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Tuesday 14th June 2011 | 15:17
Of all town hall services, rubbish collections are the most visible and frontline service of all. And of all taxes, council tax is the most upfront and in your face, with typical families and pensioners now having to write a cheque to their council for a painful £120 a month. Yet over the last decade, bins have moved up and up the political agenda. For many newspapers, bins are the third biggest postbag issue – after immigration and Europe.
Under Labour, local residents saw their council tax double, their bin collections halved, and town halls become increasingly aggressive by threatening fines for breaches of complex and arbitrary bin rules. Phrases like the ‘Town Hall Talibin’, ‘Bin Brother’ and the ‘Binquisition’ entered the political lexicon. The cause of localism has been undermined not strengthened, by setting residents up to view their council with resentment rather than respect.
How did this happen? Was it all a spontaneous local decision of elected local councillors? No. It was a conscious decision of a left-wing, statist Labour Government, pursuing waste policies to bully, tax and fine the public.
It started when Whitehall responsibility for waste collection was separated from local government with the creation of the Department for Transport, Local Government and Regions and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. This represented a fundamental departure from viewing rubbish collections as a service to local taxpayers.
The Labour Government adopted an explicit ‘Household Waste Prevention Policy Programme’ pushing for bin cuts, bin taxes and bin fines. The policy demanded “collection limitations in terms of rubbish bin size or the interval between collections”, and sought to “nationalise this policy among local authorities”. Combined with the gold-plating of EU directives, such policy diktats demolish the suggestion that cutting weekly rubbish collections was a ‘local policy’ chosen by councils.
Whitehall guidance by Labour’s quango, WRAP, pressured councils to cut weekly collections. It told town halls that councillors should be bullied to stop them opposing the axing of collections. It also instructed that bin cuts should be done after local elections – to avoid democratic opposition. This wasn’t localism – but an assault on local democracy.
Another town hall quango, the Audit Commission, then downgraded councils in their inspections if they kept weekly collections. It told councils to adopt ‘progressive’ solutions of “only emptying the refuse bin on a fortnightly basis or issuing smaller bins” and “closed bin lid policy, no side waste or a maximum number of black bags”. Legislation introduced by Labour in 2005 then allowed councils to issue fixed penalty notices to enforce such arbitrary rules.
Councils were able to keep the revenue from such fines, leading to over-zealous enforcement – the 21st Century equivalent of the parking fine. Pensioners faced larger fines than shoplifters for the ‘waste crime’ not closing a bin lid. Honest citizens were even fined for putting household rubbish into a public litter bin. Good Samaritans who picked up a fly-tip were admonished for dropping it off at a local dump.
The iron fist of the municipal state came down on people for the most minor of bin breaches, while genuine fly-tippers who blighted our countryside and lay-bys got away scot-free, with only 0.05 per cent of fly-tipping incidents being successfully prosecuted by councils. In 2008, Labour then changed the law to allow for new bin taxes to be issued on top of council tax. Had Labour won the general election, the taxes would have been rolled out across the country.
But Labour didn’t win the 2010 general election. The Coalition Government is taking a very different approach, with a new route map for the future direction of policy, laid out today by my colleague Caroline Spelman, in a cross-government approach.
We are scrapping Labour’s planned bin taxes. Bin charging would harm the local environment by fuelling backyard burning and fly-tipping. Instead, we want to encourage schemes which reward people for good behaviour like recycling. Schemes like Recyclebank have already been successfully introduced in councils such as Windsor and Maidenhead and significantly boosted recycling rates, in return for shopping vouchers and other rewards.
We are also putting in measures to stop ‘backdoor charging’ for the disposal of household waste, and ensure that the local council dump remains free for local residents to dispose responsibly of their household waste, especially electrical waste which would otherwise end up in landfill. Civic amenity sites, free at the point of use, can help generate revenue for councils by selling on the materials for recycling and for re-use. It’s not without reason that Tesco (somewhat mercurially) has recently taken control of the municipal recycling banks in its supermarket car parks.
The Government is also protecting civil liberties. Bin fines for minor breaches of waste offences will be banned. A new ‘harm to local amenity’ test will ensure that fixed penalty notices are only used against genuine fly-tipping, littering and the anti-social behaviour of neighbours from hell. Town halls will not be allowed to fine families for putting out a bin the evening before or putting a yoghurt pot into the wrong recycling bin. We are also curtailing the powers of entry and surveillance powers of municipal officials to rifle through families’ bins without their consent.
For the first time, in a major change of government policy, Whitehall will start supporting – rather than opposing – frequent rubbish collections. We will be working with local councils to increase the frequency and quality of rubbish collections and make it easier to recycle. The Government understands that the public have a reasonable expectation that household waste collections services should be weekly, particularly for smelly waste which results in vermin, flies and odours.
It shouldn’t be the job of Secretaries of State to micromanage local services. But we will tackle the perverse measures which encourage councils specifically to cut the scope of collections. We have already revoked the Audit Commission guidance which marked down councils, and removed the bizarre system of ‘Performance Reward Grants’ which rewarded councils for downgrading waste collection services.
Over the coming months, we will be looking at other practical ways we can support councils to deliver high quality and frequent rubbish and recycling collections. Families want to recycle – but they also want a regular collection service and for to be easy to do so.
Both Whitehall and the town hall must wake up to the fact that – even with the best of intentions – public policy on bin collections went horrendously wrong under the Labour Government.
Today, we’re calling time on the Town Hall Talibin. Working with families to go green, we’re consigning Labour’s failed policies of unfair bin taxes, bin fines and bin cuts to the dustbin of history.
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