I’m told that the cabinet will meet in mid-July to make a final decision on whether to proceed with a badger cull in the south-west of England. For Caroline Spelman that could mark her third PR nightmare since Christmas.
First there was Forestry Commission sell-off, which David Cameron ruthlessly abandoned after an uprising by the general public.
When the Tories were in opposition, barely a day passed without a senior figure – usually Eric Pickles – berating the Labour government for its approach to rubbish collection. The party was incensed about councils which withdrew weekly collections, fined householders who did not sort out their refuse properly or sent out “bin police” to check household garbage. Garbage was a key doorstep policy at the general election.
Now in government, however, the Tories’ single-minded obsession with the subject has been rather diluted. For months on end there has been a grinding row about what approach to take to waste. Mr Pickles, now communities secretary, was keen to push through his agenda. But the “waste review” has not been his responsibility but instead that of Caroline Spelman, environment secretary in Defra.
Today the document is published, and you can see who has lost the row. Not only will councils still be allowed to choose when to pick up rubbish – localism in practice – despite being encouraged to do weekly collections for “smelly” food waste.
Also there is some confusion over the coalition’s plan to ban councils from fining householders up to £1,000 for overfilling rubbish bins or leaving out waste for collection on the wrong day. (Incidentally, the document reveals that this power “is very rarely used”). Instead of ending the fines the government will encourage councils to issue “fixed penalty notices” (of £75 to £110), which councils already have the option to use. (Defra tells me that 1,100 such penalties were issued in 2008/9 alone, although 286 were cancelled). There will also be a review of whether these fines should be at a “fairer level” although “it will take time for these changes to be made“. (see page 45 of the document).
UPDATE: Allies of Mr Pickles argue that fines will in future only be applied where there has been “harm to local amenity” by “neighbours from hell” under the proposed changes. This would mean an end to ‘petty bin fines’ forever, says one, meaning a partial victory for the communities secretary. Meanwhile Pickles’ department is still
My colleague Fiona Harvey has dug out the fact that an array of flood prevention schemes could soon be culled – despite claims by ministers pre-CSR that flood funding would be protected.
There could be “dozens” of flood measures among the casualties of the spending round including a £100m flood prevention scheme in Leeds.
Caroline Spelman, secretary of state for the environment, said on Wednesday that although the floods budget would be cut by 20 per cent much of this would be found through efficiencies. But Defra has since admitted that proposed flood defence projects would be cancelled, although it has not yet offered any details.
The budget for building new flood defences and upgrading existing defences has been reduced from an average of £335m a year to £261m a year for the next four years.
You could say this is unsurprising in the context of wider cuts to almost all parts of government. But it flies in the face of comments by ministers: such as Ms Spelman’s insistence during the summer that she would ensure the protection of vital spending on the key areas of animal health and flood prevention.
The chancellor said on Wednesday:
“We will fund a major improvement in our flood defences and coastal erosion management, that will provide better protection for 145,000 homes.”
When the coalition on May 12 pushed out its announcement for which MPs would take up ministerial roles there was a noticable delay when it came to Defra posts. I can reveal that David Cameron did intend a significant reshuffling between that department and DECC.
The idea was to add “environment” to DECC (creating DEECC, perhaps), beefing up the department controlled by Chris Huhne. I’m told that the documentation was all written and ready to send out. Several responsibilities would have been shorn from Defra, including the entire Environment Agency. Something that day made the new prime minister change his mind.