other rules implemented through EU regulations would be scrapped immediately, the most significant of which are the Ecodesign standards that make products longer lasting, easier to repair and recycle. Moreover, given the amount of time and central government resources that will be taken up by Brexit, it seems unlikely that we can expect any new policy on waste and resources in England. But amidst this gloomy prognosis, devolution provides a source of hope. As the government continues with its devolution agenda, newly empowered city regions have the opportunity to go beyond the limitations of central government policy. London already has a circular economy strategy, and as in Wales and Scotland, this is driven by a sense of an opportunity for local employment and economic regeneration, that greater resource management can deliver. If more English cities follow the example of the UK’s other devolved administrations, then they will be the driver of policy innovation and ambition. 

Jonny Hazell is a senior policy advisor, focusing on circular economy metrics, comparative policy analysis, and resource governance. Before joining Green Alliance he was research director at Inovenergy leading the ‘The 1 Tonne Roadshow’, an event series promoting best practice in waste management. He also led research on the UK’s renewable heat market, reuse of materials in London, and social enterprise in China.

This article is taken from the November 2016 edition of the environmental SCIENTIST.



1. Welsh Government (2015) Towards Zero Waste 2010-2050. Progress Report, July 2015. <>