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AWCs are here to stay, Mr Pickles

MRW’s extensive research on the £250m Weekly Collection Support Scheme published in July, which suggested that communities secretary Eric Pickles’ campaign to rid England of alternate weekly bin collections (AWCs) was failing, met a hostile reception from ministers.

Research MRW strap

After the story was picked up by the mainstream media, the then local government minister Bob Neill told the Daily Telegraph: “This partial survey [by MRW] is wrong and gives a completely skewed and inaccurate picture.”

Neill left the Department for Communities & Local Government (DCLG) during the Government reshuffle. But the incumbents remain as defensive as ever about the project.

The July survey was based on data from 70% of English councils.

To provide a full picture of what councils had bid for from the much-vaunted scheme, MRW teamed up with Jennie Rogers of askjennie.com, an expert on local government and recycling services, to gather data from the remaining authorities and provide research based on all 326 collection authorities.

The full data makes grim reading for anyone wanting to kill off AWCs.

Despite crippling budget cuts, all but one of the 216 councils which operate AWCs for residual waste have declined the offer of free money to return to weekly collections, according to responses to the research.  

Bearing in mind that 57% of these councils are Conservative-run, this is a substantial snub from councils of Pickles’ own political persuasion.  

The sole council which applied for funding to revert to a weekly residual collection was a Labour-controlled authority, Stoke-on-Trent Council.

More than half (56%) of the eligible authorities decided not to submit any bid at all. One fifth of councils who submitted expressions of interest did not enter final bids. The DCLG announced in April that it had received “over 180 expressions of interest”. Our research has found just 145 bids, suggesting that at least 35 withdrew.

While there has been a wide range of bids, most of these councils are using the scheme to fund additional waste services

In Pickles’ defence, councils which still operate weekly residual collections have shown interest in using the fund to preserve them, with 51% of the bids coming from councils which wanted to maintain a weekly black bag collection.

It is also worth noting that there will always be areas, Westminster being perhaps the best example, where a weekly (or more frequent) residual collection is imperative.

The story in numbers

1 - councils looking to revert to a weekly collection having previously run an alternate collection (Stoke-on-Trent)

5 - councils looking to revert to a weekly collection having previously run an alternate weekly collection for a challenging area

56% - collection authorities which did not submit bids (181 out of 326)

11% - councils that submitted a preliminary bid or expression of interest but subsequently withdrew (more than 180 down to 145)

AWCs are often not suitable in flats and densely populated urban areas, and the five councils that are bidding for funding to address collection problems in isolated areas may well have good reason to do so. They should not be seen as undertaking a wholesale ditching of AWC.   

To suggest that any of this is evidence of councils’ support for weekly residual collections is wrong. While there has been a wide range of bids, most are from councils attempting to use the scheme to fund additional recycling services across various waste streams.

As well as bids for food waste collections, councils have asked for money to pay for incentive schemes, communication campaigns, additional recyclables services such as mixed plastics, waste electronic equipment banks, collection vehicles, construction of infrastructure such as MRFs and bespoke services for blocks of flats.  

If ministers allow them to do this, then they will be applauded.

Nearly a third of the bids (31%), including those from Lewes, South Gloucester and Bournemouth councils, involve expanding or adding a new food waste collection.

With the Government’s stated ambition to support the anaerobic digestion sector, boosting food waste collections could provide a double benefit of cutting the amount of biodegradable waste going to landfill and boosting its renewable energy programme.

The bids also stand a good chance of being successful.

One concession that the DCLG made as it rolled back from its original stance - that only councils wanting to retain a weekly black bag collection would be successful - was around organic waste collections.  

The prospectus for the fund, which was published in April, said: “The aim of this scheme is to support local authorities to: add a weekly food waste (or organic waste) service to an existing fortnightly collection of residual household waste, where the authority can credibly demonstrate that this represents the preference of local people.”

But, arguably, the most interesting bids came from the 21 councils which have asked for funding to support absorbent hygiene products (AHP) collections.

Like food waste, AHP falls under the category of smelly waste, which gets very unpleasant if left hanging around for a fortnight. But, unlike food waste, AHP collections are still very much in their infancy. 

As of last month, Cheshire West and Chester Council was the only local authority in England to offer a nappy recycling service, although more are in the pipeline.

Notable bids in this category include those by the Surrey and Somerset waste partnerships. The Somerset bid has been put together by Somerset Waste Partnership managing director Steve Read. As he explains in his Comment, support from the Weekly Collection Support Scheme is crucial. 

“We need the kick-start because it won’t pay for itself, although if an efficient system can be demonstrated, a case must surely be made for more producer respons-ibility support,” he said. 

Overall, councils have stood their ground and resisted a the bribe driven by political rather than economic and environmental imperative.

Despite the original thinking behind it, the fund still represents a golden opportunity to vastly improve recycling services. The results are due next month and will make interesting reading.

Methodology: MRW and Jennie Rogers from Askjennie.com gathered information from all 326 collection authorities, building on existing data gathered by MRW in July. The cut-off date for data collection was 20 September. Bids were categorised into seven broad categories but some bids straddled more than one category. Further information was extrapolated from individual answers submitted by councils.

Additional reporting credit Ben Cary-Evans

Snapshot of council bids for funding

Stoke on Trent City Council: Bid proposes increasing collections from fortnightly to weekly for both residual and recycling rounds for 88,231 households.

Plymouth City Council: £4m of capital funding to finance the construction of a MRF.

Northamptonshire Waste Partnership: Led by Kettering Borough Council, the partnership has bid for funding to support a weekly collection for food waste.

Coventry City Council: Coventry’s bid proposes the provision of a RecycleBank-style incentive scheme, which would see residents who sign up rewarded points for every extra tonne of waste that the city recycles.

Sandwell Council: Sandwell’s bid covered a raft of areas, but notable ideas included collections for batteries and waste electronic and electrical waste, and a disposable nappy collection for an estimated 2,750 families in the authority.

Surrey Waste Partnership: Surrey’s district councils want to finance a free weekly collection of “nappies and other absorbent hygiene products”.

Eastleigh Borough Council: Bidding for cash to fund an anaerobic digestion plant which will generate heat and energy from residential and commercial food waste.

Blaby District Council: Blaby has bid for £2.3m capital funding to change its waste collection fleet from single material to split bodies to enable it to carry out both residual and recycling collections.

London Borough of Redbridge: Has bid for funding for a mattress collection service and weekly garden waste collection.

Watered down: how the bin war fell flat

September 2011: Pickles tells the Daily Mail that councils will have “no excuse” to retain “hugely unpopular fortnightly schemes”.

December 2011: Senior DCLG official David Prout tells MPs that councils seeking money from the fund will need to pledge to “reinstate or retain a weekly black bag collection so households get their rubbish collected every week”.

February 2012: Pickles has an apparent change of heart from an initial insistence that the fund is for black bag waste as the criteria reveal that bids for adding a weekly food waste collection will be considered.

April 2012: Reacting to a Daily Telegraph report which claims councils have resolutely rejected his fund, Pickles says the fund has had “over 180 potential bids, surpassing expectations”. Fiery rhetoric replaced by talk of “weekly collections” which could feasibly cover food and organic waste collections.   

September 2012: Research by MRW/askjennie.com finds just one council opting to revert from AWC to a weekly residual collection.

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