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Counting the cost of HWRC cuts and closures

Once they were the ‘council tip’. Now we know them as Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs). But for many they remain the most visible element of our waste and recycling infrastructure.

Once they were the ‘council tip’. Now we know them as Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs). But for many they remain the most visible element of our waste and recycling infrastructure.

The original tips or amenity sites, many built in the 1970s, were little more than a corner of the town landfill or council depot where residents could deliver bulky waste for dumping. Over the years their role has changed significantly. In the 1980s and 90s, before widespread kerbside collection, HWRCs were the front-line of municipal recycling. Today many HWRCs achieve a recycle rate of around 50-70%.

As local authorities begin a new round of austerity budgeting HWRCs are under threat across the country. Cumbria council became the latest to consult on cuts, announcing the possible closure of six of its 14 HWRCs. The council also proposes to reduce the opening hours of the remaining sites and introduce charges for non household waste to save £2m.

Also, in recent weeks, Lancashire has decided to close four out of 16 centres; Wigan is set to close one of its four sites; Durham is consulting on closing six of 15; Flintshire may close two sites and make three of the remaining seven recycle only.

Councils say with the expansion of kerbside collection in recent years, HWRCs are not used as much as they were and many authorities have an over capacity.

Lee Marshall, senior manager for policy and waste at Powys council and a national representative at LARAC said councils facing big budget cuts are in a difficult position and closing some HWRCs may be “the least worst option”. He said whilst cuts are the main driver of closures councils are using the opportunity to rationalise provision and cut out inefficiencies. Cumbria’s consultation documents states: “when budgets are being squeezed ever harder we think we should be prioritising the money we spend on people, not rubbish”.

Former WRAP director for local government services Phillip Ward agrees there is excess capacity in some areas and room for rationalisation. But, he warned, there is a danger of councils making cuts based on money savings which could have negative consequences leading to increased costs elsewhere with increased fly-tipping and waste reverting to residual bins.

Local MP  Tim Farron told the local paper Cumbria’s plans are “wrong for our environment and completely daft”. He said: “It is inevitable that the amount of waste going to landfill will increase … which means much higher landfill taxes for the county to pay.”

Friends of the Earth (FoE) waste campaigner Becky Slater agrees. She said any closures will have an impact on recycling rates and lead to more waste to landfill, as much of the recycling received by HWRCs – such as electronics and textiles - is not collected at the kerbside. She said councils should maintain as many centres as close possible to residents.

Marshall, however, rejected those criticisms and questioned the idea of a link between closures and fly-tipping. Whilst Somerset reported an increase in fly-tipping following its introduction of charges last year, Marshall said other authorities had not had the same problem: “It’s difficult to know the consequences until the changes have been carried out” he said.

Dr Adam Read from consultancy AEA said closures could be an “obvious economic decision” for councils and if done properly the only real consequence for residents would be that they may have to travel a few extra miles a few times a year to deliver their waste. But, Read said, they real worry is that councils will go ahead with closures without adequate consultation and public engagement:

“Councils could be opening a can of worms politically that can create a public tension. These centres are very visible. It’s like closing your local corner shop; you might not have gone there every day but if the day you go there it’s shut, you’ve got a problem.”

Read said for residents the “perception of service levels is often as important as the actual service level”. Councils should properly engage residents in the analysis and planning and whilst that may take longer it will keep residents on board:

“The public are more rational than politicians give them credit for, and you’ll find you’ve saved yourself having to close the local library.”

Another conflict, according to Read, is between district and county councils in two-tier authority areas if counties think they can close centres to shift the cost of dealing with waste down to collection authorities. And tension between authorities also creates “confusion amongst the public”, he added.

Last year’s Waste Review encouraged the council to open up HWRC facilities, but some councils in their reviews of the facilities are considering tightening restrictions on business use. Philip Ward thinks councils maybe missing an opportunity: “Opening up to trade waste can recover charges and help cover the costs to improve the facilities for everyone”.

But Lee Marshal said that may not be so easy. Council should consider opening to business in their analysis, said Marshall, but there may be additional costs associated with licence requirements. And many old sites may not be suitable for expansion.

Another “more imaginative” alternative to closures, said Ward, could be gate charges, as introduced by Somerset. Becky Slater from FoE said the residents’ willingness to pay demonstrates the value the public places on HWRCs.

Cuts and closures are bound to face some opposition from residents and campaigners. Despite Friends of the Earth’s appeal for no closures, there seems to be much agreement that in difficult economic circumstances there is room in the system for rationalisation and greater efficiencies. And whilst councils use the cuts to reshape their services Lee Marshall maintains this should be seen as part of the “evolution” of our waste infrastructure rather than a trajectory of decline.

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