Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 400 - 419)



Christine Butler

  400. What about the divided function of financial responsibilities between waste collection and waste disposal? Could you just detail or list the main problems in the present system.
  (Mr Coulter) The delivery of an integrated strategy requires them to work together. To some extent that is happening now. But there are a number of obstacles which we feel should be removed if possible. One of the obstacles is the legislation itself, which is the Environmental Protection Act 1990. There are very clear distinctions between the roles of collection and disposal authorities. For historical reasons we understand that but we feel it needs to be reviewed really. There is the question of the separate funding where we have to operate in compartments. We would like to see the money flowing more freely between disposal and collection authorities. At the moment, that is not easy. The SSA is directed separately to each authority. Perhaps there is some role for some form of SSA funding directly for waste management. We would like to see more of a unified approach in terms of the structure of how we work together. Things like joint boards and so on. We would really like to encourage that. Also, the abolition of recycling credits because we feel recycling credits came from a different time. They had their use but, at the moment, they are not a help towards the integrated funding.

  401. How then would you suggest we alter or amend current legislation, bearing in mind what you have just said?
  (Mr Coulter) I think it needs to be recognised that the distinctions which existed some years ago are, in a sense, no longer fruitful.

  402. They are not working?
  (Mr Coulter) We are working round them but they are not working. They are not contributing.

  403. They are not working. They are not going towards the main objective that we have before us today?
  (Mr Coulter) Yes.

  404. Could you say a little about the joint board and the idea of having waste collection and disposal together on that. If we did have such a board, how might that engage with the private sector?
  (Mr Fielding) I will do my best. There is, of course, no hard and fast model for this at this stage. A lot of work is going on at an early stage throughout the country. The feeling is that the current legislation is, in some cases, divisive and various mechanisms have been outlined. What is needed is a mechanism, through review of legislation or new legislation or powers, which enables more sharing of power in decision making. Decision making is often carried out now in boxes. We need to be able to make those decisions together.

  405. How might that board engage with the private sector in terms of better contracting?
  (Mr Fielding) Ultimately, in the longer term, I can see a case for saying that we will be talking possibly about a unified authority—not unitary authority but almost a waste management authority. It does not necessarily need to go to that extreme to begin with, to deliver some benefits through joint co-operation, joint working, at a board level. There are existing provisions within existing legislation to enable authorities to delegate powers and responsibilities to joint bodies. That would be a useful model to try and get all that running and see how it would work in practice. That is the problem. It is this compartmentalisation, lack of unified decision making.

Mr Donohoe

  406. Mr Coulter, earlier you said the figure of 3 per cent growth in domestic refuse. Do you actually believe that figure?
  (Mr Coulter) Just personally in our authority alone we keep very accurate records. We weigh all waste throughout every year. We have been doing that for a long time. The figures we are getting, at the moment, it was 2 and a half per cent last year. We would say that it is an accurate figure for us. The figures from colleagues in other local authorities are somewhat higher or lower than us. But, at the moment, we would say that is fairly accurate.

  407. So over a six-year period, at that rate of growth, you are talking about an almost 20 per cent increase?
  (Mr Coulter) Yes. The difficulty is that the environment is very unstable, so it is difficult to project forward. With other initiatives like producer responsibility and so on being thrown into this situation, it is difficult to know what impact that will have. But we have to project on the best we can.

  408. So in terms of the calculation, what have you taken into account as far as commercial disposal of waste: transferring that waste to the calculation that you are using for domestic waste?
  (Mr Coulter) So leakage into the system really?

  409. Yes.
  (Mr Coulter) There is evidence that due to the cost of Landfill Tax—that householders, where they might have had commercial waste in the past from large DIY projects, take that through our civic amenity route, so waste is coming in that way.

  410. You do not have any estimate as to what that figure is?
  (Mr Coulter) I have not. Have you, Ian?
  (Mr Fielding) No. We have attempted in our authority to isolate those figures. It is incredibly difficult, if not impossible. Over the last five years we have very, very accurate data. We know exactly how much waste we have dealt with and how much it has grown in that time. We are round about the 3 per cent in our authority. The Landfill Tax has clearly had an impact. We have seen significant 20 per cent increases at recycling centres, amenity sites. This is not necessarily illegal or improper disposal of waste. It is as a result of people wanting to find a cheaper way of getting rid of their waste. In the past they would have hired a skip or made other arrangements. They are now hiring lorries to bring material in because it is cheaper and more cost effective to do that. Current legislation requires us to take that material unless we can prohibit it on the grounds of health and safety or similar provisions, but basically we have to take the material. We do not yet know, because of the relatively small amount of data we have, what impact weather has on all of this. We know that September of this year was a very low month for us. That may be coincidence, because of the fuel crisis, I do not know. There are major influences over which we have no control. We do not know yet the exact level of that impact. All that concludes, in my mind, is that there is absolutely no statistical basis for making forward projections beyond a very, very short time period—certainly, I would argue, not to 2010 or beyond. So the questions of: how much do we deal with now? How much we deal with now and how much we deal with in the future? are fundamentally not known.

  411. Have you taken into this calculation the needs of your authority? If your authority provides, say, wheelie bins, you are growing your waste by almost 20 per cent over six years, and you are going to find that your wheelie bins are not big enough because you are going to have an immense amount. Will that not be a difficulty, a problem?
  (Mr Fielding) Yes.

  412. So what are you taking into account?
  (Mr Fielding) This is the point. There are often allegations that wheelie bins will increase the amount of waste collected and, therefore, they are bad. I do not necessarily believe there is any empirical evidence to suggest that the mere provision of a waste container will alter purchasing and consumption habits, which is the inference of that statement to do with wheelie bins. There is an issue—and I would agree with the disposal of green garden waste. That is the one area where waste disposal authorities and collection authorities can make a very significant impact on the amount of waste we are collecting, arising from our policies. However, I do not believe that we can have a significant impact on consumer choices and purchasing behaviour through the provision of a waste container.

  413. There are so many imponderables that you have to put up with, that to plan is almost impossible, is it not?
  (Mr Coulter) It is very difficult, that is right, because we have to deliver a service. As I have said, we have to make sure that the bins are emptied every day. That is critical, yet we are operating in an environment which is very, very fluid; which, as Ian, my colleague said, is consumer driven. The fashion for doing your garden over has led to a great increase in waste. The use of disposable nappies is now 4 per cent of the waste stream. So it is about consumer choices and fashion. We have to deal with what comes out of that.


  414. Fundamentally, you do not have any decent statistics, do you? I do not think any local authority has been doing a survey from a selection of households of how much waste they are producing. All you are doing is measuring the amount that comes in from the bin round and from the civic amenity sites.
  (Mr Fielding) I would question that. We do have some very, very good statistics. What we do not have are good statistics over a length of time, which would enable us to interpret what a base line figure would be. That will come with time. What really messes up the system is other interventions, such as we have seen with the Landfill Tax. It makes trying to measure the base line extremely difficult.

  415. No-one in the country is doing a survey of a selection of houses to see how much rubbish is coming out of those houses?
  (Mr Fielding) No.

  416. All you have is the amount you collect in, which is then weighed.
  (Mr Fielding) On the contrary. In my own authority—and I know this has been replicated in other authorities—we have spent some considerable time on this.

Mr Donohoe

  417. You cannot do that accurately. If people are taking waste to their communal areas or are dumping it in skips, you do not need to be a rocket scientist to work out that some of this is waste that should be commercial waste.
  (Mr Fielding) That is an interesting statement because what should or should not be commercial waste needs clarification. As a local authority we spend a lot of time trying to determine what waste should be or should not be commercial waste.

  418. If you do not have a definition as to what is or is not commercial waste, are any of your calculations of any use to anyone then?
  (Mr Fielding) Our calculations are very useful, based on our policies. The difference is in interpretation around the country, for instance, as to how you apply a policy to collection of waste from housing associations or schools. There are a number of such examples. They have come up with a long list of these. The difficulty is that this interpretation does tend to vary. The definition of what is commercial waste and what is not commercial waste is subject to local interpretation. Again, from my own local authority's perspective, we can map that out. Whether or not we change our policy, we will know what is happening with our waste stream. We do that in quite a lot of detail. We have attempted to identify, for instance, any ACORN classification variations. We have gone into that kind of detail. The problem is: how do we make projections? We have good information but I do not think we have the basis for a projection. This does come back to the fundamental question again, in my mind, as to whether or not it is appropriate to adopt a "predict and provide" approach to waste facilities in future, when that same approach is being discredited in other fields.


  419. You have just said that there are some households in your authority where you have been measuring, over a consistent period, the amount of waste arising. What is the percentage increase for those selected households?
  (Mr Fielding) I am sorry, if I gave that impression this was not my intention. We have not measured over a period. The first attempt to do that was last year. We now have to revisit that. We have to do exactly what you are saying and understand how that changes over time and what the influences are on that.

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