Delivering comprehensive waste collections for local taxpayers

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Eric Pickles' speech to the resource efficiency and waste management conference.

It’s good to be here in Birmingham today.

It’s an impressive conference.

The whole exhibition illustrates how the private sector can work hand in hand with the public sector.

Now, for many years, I’ve been vocal on the issue of waste collections.

That’s because it matters

  • to my constituents

  • to the wider public

  • and for the local environment

Across the country, in every town, village and hamlet, waste collections are the most visible public service, where state and citizens meet.

Miss 1 collection and residents will immediately spot the difference – as has been clear during winter snow, after Birmingham’s changes to garden waste recycling, or during Brighton’s previous bin strike.

Before long severe health and environmental hazards start to stack up.

That makes you the thin green line: defending the border between cleanliness and chaos.

Over the last 4 years you have also been at the frontline of changing the way local government works.

Making it better, smarter and more efficient. That’s not just my opinion. It’s what the public think.

An ICM poll last year found that many people think the quality of frontline local services, including rubbish collection, has improved despite tighter spending.

A separate Yougov poll also revealed that people consider waste collection to be the most important local service.

Back in 2011, the coalition government’s waste strategy made very clear that it was our goal to increase the frequency and quality of rubbish collections, and to make it easier to recycle.

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Public being ignored

Public policy under the last administration actively encouraged fortnightly collections, but never sought to obtain a democratic mandate to justify it.

This is despite the fact that evidence shows that you can increase recycling rates with weekly collections, and deliver savings without cutting frequency.

Why the denial?

I believe the answer is quite simple. The purpose of politics has been forgotten.

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This is when the groupthink around fortnightly collections started.

Instead of a public service that makes peoples’ lives better, bin collections were viewed as a tool to deliver arbitrary policy goals – like reducing carbon emissions to the detriment of local amenity and local environmental issues like fly-tipping.

Climate change is a real risk that the state should address – but it isn’t a green light to trash the local environment in the name of the global environment.

It’s a similar debate with on-shore wind farms: we need cleaner energy to help the environment, but not at the cost of wrecking our landscape and disfiguring our heritage.

We need to get the environmental balance right between global and local. The shift to fortnightly collections wasn’t a localist initiative.

You had the Audit Commission, a Whitehall quango, marking down councils which didn’t cut their collection frequency.

WRAP told councils to cut services, but only after the local elections, to avoid a backlash from voters and the tiresome nuisance of democracy.

Local area agreements and Whitehall efficiency targets rewarded councils for cutting collections.

And the law was changed to allow for the imposition of bin fines for breaches of increasingly complex bin rules, and the legal obligations to collect household rubbish were further watered down.

The government began funding covert microchips in family bins, without telling people why.

And some councils used anti-terrorism powers to snoop on people putting out their rubbish.

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Brussels dictating local services

But in the whole debate, there is also an elephant in the room.

Pulling the strings and calling the shots.

Of course that elephant is Brussels.

The Local Government Association says bin collections should be a matter for local councils.

They are blind or oblivious that waste policy is increasingly just driven by poorly drafted EU Directives, not a municipal agenda.

The EU’s meddling has even extended to preventing us from buying powerful vacuum cleaners.

So no doubt we’ll soon be forced to buy dustpans with holes in in order to save plastic.

Indeed, the only country which has benefited from better waste collections thanks to the European Union is Communist Cuba.

It bizarrely receives funding for weekly collections through the EU’s international development programme.

I know that very often local decision makers were left frustrated by the complexity of EU regulation.

Subsidarity should mean that decisions are devolved to the lowest appropriate level – but instead we have the EU issuing confusing laws on whether or not you can have co-mingled collections.

That’s why my department has challenged the incorrect interpretation that EU directives require fortnightly collections or 19 different bins.

Better services for local people

But it’s not just about opposing things. We have a positive agenda for improving services.

We have safeguarding weekly collections for 6 million households through the Weekly Collection Support Scheme, while delivering environmental improvements at the same time.

We issued the first-ever Whitehall guidance to encourage weekly bin collections.

It challenges the myths that fortnightly bin collections are needed to save money or increase recycling.

There’s more than 1 way to save money.

And where there’s muck, there’s brass – as evident by the massive potential market in recycled materials.

We are supporting around 40 innovative reward schemes to back recycling, and recently pledged an extra £5 million to help councils increase their recycling rates through innovation and technology.

We have removed Whitehall directives demanding fortnightly bin collections, abolished plans for new bin taxes, and changed the law to scrap unfair bin fines and stop snooping powers for bin inspectors.

We’re also changing building regulations to tackle ‘bin blight’, where people’s wheelie bins are forced to clutter the streets or magically levitate in mid-air rather than enjoy a sensible place for storage.

This action all stems from a simple belief.

Communities across the country want a frequent and comprehensive rubbish and recycling service, and we believe they deserve one.

They’re not being awkward or demanding.

A typical Band D household pays £122 a month in Council Tax. A typical refuse collection service costs councils £6 to £7 a month per household. You do the maths. And I’m pleased to say that our efforts are reaping results and we have started to turn the tanker around.

14 million households in England have some form of weekly collection of smelly rubbish.

Had we not taken action, weekly collections would have disappeared by 2015.

You only have to look at the extinction of weekly collections in most of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to see what could have been.

Indeed, the Welsh government now has a policy of supporting 3-weekly or monthly bin collections.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Councils in England are proving that they can use the range of support my department provides to deliver the service that local people want.

  • like East Cambridgeshire District Council

They have improved their recycling service by expanding the range of materials collected in tandem with its weekly collection of residual waste.

The result? Recycling rates have increased from 34% to 52%, and 82% of residents say they recycle more.

  • or the London Borough of Havering’s Local Green Points recycling rewards scheme

By April 17,500 residents had signed up to the service, and 113 local businesses had offered to provide the incentives.

Our support is also helping to protect the excellent weekly services that are setting the benchmark for all councils.

Like Bournemouth Borough Council. They have maintained a weekly collection of residual waste, while consistently being 1 of the best recycling authorities in England.

It’s 1 reason they’ve recently been successful with a £262,000 bid for my department’s Transformation Challenge Award.

This upfront investment will help them and the Dorset Waste Partnership save money, manage waste better, encourage more recycling and reduce reliance on landfill disposal.

  • or take Ribble Valley Borough Council

They have retained weekly collections, have 1 of the highest recycling rates in Lancashire, but the cost of their service is substantially lower than similar councils.

These councils expose the myth that fortnightly collections and fines are needed to increase recycling.

And if people want to save money, they should consider how to improve their services, not make them worse.

Improve services, don’t bully people

Take procurement. The Circular Economy Task Force has noted that every bin in Britain costs on average £5 more to buy than a German bin.

That’s £200 million spent over the odds on buying bins.

Nicht so gut.

Of course, councils should tailor their services to local needs, especially given the differences between urban, suburban and rural communities.

But the lack of any common standard on bins, rubbish trucks or even colours, increases the cost of procurement and also makes education and recycling campaigns far harder.

The proliferation of different schemes, as well as the sheer number of bins, is 1 of the reasons why recycling rates are stalling.

We have a lot to learn from behavioural insight – the politics of “nudge”.

If make it easier for families to go green, they will recycle more.

Rewards for recycling show how working with families can deliver environmental benefits.

You don’t need a draconian approach.

Punishing people for leaving out smelly rubbish.

It is about making it accessible.

That’s why we will continue to resist the bin barons who pushed through fortnightly bin collections, and are now trying to move to monthly bin collections by stealth: The Binquistion.

Not on our watch.

Instead this government is protecting the environment by supporting recycling, and championing weekly collections that protect local amenity and public health.

Both can be achieved together.

They deserve more, and we’ve shown how this can be accomplished, with a partnership of the public and private sectors working together.