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ESA seeks greater transparency in councils’ recycling decisions

Few councils publish sufficient details about how they decide whether to provide recycling services in-house or to outsource them, according to research carried out for the Environmental Services Association (ESA).

The ESA commissioned a report after suggestions of a trend among authorities to take some services back in-house because of spending cuts or the impact of lower prices for dry recyclates.

Despite high-profile examples such as Liverpool City Council, the report from Ricardo Energy & Environment in partnership with LARAC found little evidence of a significant change in councils’ approaches to residual and recycling services – but did find that more HWRC services had been outsourced, as in Warwickshire which has an arrangement involving the third sector.

In February, MRW reported Ricardo estimates that around 40% of municipal waste related services were currently contracted out, with 30% delivered in-house and a further 30% delivered in some form of partnership.

The new report, Public Realm Services – Making the right choicereviewed how local authorities’ services had changed in the past 10 years and what data they used to inform their decisions.

Researchers found few examples of published evidence of councils’ decision-making processes, whatever the chosen solution.

The ESA has therefore welcomed a proposal in the recent Budget for a consultation on the transparency of delivering services in-house rather than contracting them out.

This would provide greater transparency for the market, the report said, and could lead to a standard demonstration of council processes.

ESA executive director Jacob Hayler (pictured) said: “Ricardo’s report doesn’t find evidence of a significant overall trend towards in-sourcing or out-sourcing of waste services in the past 10 years. But the report has uncovered a worrying lack of transparency around local authority decision making in this regard.

“For council recycling officers, it is often too challenging to benchmark in-house service provision against the market due to a lack of clarity around cost allocation, among other factors”.

He said large cuts to local authority funding made the need for value for money “more crucial than ever”.

This, combined with lower commodity prices, was prompting more councils to explore all possible options for the delivery of their services, including waste and recycling.

He hoped the report would encourage more councils to examine whether they were getting value for money from their waste services.

Ricardo practice director for resource efficiency and waste management, Adam Read, said: “We hope that the report encourages authorities to at least undertake a robust service review and benchmarking exercise before making a decision on what to do.

“To date this is far from the norm and this is a worry in what, is after all, a public service.”

The report was launched at the offices of Bevan Brittan in London where Read said that the austerity policy meant there were fewer ’back office’ council staff. He said: “I fear that austerity is destroying public authorities’ ability to ask the right questions.”

Bevan Brittan partner Nadeem Arshad said his firm was receiving more inquiries about taking services in-house.

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