Ask people what they pay their council tax for, and some might say local schools. Others will say parks or leisure centres. But for many, the bottom line will be – emptying the bins and cleaning the streets.
Local government has had a duty to collect household waste since the nineteenth century, and a duty to collect weekly in the Public Health Act 1936. Those wise Victorians knew that if there was one thing the Town Hall could do to improve people’s lot in life, it was to help them keep their homes clean and sanitary.
A frequent service is a good service. Weekly collections were the norm for much of the last century. Most people still want their bin collected weekly. No-one wants smelly waste lurking in the corner of their kitchen, especially in a long hot summer. Local residents paying an average of £120 a month in council tax on a Band D home, surely it is reasonable to expect the lorry to turn up once every seven days?
The Labour Government, alas, did not think so. In fact, in 2008 national policy – the “Household Waste Prevention Policy Programme” – set a different direction altogether. It demanded councils issue smaller bins or make less frequent collections – and asserted that this was a policy to be ‘nationalised’ across the country.
This edict was backed up by enforcers paid out of the public purse. A quango called WRAP produced guidance telling Town Hall officials how to convince elected councillors to axe weekly collections. Their top tip? Push for a switch just after local elections, and avoid all that pesky democratic debate.
Meanwhile, the Audit Commission, the local government watchdog, marked down any council foolhardy enough not to embrace the new orthodoxy. Fortnightly collections were, apparently, “progressive” – despite advice from the Government’s own Central Science Laboratory that fortnightly collections could “encourage vermin and insects into the home.”
Even ordinary citizens risked falling foul of the waste police. An innocent mistake – putting the wrong bin out on the wrong day, or a few feet too far left or right – and you might pick up a fixed penalty notice – a fine bigger than those handed out to convicted shoplifters. Council officials even had the power to enter your garden and check you were putting the right rubbish in the right bag.
Of course as a nation we need to waste less and recycle more. Of course we need to learn to live within our environmental means. But you don’t do it by snooping on ordinary people and making them feel like criminals. And you don’t do it by deliberately depriving families of a public service that helps them keep their home clean and safe.
There are three positive steps that councils can take. First, make it easy to go green. New technologies can help. Innovative mechanical biological treatment facilities, as used in Bournemouth to keep weekly collections and boost recycling, automatically sort out what can be recycled from what can’t. This is a much more straightforward solution than asking busy people to sort waste into up to nine different boxes, bags and bins.
Second, it’s often more effective to appeal to people’s better natures than to fine and tax them. Windsor and Maidenhead’s Recyclebank system, for example, offers vouchers and rewards to households who recycle regularly. Since the voluntary scheme was introduced, recycling levels are up by a third, with almost three quarters of householders taking up the offers.
Third, some councils are able, through smart procurement and by working in partnership with their neighbours, to combine a weekly collection with extra services – such as kits for home composting, or a helping hand with bulky items.
These steps show that the idea that you have to choose between being environmentally responsible or having weekly collections is a false dilemma. Or, in other words, a load of old rubbish.
So I’m proud to be supporting councils to give residents what they want. My Department has set aside two hundred and fifty million pounds. This is extra money that we are allocating for the first time, on top of existing funds being given to local government.
We’re offering councils a deal. If they commit to providing weekly waste collection for the next five years, they can take their share of this new quarter of a billion pound fund.
Councils who want to switch back to a weekly service will have the means to do so. Councils who already offer weekly collections will be able to improve them, or to invest in new technologies and incentive schemes that will help get recycling rates higher still.
To councils I say – let’s work together and get the basics right. Help to go green; a weekly service that lets people keep the family home clean, safe and pleasant. It is no more than taxpayers expect, and no less than they deserve.