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Every penny counts

Most local authorities are facing budget cuts from April for the next financial year, and then in further years as well.

In England they face an average budget cut of 4.4% in 2011/12, with some up to 8.8%. In Scotland, if local authorities accept a package developed by the Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities that includes a council tax freeze and commitments to education, social care and police numbers, then they will see a cut averaging 2.6%. If a council refuses, then it could see a cut averaging 6.4%. And in Wales, local authorities will have to cut their budgets by 1.4%.

So how are these restraints affecting waste services, and how are councils innovating with new ideas?

Some, such as the London Borough of Sutton, are looking to introduce waste collection shifts. These would see one running in the early morning with a second shift running into mid-evening. As MRW reported in January, the council is considering proposals that it believes could save £500,000 a year, by having one crew operating a vehicle from 6am to 2pm, and then another crew using the vehicle between 2pm and 10pm.

Lichfield and Tamworth councils, meanwhile, have already begun a process to integrate their respective waste services. In summer 2009, the councils decided to work together, and last July launched their joint waste service.

Speaking at a recent Associate Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group event, Lichfield District Council chief executive Nina Dawes said: “We have invested in the waste service a lot because it is one of the ‘shop window services’ the council provides. If you make cuts and it affects the shop window services, then it is impossible to gain trust from residents.” She added that the motive for Lichfield was not just financial - both councils wanted to see if they could reduce carbon emissions through having fewer vehicle journeys.

“Short-term reactions could undermine public trust and confidence”

“There were some problems,” Dawes said. “Tamworth’s contracted waste management firm was Veolia [Lichfield operates its services in-house. So we had to ensure we had a good relationship with Veolia to be able to change the service. We also needed to get councillors’ buy-in. They had to feel it was still in Tamworth’s and Lichfield’s interests to have a joint waste service. It was an issue of sovereignty.

“But the service remained flexible, and there are local differences to collections where there needed to be local differences.”

Savings have been made by having a single depot for vehicles, by matching resources to demand more closely and by maximising vehicle usage, so that they are now on the road for 10 hours instead of eight previously.

The first stage of the process was a roll-out of dry recyclables bins that introduced to residents a joint commingled scheme (with some minor local differences). Then there was the communications strategy to inform residents of the changes. Finally, back office systems were improved so that residents felt they were getting something extra out of the service. For example, if a bin collection was missed, a resident could call the council and the person who took the call could instantly communicate with the crew to find out why the bin was missed.

It is estimated that this joint way of working has saved both councils £750,000 to £800,000, and they are now interested to see if neighbouring local authorities are interested in joining the partnership.

But some authorities are seeking to save money by closing facilities. MRW has reported in the past month on plans by Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority (GMWDA), Suffolk County Council and Essex County Council to close household waste recycling centres (HWRCs). GMWDA plans to shut six of its 25, Suffolk is still deciding on whether to close seven of its 18 sites, and Essex is considering whether to shut between two and six of its HWRCs.

AEA global practice director Adam Read is concerned about the effect that closing HWRCs could have on local authorities.

He told MRW: “The harsh reality has set in. To save money, HWRCs can reduce coverage in terms of materials, reduce the hours they are open or be shut down completely. But this could be a knee-jerk reaction. It could be that councils will be closing a facility that people are using to fill gaps in their kerbside service, and they are probably not sure where this tonnage will go. Local authorities might find that they have just moved the problem, and could see that they get more items in the kerbside collection that used to be taken to the HWRC.

“They could then find they need more vehicles to collect materials, as well as having potentially more contamination or more residual waste arisings.

“For councillors, it is probably more palatable to close a HWRC than close a library, but it could be a case of solving one problem only to create another. I would be worried that it passes the problem down to the MRF. If the quality of materials gets worse at the kerbside, then there will be an additional cost in sorting it. A council could end up paying more per household to deal with the materials.”

Another method local authorities are using to save some money is to renegotiate waste contracts, and many are waiting for the next window of opportunity, according to Read. He also worries that there are cuts being made in a “softly softly” way to things such as communications and waste prevention, and sees long-term damage from this as well as closures or reduced facilities.

He adds: “Short-term reactions could undermine public trust and confidence. If users feel the service they receive is inferior or poorer, then complaints will be forthcoming. This could really then become a war of words for elected members with their residents.”

He is supportive of the moves seen by Tamworth and Lichfield and thinks this is a good example of innovative thinking. But Read says that councils need to be not just cash-conscious, but clever with how they use their cash: “Times are tough and this requires more informed decision-making than ever before. But that will require an investment in the short-term in options modelling and service analysis, and that will cost.

“This is something that local authority councillors do not want to do when they need to deliver immediate year-on-year savings. But the reality is that informed decision-making will deliver the best solution and the savings in the longer-term. My advice would be to just have a little faith and invest wisely now.”

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