It’s possible that Eric Pickles expected the Weekly Collection Support Scheme to provide a permanent boost to his popularity. After years in which local government had cut the frequency of rubbish collection, much to the chagrin of the Daily Mail, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government must have imagined that he would be seen to be acting decisively to put things right.
The wonga from Ongar
The fund set out to deliver one of the aims of the Government’s 2011 Waste Review: to “increase the frequency and quality of waste collections” with the emphasis being very much on the ‘frequency’. Once bids were prepared and submitted to DCLG and as the industry rumour mill began to turn, it became clear that very few authorities were actually planning to re-introduce weekly refuse collections. MRW released research to that effect and were immediately taken to task by officials who questioned the accuracy of the research and insisted that the scheme would indeed achieve its objective: “to reverse the shift towards fortnightly rubbish collections which has resulted in residual waste being stored ‘at home’ for long periods between collections.”
The timetable of the fund looked as though it might have been designed to allow Eric Pickles to make an announcement at the 2012 Conservative Party Conference. But Conference came and went without us being told how many millions of householders would ‘benefit’ from his intervention.
When the winners were at last announced, it seemed as though the department released the news with as little fanfare as possible. Presumably this wasn’t the plan when the scheme was being developed. However, with little in the way of success to proclaim, Pickles limited himself to toothless threats of further budget cuts for those who insisted on fortnightly refuse services. Instead of a national return to weekly rubbish collection, it quickly became apparent that only Labour-run Stoke on Trent were taking the money in order to support a switch from fortnightly to weekly bin collections.
Even Stoke had an ulterior motive and needed a greater incentive than could be provided by a share of the £250m fund. The council is bound into an incinerator contract that specifies the minimum tonnage of material that the council must send to the facility or face penalty payments. In 2010 the council, having recently introduced fortnightly collection, sent too little waste for treatment and was presented by its contractor with a bill for £645k. Now, using Mr Pickles’ fund, the authority is able to re-introduce a service that produces enough waste to avoid future penalties.
For the rest of the country, the sums just don’t add-up. The scheme lasts for three years but authorities must commit to continuing to operate weekly collections for five. Most authorities bid in the expectation that they wouldn’t be changing their refuse collection services at all. Of the authorities which bid to the fund, those making fortnightly collections intend to continue to operate fortnightly services because it’s cheaper, delivers better recycling performance and is politically and publically acceptable. And those authorities which have weekly collections only bid because they had no immediate plans to change to fortnightly and were happy to hold their hands out for ‘free’ money.
Weekly refuse refusal
None of this is news. What is new, however, is that we’re starting to see evidence that even being awarded funds isn’t enough to keep authorities from considering a fortnightly refuse scheme. Last week it was announced that Trafford have decided not to take up DCLG’s offer of funds. Having further considered their options the authority is clear that it’s financially, environmentally and economically preferable for them to move to a recycling focussed service with less frequent refuse collection. The balance of benefits clearly justifies the authority turning down the £6.4m they’ve been awarded. I’m also aware of a number of other authorities who have been awarded funds that are now re-considering their options and may give back what they’ve been offered.
I’m aware of another authority (and have heard rumours about others) that is contemplating departing substantially from the programme of action it put forward in its bid. Instead it will hold the money it is receiving from DCLG in a central pot, from which its environmental services team will be able to bid for resources for improvement projects – there is no guarantee that this authority will be rolling out the changes that it indicated in its bid – although it will keep, as it had always intended, a weekly refuse collection. DCLG appears to be sufficiently eager to report its successful distribution of the money that whether the fund furthers its original aims is no longer an issue. Authorities that didn’t bid must be kicking themselves for passing up what increasingly appears to be a ‘no strings’ injection of cash.
It seems that still other authorities are taking things one step further. One council with which I have occasional contact tells me that they are intending to spend the money they have been awarded on equipment and bins to enable them to go fortnightly! They intend to stick to the terms of the agreement and will keep weekly residual collections for the next five years, but they’re spending money with the clear intention of making a switch to less frequent refuse collection and more frequent recycling collections as soon as possible afterwards.
We’ve known for some time that the DCLG fund was unpopular and badly designed. We’ve also know for a while that it won’t stimulate a widespread return to weekly refuse collection. Now we discover that the funds are actually being used to pay for bins intended to allow the introduction of fortnightly refuse collection.
In its own terms, then, the best that can be said for the fund is that it will delay a few councils decision to move to fortnightly collection. We’re yet to see how many councils follow Trafford and decide that the financial case doesn’t add up; or how many others are using the fund to facilitate their eventual switch away from weekly collection. It appears that Pickles has proved, as most of the industry already knew, that even millions of pounds in subsidy aren’t enough to make weekly collection stack up.