These are challenging times for local authorities. Few areas involving public expenditure have been exempt from spending cuts, but councils have been hit hard. Since the 2010 spending review, councils have had to deal with a 33% cut in funding from Whitehall and limits placed on how much that can be compensated by increases in council tax.
One way some are trying to cope is to hit their waste and recycling budgets. In Kirklees, for example, the council is rescinding its separate glass collection to save almost £500,000. Derby City is planning to cut recycling services for several wards, citing problems with contamination but also £2.1m it needs to find.
Other councils, such as Newcastle, Bracknell Forest and Wirral, are now charging for garden waste collections.
In the face of such straitened circumstances, it is no wonder that councils are considering ways to work together to save money, particularly as waste services are often the biggest contracts they enter into.
Jane Beasley, director of Beasley Associates, who has been a consultant on waste partnerships for several years, said that, in the future, there will be little choice but for councils to consider joint waste arrangements, “particularly if we don’t want performance to slip or services to be reduced”.
She said: “Local authorities have trimmed the fat of their services already and made big steps forward in efficiencies, but in a lot of cases it is still not enough. More authorities, particularly at the [waste collection authority (WCA)] level will need to join aspects of their services together simply to remain viable.”
Beasley argued that working together could achieve valuable economies of scale, and councils could share “resources, expertise, staff, purchasing power”.
The best evidence that partnerships work is from the cost savings they generate.
Paul Vanston, manager of the Kent Waste Partnership (KWP), told MRW that the partnership of 13 councils was on track to deliver cost savings of £100m during a 10-year period ending in 2021.
Steve Read, managing director for the Somerset Waste Partnership and newly appointed head of the Gloucestershire Waste Partnership, said that Somerset had achieved “initial and continued savings of £1.5m a year since 2007”.
In Northern Ireland, Arc21 policy and operations director Ricky Burnett said it and the other two partnerships in the province are proof that waste partnerships work.
“If we weren’t delivering value for money to councils, they would not continue to support us,” he said.
Joint procurement is another reason to enter into a waste partnership. Dorset Waste Partnership and Bournemouth Borough Council recently scooped a £14.2m share of communities secretary Eric Pickles’ bin fund, and are progressing plans to build a new MRF in Dorset.
John Bland, treasurer and deputy clerk of the Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority (GMWDA), which comprises 10 councils, said: “By clubbing together, you can get to the optimum size to build something which is appropriate [in size].”
A further advantage to grouping together as a waste partnership is being able to wield greater clout - both for educational purposes and at a political level.
Burnett told MRW: “It is 11 speaking as one - there are benefits to communication.”
The truth is that while on paper there may be a significant number of waste partnerships in England, there is a small number actually making progress in joint service delivery
Arc21 bought a vehicle to use as a mobile education unit, with displays about recycling inside. Burnett said it had proved popular with visitors at schools, shopping centres and household waste recycling centres: “That sort of investment could not be sustained by individual councils.”
Then there is a greater level of influence on policy.
Vanston said: “Everything seems to be under review, from the EU all the way through to councils, and then through to how the supply chain works. KWP has a national profile in participating in activities that frame how the industry will work in the future.
“What the KWP is clear about is that collaboration across the supply chain, as well as between councils - is likely to open doors to achieving resource security and economic growth.”
Given the advantages of collaboration, what stands in the way of more councils doing so? A recurring theme when you pose this question is the challenge posed by councils’ internal culture.
At one level, it can be purely political. One Home Counties district council has ambitions of becoming a unitary authority, and would not join a local partnership for fear of undermining fiercely held independence.
There are also practical considerations standing in the way of joint procurement or joint operations, such as the timing of councils’ various contracts or procurement arrangements that are already underway.
One good example of this is in Northern Ireland, with its population of seven million.
In England that can be the size of a single waste management authority, but the province has three.
Environment minister Alex Attwood has said he would prefer one unit, but existing procurement schemes nearing final bidder status block the way (MRW.co.uk/8646913.article).
Read said that resistance can include a culture of being averse to risk: “This type of project leaves officers wondering if they will get the blame if things don’t work out or be made redundant if they do.”
A perceived loss of control is also a problem for some councillors, who do not consider the six- or sevenfigure savings each year to be worth the effort. “But no successful private company would look at things that way,” Read added.
For waste partnerships that are created around the procurement of significant infrastructure, the initial investment can be a hurdle.
Bland said: “The problem is whether you can afford to do it - there are short-term austerity issues. The other question is whether you can afford not to do it.”
If we weren’t delivering value for money to councils, they would not continue to support us
Not all partnerships have been as successful as the GMWDA, which was supported by £124.5m of PFI credits in a 2009 contract with the Government.
Several partnerships were hit when PFI funding was withdrawn by Defra in February, such as Bradford & Calderdale; Merseyside Recycling and Waste Authority and Halton; and North Yorkshire and City of York (MRW.co.uk/8643219.article).
Some of the partnerships that make it off the drawing board may still not be able to claim success. Beasley said: “The truth is that while on paper there may be a significant number of waste partnerships in England, there is a small number actually making progress in joint service delivery.
“Aside from the welldocumented examples such as Somerset, Dorset, East Kent, East Sussex - and small WCA pairings such as Lichfield and Tamworth - progress has been very slow, particularly with front-line service delivery.”
Beasley said one trend we could witness during the next decade is partnerships not including all potential partners from the start: “We may continue to see fragmentation of partnerships, where joint arrangements are going ahead only with some members of the [group].”
Those that step aside at the off may join when they see the value of the joint arrangement or they have addressed their own internal barriers, she argued.
Read envisioned “a patchwork of approaches”, such as operational partnerships, strategic overviews and joint heads of service for different partnerships, which could help “deeper joint working arrangements” across county boundaries.
Vanston echoes this sentiment, saying there could be a greater “joining-up between numbers of partnerships” in the next decade.
“That is already starting to happen across the south-east through the South East 7 project,” he said. “It is early days, but it does seem to be possible for an area with the population of Denmark (5.5. million) to come together from Hampshire to Kent.”
But increased collaboration is only one aspect that will characterise future types of joint working. As the industry evolves up the waste hierarchy and we send less material to landfill, the nature of partnerships will change.
What was a waste partnership will become an ‘advanced resource partnership’ in a decade’s time, and it will have an instrumental role in the UK’s resource economy.
- Additional reporting by Jay Sykes