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Councils in a cash crunch

After becoming chair of Larac, the local authority recycling officers’ group, Carole Taylor spoke to MRW about how she sees her role and that of the organisation in challenging times.

Taylor: I chair the executive, made up of 20 volunteers representing local authority officers who work day-to-day on waste. We are not the politicians. Our members are the operations people, and we can bring that to our discussions and our representations with the Government.

We ’re the ones who actually have to face people. We are the ones saying this is our policy and we want to collect waste this way, and then develop that strategy into what works in practice.

How well do you think the authorities and the politicians accept and listen to the Larac view?

Taylor: I think they do. We have a great national conference, really well attended by a range of people, and the sharing of ideas and best practice is welcomed there. Due to the work that Andrew [Bird, her predecessor] did during the past four years, we have more status now than we used to. Our chief executive Lee Marshall has been in the House of Commons and the Lords, giving evidence on the behalf of Larac. So it shows we are well respected.

One of our challenges is that councils often have blanket bans on membership subscriptions. We represent about 70% of authorities at the moment; we want to maintain that and make it higher if possible. People tell me they want the authority to be a Larac member but it’s not allowed.

What do you think are the main concerns for your members?

Taylor: Funding – councils are being squeezed and no longer get the levels of revenue support grant. They are having to be more commercial and, during the past seven or eight years, everyone has had to streamline and make cuts. Many councils are down to the bone.

How difficult is it for you and your members that you’re not one of the high-profile services?

Taylor: The amount that is spent on waste is low compared with the range of services that local authorities provide. But it is the service the public see the most. Every officer has been told: “My business pays your wages – your bins are the things I pay my council tax for.”

Partner contractors say they take too much of the risk and want collection contracts reviewed. But councils themselves are also looking to renegotiate contracts. What do you make of these pressures?

Taylor: There is definitely a shift towards councils taking services in-house. Everybody is trying to save money. But some authorities do not have the means to buy the bin wagons and provide that service themselves. They may want to do so but they don’t have the depots or the land.

”Is recycling the goal now? Quite a number of local authorities do not have recycling targets as key performance indicators. It’s all about money, at the end of the day.”

It does mean there is still room for a mixture of provision, but it is often down to the individual council’s circumstances. My authority has always been in-house and, fortunately for us, we have been able to make the cuts asked of us. We couldn’t have done that if we still had a contractor partner.

What about the trend towards commingling, which cannot be good if higher recycling rates are the goal?

Taylor: But is recycling the goal now? Quite a number of local authorities do not have recycling targets as key performance indicators. It’s all about money, at the end of the day.

I would like recycling to be a higher priority. But that is a personal view - whether the rest of the executive would agree, I don’t know.

How do you think the local authority collection service will fare during the next couple of years with potentially major changes coming?

Taylor: We are preparing a paper on the future of council funding and service provision, due out in April. And we are looking at things like extended producer responsibility or direct charging – if legislation allows. If it was discretionary, some authorities might go for it. And if WRAP wants us to collect consistently, that needs money. You can’t just introduce a service – you need consistent materials as well.

What’s the main focus for 2018?

Taylor: We are on the edge of having the Government’s resources and waste strategy later this year and that might give us a bit more direction. It has been great that the plastic issue is in the public realm so that people are now asking what they can do.

But it hasn’t yet translated into action, and we need more of a steer centrally. How can we fund our services so that we provide a better service? I think this overarching strategy will make it an interesting year, and we will see whether that gives us some teeth to do what we want to do.

 

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