In writing this ‘nothing happening here’ update, there’s always a risk “sod’s law” will come into play, and the Government will sneak out a GDF announcement right before Christmas. My Santa list and wishful thinking aside, that’s now very unlikely.
The question therefore becomes — when? When will the GDF policy move forward?
It’s not unreasonable to assume that nothing will now happen until the Brexit boil is lanced. Whenever and however that happens.
The polymorphous political permutations tend to suggest that we’ll have at least one new Prime Minister during 2019. Whether that’s by internal leadership change or general election, it will mean new Ministers and a new Government. That Government will be focused on sorting out the complexities of leaving the EU, or of refocusing domestic political and policy priorities if we end up remaining in the EU. In either scenario, it’s hard to see how geological disposal is going to be on the list of early policy initiatives for a brand shiny-new Government. We can hope, but geological disposal policy is a repeated exercise of experience extinguishing hope.
Even on an optimistic timeline, we are probably looking at summer 2019 (at the very earliest) before Ministers are realistically going to be able to revisit geological disposal policy. But given recent history of the UK’s GDF programme, and the generally glacial pace of geological disposal programmes around the globe, who would stake much money on that?
Faced with these barren realities, it will be interesting to see how Government officials respond to a potentially protracted delay. In a politically unstable, cash-strapped, policy void the understandable default position is to hunker down, temporarily mothball the programme and keep it on life-support until happier days (and interested Ministers) arrive.
But could we use the delay period more productively? Since we have no Ministerial decision, in due course a new Minister will need to be briefed to be brought up to speed with the policy, and for policy advice to be resubmitted to that new Minister. Thus, technically speaking, until then we remain in a policy development and discussion phase. This affords an opportunity to continue refining the policy and how it might be implemented, to ensure any new Minister has the very latest thinking and options (rather than those dusted down from the year before).
We’ve previously reported on disquiet in the civil society sector that they’re not more involved in shaping a partnership framework in which they will be the eventual partners. There’s also widespread stakeholder concern that there has been too little general awareness-raising, as required by S7.4 of the 2014 White Paper. Given that we are still in a world of policy principles rather than detail, perhaps this time can be used productively, through structured (if low-key) dialogue between BEIS and key stakeholders to help build relationships, refine the policy, and improve the environment into which the policy will eventually be launched.
A Government announcement in the coming days may happen, rendering all the analysis above moot. We can hope so. If they do, we will be in contact. But it’s unlikely we’ll speak again before the Christmas Recess, so a happy holiday to everyone. See you in 2019.