Eric Pickles’ Weekly Collection Support Scheme reminds me for some reason of an under-stocked all-you-can-eat buffet. Local authorities that commit to collect refuse weekly for the next five years will be invited to fill their boots, whilst those with fortnightly refuse collection wishing to provide a weekly food waste service, will be grudgingly shown to the back of the queue, to pick over the scraps. Show the waiter a special innovation ticket and you may find yourself advanced a few places in the line.
The fund may be good news for qualifying authorities that want to invest in service improvement. But just like the diners at an all you can-eat-buffet, authorities are less likely to be discriminating about what they ask for when they don’t have to pay for it.
Learning from past mistakes
Ten years ago Defra launched its £140m Waste Minimisation and Recycling Fund. Working as a free-lancer, I assisted Eunomia to design the bid evaluation methodology so I clearly remember the large number of poorly thought-out bids, for bins and equipment which were unlikely to deliver any environmental improvement. The fund supported a lot of worthwhile projects, but it also turbo-charged the national roll-out of free garden waste collections: an absurd national mis-allocation of funds from which we have yet to fully extract ourselves.
I’m no fan of DCLG’s fundamentally flawed fund. It aims to promote higher cost, lower performance services based on the misapprehension that this will be popular. But being a consultant working with local authorities to improve environmental services and reduce costs, I feel I’ve got no choice but to engage with it. So at Eunomia we’ve contacted local authorities to offer our support in bidding for funds in the hope that we’ll be able to help channel the money to projects which deliver genuine benefits (we won’t be working with authorities that want to roll-back to weekly refuse collections). As a result I’ve had dozens of conversations with authorities about the types of bid they might want to make.
I’m heartened to report that I haven’t yet had a conversation with an authority that plans to ditch fortnightly collections of refuse. Not only do officers and members know that these services coupled with good recycling systems are popular, they also see that it makes no financial sense to make a large investment in an unnecessary and expensive service change, the costs of which they’ll have to bear directly once any grant is spent.
But I am seeing evidence that people may be spending money carelessly. The Recyclebank system, where residents are provided with vouchers for services they’re unlikely to use in return for recycling materials that most of them were already setting out regardless, is no longer being promoted as actively as it was 18 months ago (unless you count the unpaid lobbyists for the system in government). But I’ve spoken with authorities who, guided by the DCLG prospectus and looking to spice up their bids, are starting to think about how they could use part of the fund to pay people to recycle.
There’s a genuine dilemma here. Even though the costs of such a scheme will probably outstrip its benefits, under the fund criteria it could help a bid which contains some really worthwhile proposals to get to the front of the queue. With a free lunch in prospect, who can blame authorities for telling DCLG staff what they want to hear and piling up their plates with what’s on offer? Once invited to help themselves, there’s not much incentive to take only what they really want. I fear that some of what emerges from the Pickles’ free lunch fund will be a lot of waste and a bad case of indigestion.