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Waste management in the spotlight as local government reorganises

The local authority sector in Northern Ireland (NI) is in turmoil, an industry insider tells MRW. As the country’s biggest shake-up of local government for more than 40 years approaches, who wouldn’t be?

From April 2015, 26 existing local authorities will be merged into 11 socalled ‘super councils’. As part of the restructure, the new entities will acquire additional powers including planning and local economic development.

The merger will be an opportunity for the waste and recycling sector, according to arc21 chief executive John Quinn. Councils will have to reconsider their collections systems because districts using different methods will be put under the same authority.

This will lead to more consolidation and alignment among the 11 new councils, he argues.

Terry A’ Hearn, chief executive at the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) , says the move will encourage councils and the agency to rethink waste management strategy. He has already met the 11 newly appointed chief executives: “Every new council will work out what they want to do for themselves in co-operation with us.”

But the regrouping will also pose the challenge of streamlining waste operations within limited budgets. For example, Tim Walker, head of waste management at Belfast City Council, explains that his authority will acquire an additional 22,000 houses from the neighbouring Lisburn and Castlereagh district.

He says: “In Castlereagh, some 3,000 houses use a box system, which we are proposing to switch to a bin system. But in Lisburn, they use different bin colours. We thought about standardising the bin colour but the cost was too great. So we will have to stop referring to them in terms of colours and start referring to them as the ‘recycling bin’ and the ‘composting bin’. We will need to change our message.”

Walker adds that the council is also working on how to assimilate the vehicle fleets and staff.

Another aspect under discussion during the reorganisation is whether the current regional waste management groups will be kept in place. At the moment, three organisations co-ordinate the work of councils in the northeastern, southern and north-western districts of NI, namely Arc21, SWaMP and WRWMG.

Quinn says: “There is a discussion on the options – whether the sub-regional structure is maintained, a singular disposal authority is created for the whole of NI or whether it is left to the 11 super-councils.”

As with the rest of the UK, next year local authorities will also see the coming into force of the European directive mandating the separate collections of materials unless it is not necessary or technically, economically and environmentally (TEEP) practicable to do so. The regulations have been transposed into the Waste Regulations (NI) 2011.

And, as with England, the DoE and NIEA have decided not to produce further guidance for councils.

A’Hearn explains: “The department has concluded that issuing statutory guidance would not significantly add to the advice already available to district councils and private operators on separate collection of waste and TEEP.

“The European Commission guidance on the interpretation of key  provisions of the Waste Framework Directive, including separate collection, was published in June 2012 and various bodies throughout the UK have provided publicly available advice.

“The regulations make it clear that it is for the waste collectors themselves to decide how best to comply with their legal obligations and to take their own legal advice to ensure compliance.”

But the lack of official guidance has left some councils feeling they are bearing a larger risk of being questioned in their choice of collection methods, according to Quinn: “There may or may not be legal challenges.”

Banbridge District Council has already encountered such experience. In 2004, waste management firm Bryson Recycling introduced a kerbside box recycling service for the authority but, in April 2011, councillors decided not to renew the contract and take the service in-house. Collected materials are now commingled except glass.

The company launched a judicial review against the council in August 2011, claiming on 11 grounds that the decision to drop its services was flawed and “not in the best interest of rate payers”.

But in January 2014 the High Court judge backed Banbridge’s decision. Judge Justice Treacy said that local authorities were only required to undertake separate collections if it was technically, environmentally and economically practicable. He accepted the council’s assertion that there was enough evidence that commingling increased recycling rates.

Fiona McKilligan, assistant director at Bryson Recycling, says the company was disappointed with the result but accepted the outcome. “The issue of materials quality and commingling was raised in the case, however the body of the judge’s comments did not relate to this issue and was made in the context of having ruled the case out on three more substantial grounds.”

The Banbridge’s judgment will be used to draft some guidelines on TEEP that are being prepared by the Local Government Technical Advisers Group (TAG), according to Walker.

TAG will also look at the route map produced by a WRAP-led consortium in England and try to adapt it to the NI context. Walker expects the document to be published by the end of the year: “It will be a useful piece of information.”

But what will happen between the coming into force of the Directive in January and the completion of the local government restructure in April remains unclear. A’Hearn says councils will be given time to prepare their strategies: “Since the [councils] will not exist until April, it is hard to say to them in January you will need to do x, y and z.”

Quinn suggests local authorities may conduct “an interim TEEP analysis” pending a more strategic review. But the debate on separate vs commingled collection is as heated as in the rest of the UK, he assures.

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