Speech

Improving frontline rubbish and recycling services for family homes

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

Draft text of the speech - may differ from the delivered version. Thank you for inviting me to speak at this useful and timely Conference…


Draft text of the speech - may differ from the delivered version.

Thank you for inviting me to speak at this useful and timely Conference following the launch of the Government’s Waste Review.

As a Minister at the Department for Communities and Local Government, it will be no surprise that my concern is householders and the frontline services their council provides. Under the previous administration, I believe there was a failure to realise that for a £120 a month in council tax, families expect and deserve comprehensive recycling and rubbish collections.

Yet over the last decade, bins have moved up and up the political agenda. For many newspapers, bins are the third biggest postbag issue - after immigration and Europe.

Phrases like the ‘Town Hall Talibin’, ‘Bin Brother’ and the ‘Binquisition’ entered the political lexicon. This reflects a source of frustration by local residents and a failure by the Government to win over the public to recycling.

The cause of localism has been undermined not strengthened, by setting residents up to view their council with resentment rather than respect.

At the heart of that were policies of the last administration to use taxes, restrictions and fines, to drive waste policies. The Coalition Government fundamentally takes different approach - we want to work with families to go green, and use incentives to reward and encourage socially responsible behaviour.

My department has worked very closely with Caroline Spelman on this Review to identify ways we can work with local councils to deliver waste collection services that meet their resident’s needs.

Yesterday we unveiled a range of measures that will help improve households’ bin collection services.

Bin fines, snooping and bin taxes

Three issues are particularly corrosive to the trust between councils and residents when it comes to waste services: a stealthy imposition of bin fines, bin snooping and bin taxes.

This Government is committed to taking a stand on all three.

Starting with fines we want to make sure residents aren’t penalised for minor mistakes.

It’s patently not fair that under the last Government families were being fined more than shoplifters for not closing a bin lid or putting a yoghurt pot into the wrong bin.

So we are ditching unfair bin fines meaning town halls can no longer take householders to court and impose £1,000 fines for minor issues like this.

The Review commits us to working with local authorities to introduce a new ‘harm to local amenity test’, which will rightly target serious offenders who make the neighbourhood into a rubbish tip. And anti-social litterlouts.

Fixed penalty notices will be firmly targeted at the neighbours from hell who blight their local areas while responsible householders who try to do the right thing are left alone.

We are also taking a firm line on the unpleasant practise of bin snooping - secretive bin searches to find out what the public are throwing away.

We’ve already issued guidance on this. And now we are repealing powers of entry into domestic premises for evidence gathering purposes and a switch from criminal to civil penalties for extreme cases.

We are also scrapping plans to introduce “pay as you throw” bin tax schemes under the Localism Bill.

These would have unfairly penalised families who produce more waste, and ended up encouraging fly tipping and backyard burning. In the Republic of Ireland, the biggest source of dioxins in the air is from the domestic burning of rubbish. Bin charging was introduced as an environmental measure, but actually, it has harmed the local environment.

And finally we are again addressing the worrying assumption that it is okay for councils to charge for waste services. Council tax certainly is not a popular tax. But fundamentally, it is the local services tax which is supposed to pay for councils’ frontline services.

As Lord Henley and I wrote to councils earlier this year: Councils cannot introduce ‘backdoor’ bin charging for mainstream waste collections.

Families deserve a bin collection service without bin bag charges on top.

  • Instead we want to make it easier for councils to work with householders, rather than against them.
  • Encourage housholders to recycle and reward them for going green - instead of punishing them with fines, taxes and snooping.
  • Genuine reward schemes like Recyclebank have been successful used to increase recycling in councils like Windsor and Maidenhead.

And civil amenity sites should remain free at the point of use for local residents to dispose of their household waste responsibly. Charging households for local recycling and amenity sites - so-called tip taxes - is utterly counter-productive. It would just encourage more fly-tipping, which is expensive to clean up, and it would discourage the responsible disposal of electrical waste. Indeed, recycling sites are a source of revenue for local authorities - from selling on the materials collected for both recycling and for re-use.

It’s not without reason that Tesco - they’re no fools - has recently taken control of the municipal recycling banks in its supermarket car parks. There’s money there.

Localism and doing more for less

There are people who say we should let councils get on with this if we’re committed to localism.

The last Government adopted an explicit ‘Household Waste Prevention Policy Programme’ pushing for bin cuts, bin taxes and bin fines.

The policy demanded “collection limitations in terms of rubbish bin size or the interval between collections”, and sought to “nationalise this policy among local authorities”.

Combined with the gold-plating of EU directives, such policy diktats demolish the suggestion that cutting weekly rubbish collections was a ‘local policy’ chosen by councils.

Now-repealed Whitehall guidance by WRAP (Water and Resources Action Programme) pressured councils to cut weekly collections. It told town halls that councillors should be pressured to stop them opposing the axing of collections. It also instructed that bin cuts should be done after local elections - to avoid democratic opposition. This wasn’t localism - but an assault on local democracy.

But localism means much more than a tug of war of political power between Whitehall and the town halls.

It’s about a fundamental shake up of the balance of power - and the relationship between councils and residents must change as much.

Councils have got to be accountable to their residents. That’s why we’re giving them a greater voice to say when they are not satisfied through their power to challenge basic services under our Localism Bill.

Certainly, councils are facing a very challenging time finding savings. We have inherited a massive legacy of debt that the whole country has to now pay off.

That the age of carefree public spending is over and that all parts of the public sector have to find new and productive ways to make every pound of tax payers money stretch further to preserve key front line services.

The easy option is to salami slice key frontline services such as bin collections.

But the best councils are sharing back office staff; shining a spotlight on waste; cracking down on senior pay; collaborating to spend smarter; and using some of their £10 billion rainy day savings.

Councils still have revenue spending of £53 billion. They need to talk to their residents and find out what services people want to protect.

I visited last year Dartford where they had held a referendum - a Big Bin Vote - on whether to keep their weekly bin collection. 94.5 per cent said yes - and so they kept it on by achieving savings from a back office shared service agreement with Sevenoaks.

Better procurement and joint working can improve the efficiency and affordability of collections while improving the frontline service for the public.

That is why authorities like East Northamptonshire, who have recently negotiated a new waste management contract to be able to offer their residents a weekly collection by eliminating cost.

Likewise Cornwall council streamlined their waste collection contracts from six to one council wide contract cutting a £25 million cost by £3 million and providing a better service. Cornwall is a unitary council, but you don’t need to go through the expensive process of restructuring to share services.

And West Norfolk is keeping bin collections weekly through a new shared service deal with neighbouring North Norfolk District due to save £400,000.

It’s important with shared services that local democratic accountability is retained - at the end of the day, the local electorate must have the right to decide.

Weekly collections

Weekly collections have been a key issue for our department. We moved quickly to ditch the last Government’s policy of imposing fortnightly collections for all.

We withdrew Audit Commission guidance encouraging councils to switch to fortnightly collections, and we have removed their inspections that marked down councils that did not give up on weekly collections.

We have also got rid of the perverse financial incentives created by Local Area Agreements to downgrade waste collection services through Performance Reward Grant.

And we promised to work with councils to increase the frequency and quality of bin collections.

The Waste Review is very clear; the Government understands householders have a reasonable expectation that their smelly rubbish will be collected weekly.

And the Government will be working with local councils to increase the frequency and quality of rubbish collections and make it easier to recycle, and to tackle measures which encourage councils specifically to cut the scope of collections.

The Government will also work with WRAP to monitor service levels to understand whether and how they are changing, keeping the quality, affordability and frequency of household waste collections under review.

It’s important to understand what factors affect the quality, cost and frequency of household waste collections because one size does not fit all in terms of configuration.

But at the same time residents across the country are entitled to want their tax money to go towards a weekly service.

And I hope we will be making further announcements in due course on how we intend to support increasing frequency of collections.

There is considerable variety in the efficiency of waste collection. Some ‘can-do’ councils are being innovative and taking steps to preserve this visible front line service as we’ve seen.

They recognise that for many council tax payers, their household waste collection is the most visible service they receive for their council tax.

Conclusion

Public policy on bins may have had the best of intentions over the years.

But there’s no doubt that a large gap has emerged between public expectations and the level of services many now receive.

But it’s local people who pay their taxes - and we need to listen to their views on to develop comprehensive recycling and rubbish collections for all.

It is to benefit of the reputation of local government and the broader waste industry that we get this right. This is an opportunity to show that protecting the environment and protecting convenient frontline services go hand in hand.