The Government’s Waste Review in June was greeted by the waste industry in terms that ranged from disappointment to derision. However, my inner reaction (and I suspect that I wasn’t alone in this) was primarily one of relief – whilst it clearly could have been better, it could have been an awful lot worse. I’ve been reflecting on where the Review leaves the strategic picture on waste collection.
Critically, the coalition found a path out from the weekly collection pickle that it had created on its way into government. One suspects that a good deal of the credit must go to the Whitehall mandarins – although faced with squaring the circle of local authority cuts, a localism agenda, and a big push for weekly refuse collection, even Sir Humphrey would have blanched. In the end, Caroline Spellman’s U-turn was performed in fairly understated way.
As someone whose job it is to understand the economic and environmental implications of different collection systems, I do feel a little sorry for the English ministers’ predicament. Their attachment for weekly collections quickly proved too costly to pursue – and prevented them from taking the obvious face-saving compromise.
Pushing forcefully for weekly food waste collections would have overcome many concerns about fortnightly refuse rounds. But for most councils the only way to afford this would be to makerefuse collection fortnightly. So the compromise would have left ministers advocating a policy likely to accelerate the decline of weekly refuse collections – not easy to stomach.
Having come into government with similar views on waste collection to Eric Pickles, Caroline Spellman’s decision to resolve the problem by backing away from requiring weekly refuse collections was quite a u-turn. However, it is encouraging that she was prepared to change when faced with the evidence!
Before the Waste Review, two cases came to my notice of Conservative councils being lobbied by activists from outside the local party and reversing decisions to commission fortnightly services. The upshot of the Review may be a bit of a fudge, and rumour has it that DCLG ministers are yet to admit defeat (at least to themselves), but I suspect that the rare examples of councillors succumbing to lobbying will become even rarer.
The change in policy, combined with the financial pressure facing most councils, is likely to have the most powerful effect. From where I’m sitting, it seems more than likely that the trend towards fortnightly refuse collection will continue unabated.