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Council decisions too opaque to decipher?

It is always more interesting when a report commissioned to consider one issue comes back with conclusions that take you in other directions. 

MRW, like other media outlets covering the sector, had detected a trend for local authorities to take waste services in-house. Faced with the double-whammy of deep budget cuts and stubbornly low values for dry recyclates, it would be a logical conclusion for council chiefs to at least consider such a move.

We had reported decisions in Liverpool, Bristol, Middlesbrough and elsewhere that suggested this indeed was happening. Such was the concern to test this hypothesis that the Environmental Services Association (ESA) commissioned a report.

Adam Read’s team at Ricardo looked back over 10 years and found that, although some councils had brought services in-house, others had outsourced and services had retained something of a balance. Earlier in the year, the same consultants told MRW that around 40% of municipal waste services were contracted out, 30% were delivered in-house and a further 30% constituted some form of partnership.

The new report finds that the only obvious shift involves household waste recycling centres. In Warwickshire’s case, for example, it is a hybrid arrangement involving the third sector. In presenting the report, Read thought the public debate might prompt a trend towards more services going in-house within two to three years, and this was backed anecdotally by waste specialist Nadeem Arshad from Bevan Brittan, the lawyers hosting the report launch.

An unfortunate aspect was a very low survey response, suggesting the issue is not greatly concerning council officers. But the findings were enough to convince the ESA that a much bigger issue had been revealed: inadequate transparency and benchmarking, such that any business decision could not be guaranteed to be the best outcome.

Indeed, general concern over local authority procurement transparency prompted the Government to announce a consultation in the most recent Budget.

The Ricardo report raised a question in my mind about procurement. Because waste management contracts are long term, individual councils may not always have staff left with sufficient experience of such contracts, especially if those ‘back office’ experts have gone under spending cuts.

Read is convinced that the austerity policy is destroying authorities’ ability to ask the right questions. That challenge is not going to make it any easier for council waste services, be they in-house or contracted out.

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