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Government departments jostle for position to determine waste collection frequencies

In a letter to councils, DCLG under-secretary Bob Neill wrote: “It is particularly troubling that some press reports could appear to suggest a level of complacency and a failure to address the seriousness of the issues [about collection frequencies].

“We have already stripped away the Audit Commission guidance that pressured English councils into fortnightly bin collections.”

Sources have told MRW that the extent of the problem has been exaggerated by DCLG ministers, and that Neill’s rhetoric will reignite 2010’s debate between Defra and the DCLG over whether weekly or fortnightly collections are the way forward.

It is a debate that began last June, when DCLG secretary Eric Pickles wrote to the Audit Commission ordering it to repeal guidance which he alleged “triggered the move” to fortnightly waste collections.

Such a move effectively undermined Defra secretary Caroline Spelman, her department’s ownership of the waste portfolio and the rhetoric of localism that would, in theory, mean that the Government did not interfere with waste collection decisions at local level.

At the time, a source close to the Government told MRW that the fight for ownership of the waste portfolio was a “disaster waiting to happen” thanks to Pickles’ personal campaign for weekly collections, which began during his days in opposition.

This battle between the departments appeared to resolve itself in late July, when Defra published its terms of reference for the forthcoming waste policy review. In the document, it was explained that the review will investigate “how the Government can work with local councils to increase the frequency and quality of rubbish collections” – an apparent concession to the DCLG’s preference for weekly over fortnightly waste collections.

But this did not stop politicians from other quarters weighing in on the collection frequency debate.

London Fire Emergency Planning Authority chair Brian Coleman fanned the flames of controversy in September when he commented that there was a “real danger that if fortnightly bin collections were introduced, it would increase the number of fires which will risk lives and cost the taxpayer”.

Another slanging match emerged in December, following the publication of a report by consultant Eunomia, which
stated: “The recent pronouncements in favour of weekly refuse services have been extremely unhelpful to local authorities as they seek to make changes to their services to reduce cost and increase performance and customer satisfaction.

“Centralist direction regarding collection frequency seems to entirely contradict the Government’s localism agenda.

“This is particularly unwelcome given the pressing need for local authorities to make their own decisions regarding spending priorities during a time of unprecedented reductions in central Government funding.”

Unsurprisingly, Neill dismissed the consultants as “over-zealous bin bullies” who “want to make life harder for struggling families”.

Now that the Christmas collection issues have given rise to another round of debates, well-placed sources are warning that the issue will evolve into a continuing battleground between the two schools of thought, while others believe that the real battle will be fought between the DCLG and local authorities.

However, it might benefit the politicians on both sides of the debate to listen to what the public think before saddling them with a policy they do not want.

According to a preview of the Defra review of waste policy, stakeholders have called for “strong support for locally determined collection regimes (including incentives) and frequencies but acceptance of a need for some national standards”.


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