About three years ago, when I was on Suffolk County Council’s cabinet, a colleague put forward a proposal for a joint waste authority across the whole of the county, creating efficiencies which would have saved £3 million pounds a year. A figure which would be considerably higher in today’s economic climate.
Unlike her opposite number in Norfolk, she had successfully steered through the development of a brand new incinerator, as part of a long term strategy to meet rising demand for waste disposal across the county as household numbers increased, without a murmur from local residents, despite Labour’s attempts to stir up opposition. (Norfolk is now taking advantage of some current spare capacity at the facility, demonstrating the benefits of joint working, and tomato glasshouses are utilising the heat generated by the site.)
Yet, despite this fantastic achievement, and the opportunities it presented, the joint waste authority plan sank without trace because the districts and boroughs refused to engage with the idea of making such significant savings because they wanted to ‘retain control’ over their waste services and identities, although the public wouldn’t have seen any difference!
The same branded vehicles would do the ‘day job’, through a central control, and there would have been the added advantage of standardising payments for front line staff, who empty the bins, removing unfair wage differentials between LAs which penalise some workers.
Having established itself as the ‘greenest county’ over the last decade, Suffolk has clearly demonstrated its commitment to recycling and its success is largely due to getting the public on side through a series of campaigns to help people to understand the importance of sorting their household waste correctly. The response has been consistently good, although general litter remains a big problem in some locations.
However, the county is about to put all that effort at risk by reducing subsidies to local authorities and proposing that they introduce an additional £50 annual charge to residents for removing their green waste, stating that this ‘will encourage more people to compost’.
Patronising people like this is what turns people against the Conservatives; unfortunately, not everyone has a sufficiently large garden to accommodate a composting area. The policy will also penalise pensioners, and those without access to a council waste ‘dump’, as well as those who help their communities by cutting back overhanging greenery and managing communal areas – putting the consequent waste in their own bins.
Residents will rightly ask ‘is this the thin end of the wedge’? Once introduced, charges can be increased - will there be subsequent new charges for the black bins, and the blue ones?
It’s a gift to Labour in Ipswich, which says it won’t implement the charge, although it will undoubtedly recover the extra monies through raising council tax and council house rents – as it has every year since re-taking control six years ago whilst also refusing to participate in a joint waste authority!
So far SCC hasn’t indicated that it will revisit the joint waste authority project and the £3 million savings, although some LAs are already incorporating the charge in their next budgets. What no-one seems to understand is that the charge will inevitably encourage more people to simply dump their garden waste, adding millions to the county’s bill.
One can only hope that commonsense will prevail, and there will be a rethink before the decision is written in stone. With county elections in 2017, the electorate may be unforgiving, especially with Labour capitalising on such an unpopular and unjustifiable additional charge, when there is an end product (compost) which the county could be promoting and selling commercially. If BBC2’s ‘Gardener’s World’ is anything to go by, natural compost is very desirable amongst the green-fingered fraternity.
And will SCC now be penalising the NHS with new charges for the extra landfill it’s responsible for, since, according to the latest report from the Campaign for Better Hospital Food, one in three meals are wasted, equating to 1.7 million meals going to landfill annually in East Anglia? Apart from any moral issues about food waste when we have food banks and parts of the world are starving, there is no justification for it in a region which takes enormous pride in its agricultural heritage and literally sells itself on the quality of its fresh food.
Reports going back more than a decade confirm that East Anglia is not an isolated case; food waste is endemic across all hospitals in the country.
I attended a presentation by the head of catering at London’s Brompton Hospital a few years ago, and was impressed with the way they recognise that a good meal aids recovery. They had not only cut waste, but also costs by introducing tasty menus, using fresh produce, and listening to what patients wanted. It’s called ‘customer service’. Other NHS managers should take note and discourage the ‘take it or leave it’ culture which evidently fosters such appalling waste.
Perhaps Health & Wellbeing Boards should put this on their agendas and make change happen, so that the millions wasted each year can be invested in care, rather than in dumping unwanted food.