Both in opposition and Government, some senior Conservatives have criticised the so-called ‘fortnightly collection’ of household rubbish. However, these criticisms miss the positive benefits this scheme can bring and its obvious association with the ‘Big Society’. So as a one-time sceptic, my message is simple; in the ‘Big Society’ we’re all ‘bin men’, taking responsibility for our rubbish.
In 2005 my Council introduced ‘fortnightly collections’ of household rubbish. Concerned about the prospect of smells, maggots, flies and other vermin, I objected to this and was a lone voice of opposition in the Council Chamber. When the scheme was approved, I believed vindication and my “I told you so” moment would soon arrive. However, neither occurred because the problems I and others around the country foresaw with this scheme simply did not materialise. When in 2008 I was appointed to the Cabinet and given responsibility for refuse collection, I decided to use this opportunity to ensure any problems relating to my earlier concerns were addressed. This desire proved fruitless however, as once again the problems did not exist.
Several years ago, I like many others simply threw my rubbish into bin bags that were collected every week, and I neither knew, nor cared, where it went. Back then, my Council was purchasing over 5 million bin bags, at a cost of £125k pa, and because in many areas animals ripped these bags open, rubbish often spilled out onto the street, making the place look untidy. Additionally, our recycling rate was only 6% as most of our rubbish was sent to landfill.
In hindsight, this situation was appalling and something had to be done. That ‘something’ turned out to be wheelie bins and new refuse collection schemes that collect recyclables one week and residual waste the next. Now, my Council no longer purchases bin bags and this coupled with other related factors, has realised savings of almost £0.5m pa. And in line with the ‘Big Society’ I like many others, take more responsibility for my rubbish, as I ensure anything that can be recycled, is recycled. Consequently, our recycling rate has rocketed to almost 50%, and our streets are cleaner as rubbish no longer spills out of ripped bags.
Don’t get me wrong, as with any scheme, there are down sides. For example, with boxes for this and wheelie bins for that, the side of my house is now effectively a mini recycling station, but this isn’t a great hardship. And yes, sometimes my wheelie bin gets a bit smelly, but this is nothing that an occasional bucket of hot soapy water cannot deal with.
My frustration however, comes from Ministers who criticise refuse collections scheme like ours and call for a return to weekly collections, but without explaining how cash strapped Councils can fund this, especially with the Comprehensive Spending Review expected soon. For example, when Eric Pickles recently criticised ‘fortnightly collections’, he stated “the new Government will work with councils to freeze council tax…” and “help them improve the frequency of rubbish and recycling collections”. In response, I invited him to West Lancashire, but unfortunately he declined.
Similarly, when Bob Neill recently praised Dartford Council “for binning fortnightly collections” he also hoped other Councils would follow suit “in the difficult times ahead as we work together to cut the deficit”. In response, I have invited him to my Borough. If he declines, I will invite Caroline Spelman, whose review of waste policy in England aims to work towards a “zero waste economy” that sends less waste to landfill, but which also wants to “work with local councils to increase the frequency and quality of rubbish collections”…!
A further problem that Ministers appear to miss is that if Councils like mine were to abandon fortnightly collections, our excellent recycling records would result in most wheelie bins being half empty, thus making the collection method very inefficient. In such a circumstance, residents would be tempted to fill these bins with recyclables. If that occurred, our recycling rate would fall while the amount sent to landfill would rise. Put simply, our hard efforts of the last few years and the savings this has achieved would be wiped out!
In the ‘Big Society’ we must all take more responsibility. But that may not necessarily involve big enterprises like opening and running schools. Rather, it can also involve people being pro-active in smaller ways, such as taking responsibility for their rubbish. In West Lancashire, people have done this and even an old sceptic like me has to acknowledge the excellent results; our refuse collection costs are down, the amount sent to landfill is down, our recycling rate is up and our streets are cleaner.
Therefore, if sceptical Government Ministers aren't proposing to give councils like mine the circa £1m pa it would now cost to revert to the old refuse collection system, plus ingenious ideas as to how we can maintain our high recycling rates whilst emptying half empty bins, then I am listening. If however, they are not offering these things, then frankly, they should stop undermining our hard efforts and let Councillors, staff and residents of Boroughs like mine, get on with this very important and successful job.