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Innovation praised as councils respond to spending cuts

Calls for wider support for councils trying to boost recycling rates have been made at the launch of a new report into how local authorities are responding to the challenge of the Government’s spending cuts.

The report, commissioned by the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM), and carried out by Ricardo-AEA, was based on responses to a survey from 183 authorities and more than 100 organisations working with them.

Steve Lee_182

CIWM chief executive Steve Lee, left, said the report, ‘Waste on the frontline - challenges and innovations’, was “a valuable portfolio of ideas and measures” for efficiency savings, sharing learning and best practice.

“What we see here is some real innovation and willingness to explore the potential cost and performance benefits that can be achieved through smarter systems, joint working, and economies of scale,” he said.

Overall, 69% of respondents reported budget cuts related to austerity measures, 28% said cuts were due to changing council priorities, with a further 16% facing a budget freeze.

The survey found that the most common strategic and operational initiatives to reduce costs have been:

  • partnership working
  • automation of both customer contact and back office systems
  • renegotiation of collection and treatment contracts
  • rationalising collection rounds
  • charging for bulky waste collections
  • extending vehicle and equipment life

Ricardo-AEA director Adam Read said: “With further cuts on the way, we need to be proactive in disseminating the findings of this research so that lessons can be learnt and further impacts minimised over the next five years”.

The report was launched at Westminster at a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Sustainable Resource Group (APSRG) chaired by former environment secretary Caroline Spelman.

Lyn Carpenter

One of the speakers was Lyn Carpenter, right, director of environment, leisure and residents services at the boroughs of Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea, a combined role.

Carpenter told the APSRG meeting: “If you think it’s been hard now, the future is going to be even more challenging. It’s a sobering thought.”

But she said the requirement on councils to find efficiencies dated back to the early years of the century, well before the Coalition Government. Despite that, she argued, standards had continued to rise and that was a credit to all the partners involved.

Carpenter said more strategic leadership and expertise was needed in councils to drive changes in contracts which typically covered 10-30 years.

“How many of your officers have the skills or are you helping them undertake negotiations when some in the private sector are really good at what they do,” she asked of council representatives.

Let’s not detract from the great work they are doing with the budgets they have got

Lee Marshall, LARAC

She also called for more recognition of the waste sector among politicians and MPs and a more unified approach in Whitehall: “We have lots of really good colleagues in Defra, in DCLG and BIS but wouldn’t it be good to do business with one department?”

Lee Marshall, chief executive of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Group, was concerned at indications in the survey that savings were being made or planned in messaging.

“Communications budgets are being cut when WRAP tells us only 25% ‘get’ recycling,” he said. “This comes at a time when reprocessors are telling us the materials are not good enough. This comes at a time when residents are telling us our collections are confusing.

“We have great campaigns being delivered. Let’s not detract from the great work they are doing with the budgets they have got.”

Marshall also urged a more collective effort: “I would start to challenge those further down the material chain and across the industry. If you want material from households then you need to help us get the right message to households: councils can only do so much.”

He said he hoped the report would be a catalyst for the various parties to “sit down and see how the whole industry can help councils”.

The full report and supporting survey results appendix are available and a best practice ‘Opportunities Checklist’ is at http://www.ricardo-aea.com/cms/local-authority-opportunities-checklist/

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