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Councils face bill for waste law

Calls for a rethink on waste law have been prompted by estimated cost burdens for local authorities following a Government clarification of waste legislation. The campaign, led by the Local Government Association (LGA), has called for a strategic discussion in letter sent to the Government.

Meanwhile, concerns that LAs will nolonger get cash back from landfill tax continues to loom over treasury departments.

The LGA has put itself at the forefront of campaigns for both issues because, LGA policy consultant Alice Roberts explains: We have to fight this one because its such a huge amount of money and its so unfair.

LGA calls to update waste legislation followed a Department for Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) letter to LA waste departments, in October 2007, clarifying rules and
requiring blanket compliance.

Currently there is partial compliance but the move to full compliance would mean schedule 2 organisations, such as hospitals, schools, colleges, prisons, military barracks and care homes, would be able to claim free waste disposal services from LAs. This would be a problem for already stretched LAs, says the Roberts.

The amount she suggests full compliance will cost LAs is more than £1 million, which LAs will have to deal with, with no notice at all, she adds.

In February LGA Environment Board chairman Paul Bettison wrote to Defra saying councils were calculating the additional cost of full compliance (for examples see box out). He says that offering free services would undermine the polluter pays principle as well as bringing new large tonnages into landfill allowance reporting. The major costs associated with these changes would be carried by local residents who will have to subsidise collections. He adds that it pointlessly shifts costs from one part of Government to another and would create inequalities between LAs and anomalies in measurement. For example a college included in one areas reporting could serve more than one area.

Roberts and Bettison say that Defra needs to change this policy now, before the costs are transferred, Roberts adds: Its an issue of law and every council has got a problem with this.
Councils will have to find money from somewhere, its likely that there will be cut backs on other services.

Other issues raising concern since the Defra clarification involve council management and reporting of trade waste and waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) classification. Bettison says that the clarification would force LAs to take unnecessary responsibilities, which would increase costs and non-compliance risks.

But why did Defra break the staus quo?

Its letter was prompted by an Audit Commission investigation into Somerset County Council where hospitals and schools were paying for disposal when under full compliance it should have been free (September 5 2007, Defra had also received a number of reports of variations in LAs interpretation of regulations.

However, rather than a straight move to full compliance the LGA would prefer to update the laws and wants to discuss the options with Defra. It is still awaiting a response from Defra on the matter.

Roberts concedes that its not an easy problem to solve which is why it took the LGA four months to reply to Defra.

Bettison says that the law needs to be updated inline with current waste practices and amendments made to schedule 1 and 2 of the Controlled Waste Regulations to remove entitlement to free disposal.

Further financial pressure is set to come in April as the cash from the landfill tax dries up. Roberts explains: When Communities and Local Government (CLG) Minister John Healy provided oral evidence for the CLG committee in December 2007 for its report on waste charging pilots, he was asked about money from the landfill tax for LAs. He practically admitted that the money would not come back to LAs.

Healey said: Yes, I think I have made it clear that we have changed our approach in this spending review period from the way we ran the BREW fund and the way that we had the full and automatic offset for local government in the previous period.
This lack of money is a serious threat to recycling, Roberts says.

But unwilling to wait for Government to act, the LGA is again lobbying Defra to return landfill tax to councils as it was before, with another open letter sent March 7 2008. In it LGA chairman Simon Milton says returning the money will ensure investment in refuse and recycling facilities.
Milton also calls on Environment Minister Hilary Benn to honour your pledge to return the money raised through landfill tax to local authorities.

However, a But a Defra spokeswoman says: The recent settlement for LAs provides enough funding to meet pressures on waste and take account of landfill including landfill tax. A key objective of Government is to protect local tax payers from excessive council tax increases. The Government has to reduce the waste we all produce which in turn will reduce the amount sent to landfill.

LAs will be watching the LGAs progress in lobbying Defra, as the financial and services implications of any outcome will have far reaching consequences.

What this could mean for two councils

For Portsmouth Council a move to full compliance with waste laws could cost up to £420,000 a year. While Merseyside estimates it would have to deal with an extra 21,440 tonnes of waste a year entering the  municipal waste stream.

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