The Times is reporting that the Lyons Review into local
government is toying with the idea of a "rubbish bag tax to encourage
recycling".  The tax would in all likelihood be copied from models in
force in Europe
(they’ll love that over at the
EU Referendum blog ), typical charges could
be "between 25p and 50p a kilo or up to £10 a month".  So that’s
only a 100% spread in the estimate between the lower and upper

Spare a thought for a moment for Sir
Michael Lyons.  After a lifetime’s career in local government (Chief
Executive of Wolverhampton Council, Nottinghamshire County Council and
Birmingham City Council) he retired to spend more time with his knighthood and a
West Midlands charities.  Something
seems to have gone wrong with Plan A.  In 2002 he was roped into the Fire
Service Review; in 2003-4 he was working on a report on the relocation
of civil servants out of London
and in 2004 he was studying the public sector’s asset management
policies. Then the ceiling really fell on him – since 2004 he has been
conducting a review into the future funding of local government.  In his
spare time
is also on Gordon Brown’s Public Services Productivity Panel (the suits who
crack the whip over other suits to make them churn out memos faster).

One thing at least is clear about the
Blair Reich’s green credentials: they certainly believe in recycling their
"independent" advisers.  I’m not sure with his track record that
he would qualify as an "independent" director for stock exchange
purposes, but let that pass. 

The following excerpts from LyonsDecember 2005
Interim Report
will give you a flavour:

"reforms to the funding of local
government need to be based on a clear understanding of the expectations and
responsibilities of local government, which continue to change…. weak
public understanding of how local government is funded, and confusion over how
the responsibility for the delivery of local services is shared…..if people
do not understand how much services cost to deliver, they may have unrealistic
expectations about what council tax pays for and how much local government can
do….high degree of public confusion about who is responsible for setting the
level of council tax and the reasons behind the annual increases in the
tax…..There is no ‘golden key’ which will solve all the problems… Hard
choices need to be faced…. there will be ‘winners and losers’…."
(paras S.11-S.15)

This is Whitehall speak for: it’s all a
bloody mess and someone is going to have to pay for it, so we may as well carry
out another fatuous reorganisation to camouflage what we’re up to.

Lyons‘ track record
suggests that what comes out of the other end of his sausage machine is
likely to be whatever Gordon Brown wants.  The Times story could be the
start of a softening-up campaign.  So we can expect a dustbin tax in the
very near future – of at least 50p per kilo (or if you prefer 23p per lb) –
with "caring" Gordon announcing tough action to reform council tax,
probably coupled with reorganising all our town halls into unitary authorities
and abolishing the shires.  This will be called a decentralising measure
to cut waste (and the pun will be intended).  Will it do any good?

On decentralisation: of course not.
This is the government which thought regional assemblies are a good idea – so
"powers" will be "devolved" (i.e. the buck will be passed
to councillors, very few of them now Labour) but central "guidance"
will then control what councils can do.  Reorganisation costs
will be funded via Treasury loan (northern cities of course will get special
deprivation grants instead), so that’s another sword
Whitehall will hold over local government.

As for changing people’s behaviour: of
course it will.  Instead of driving to Essex to fly-tip his rubbish, White Van Man will now sling it over the fence into
next door.  That’ll teach your neighbour to complain about your playing
loud music, won’t it?  It’s quite true that the UK
lags well behind the EU in
its recycling levels – but that’s largely because the system at present does
not reward recycling.  Charging would be an excellent Conservative measure
for achieving this, assuming it was a genuine charge for a genuine service and
not simply a means to plug a black hole in the finances – in theory this should
be a self-defeating tax where success is measured by the absence of revenue
because we’re all recycling 100% of our rubbish.  The charging
structure will have a critical impact.  (Remember: domestic rates, the
poll tax, and council tax all started out as simple charges for services

UK local
government also lags behind the EU in the proportion of its funding raised
locally, and it would be transformed if the source if funding were
rebalanced.  But Lyons
is effectively offering a "rebalancing upward", with new taxes
slapped on top of already excessive council tax and central taxation.
That will just reinforce failure.  Certainly another wasteful
reorganisation into ever larger, ever more remote councils is the last
thing anyone needs (or wants).

The correct approach would be
"rebalancing downward": an across-the-board cut in central grants and
the taxes which fund them, with each council being free to make up the
difference as its electorate decides.  That would reveal more starkly
the inefficient and incompetent councils who aren’t providing a service.
It could involve local black bag taxes.  Or local sales taxes.
Or widely-differing council taxes.  It shouldn’t be up to Gordon
Brown to decide how your council pays its way.  We used to have things
called ballot boxes to handle that.

STOP PRESS: On the Adam Smith
Institute blog
: "Hungry fungi solve plastic problem". Apparently scientists in Wisconsin
have discovered a type of fungus
which can digest plastic, with radical implications for rubbish handling and

William Norton