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Where next for beleaguered councils?

Andrew Bird

Listening to some senior poli­ticians and the media during the past month, you could be forgiven for thinking that aus­terity is now over. The reality, of course, particularly in the public sector, is that it is any­thing but over and is likely to continue for years to come.

Local government has taken an unfair proportion of cuts since 2010. If my own author­ity is anything to go by, we face similar cuts again for the next five years or so, and the cracks are starting to show.

I recall vividly the adage we will be doing ‘more with less’ and then the ‘same with less’. The reality is we are and will continue to do ‘less with less’.

David Cameron’s plan for the ‘Big Society’ was for people to start taking greater responsi­bility for their lives and sur­roundings, rather than relying on the state. Well, that disap­peared, along with him, into the long grass.

Income generation has become a focus for councils, so we are seeing more and more of them charging for garden and bulky waste collections, as well as charging for non-household waste at household waste and recycling centres.

Although controversial in many instances, the reality is that only by introducing such charges can these services con­tinue to be delivered – because they are non-statutory but nonetheless provide a good service to residents.

Contracts are another area where local authorities are taking drastic action, with a number of large PFI deals being terminated or renegoti­ated because they are no longer fit for purpose and are inflexi­ble in these uncertain eco­nomic times.

So it is time to rethink how household waste collection and disposal are funded for the future and, meanwhile, the waste policy vacuum in Eng­land needs to be filled.

Circular economy principles do offer an opportunity, so long as materials are of high quality. This is proven in Wales, where strong, well-thought out poli­cies and investment funding have resulted in increased recycling rates. Overall costs for local authorities are start­ing to fall.

But should the taxpayer have to foot the bill for further investment? It is time that pro­ducers were required to pay properly for the lifecycle of the materials they put on to the market, and local authorities should have more discretion around what they can charge for if they so wish.

These are areas that Larac is currently working on, and we will produce our thoughts later in the year.

Andrew Bird is chair of Larac

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