Select Committee on Communities and Local Government Committee Fifth Report


10. Perhaps because the sheer volume of the waste we produce is so immense as to be unimaginable, there has been a strong tendency to reach for the homely metaphor. We are told repeatedly that we each throw out about seven times our own body weight each year; that enough rubbish is thrown away every hour to fill the Albert Hall; that the total value of discarded food averages out at £424 for every person in the country.[7] While such examples may not always be precisely accurate, the temptation to use them to give meaning to the 272 million or so tonnes of waste England produces each year is considerable.[8] Of those 272 million tonnes, though, fewer than a tenth are immediately relevant to this inquiry, being the amount collected from households and disposed of by local authorities.

Annual Waste Arisings in England
Demolition and construction
Mining and Quarrying
Dredged material

Table 1: derived from Waste Strategy for England, 2007, chart 1.2, p. 24

11. Municipal waste arisings in England totalled 28.7 million tonnes in 2005-06, with household waste at around 25.5 million tonnes (89 per cent).[9] (The 3.2 million tonne difference is the waste councils collect from local commerce, by request, and usually with charges attached). Some 6.8 million tonnes were recycled or composted in 2005-06 (27.1 per cent), surpassing the Government's 25 per cent target.[10] The 2005-06 figures show the first overall reduction achieved in municipal waste arisings for many years—a 3 per cent cut from 29.6 million tonnes the previous year—although a five-year average to 2005-06 shows waste volumes still rising by about 0.5 per cent a year overall.[11]

12. Britain's traditional approach to its municipal rubbish has been to bury it or burn it. The past decade, however, has seen a substantial shift towards recycling, with more than a quarter of the waste collected from homes now recycled or composted. The percentage of municipal waste sent to landfill fell from 82 per cent in 1998-99 to 62 per cent in 2005-06, but as recently as 2005 the UK nevertheless still sent proportionately more of its municipal waste to landfill than any of its then 14 EU partners, except Ireland and Greece[12].The then Minister for Waste, Ben Bradshaw MP, told us that the foundations of Government policy were "landfill diversion and climate change".[13] As already noted in paragraph 8, the environmental impetus to reduce both the resources wasted and their negative impacts, such as the creation of methane gas from biodegradable waste, is underpinned by hard financial incentives.

13. The most immediate of these is the European Landfill Directive, under which England is required to landfill no more than 11.2 million tonnes of biodegradable municipal waste by 2009-10 and less than half that by 2019-20.[14] The Government introduced a landfill tax in 1996 to encourage local authorities, and industrial and commercial producers, to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill. The tax, currently £24 per tonne, will rise by £8 a tonne each year from April 2008 following the Chancellor of the Exchequer's last Budget decision to accelerate the rate at which it escalates. In April 2005, the Government also introduced the Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme, setting gradually reducing allowances for all disposal authorities for the amount of municipal waste they may landfill. Authorities under-using their allowances may trade any left over with other authorities or bank it against the future; those which exceed their allowance must pay fines of £150 a tonne. The National Audit Office (NAO) has highlighted the risk that local authorities could believe the Government unlikely to impose such penalties because of the probable pressure on council tax levels, but notes that DEFRA "has confirmed to us that penalties will be imposed if allowances are exceeded".[15]

14. Aside from the financial incentives and penalties, the national shift towards greater recycling appears both to have driven and been driven by growing public awareness. The Government-sponsored WRAP, set up by DEFRA after the adoption of the Waste Strategy 2000, commissioned research in April 2006 that found 57 per cent of people could be classed "committed recyclers", validating the Community Recycling Network in saying: "The public wants to recycle. They want to do the right thing environmentally".[16]

15. The NAO has warned, however, that the increase in waste recycled, while significant, has in effect merely allowed us to stand still: "Local authorities recycled an additional 2.5 million tonnes of municipal waste between 1996-97 and 2005-06. The increased recycling has been outweighed, however, by a 21 per cent increase in waste tonnage collected by authorities over the same period".[17] DEFRA rightly notes that the total waste being produced is growing less quickly both than it used to and than GDP—divorcing growth in waste from economic growth was a key aim of the Waste Strategy 2000—but even at 0.5 per cent annual growth, we still produce more domestic waste each year to collect and get rid of.

16. Nearly 400 local authorities in England deal with household waste. Collection and disposal responsibilities were separated in the local government reorganisation of the 1970s, and some 354 authorities, mostly district councils, collect our refuse, while 121 authorities receive and dispose of it. Collection and disposal jointly cost an estimated £2.4 billion in 2005-06.[18]

17. Some witnesses queried whether collection and disposal should continue to be treated as separate processes. West Devon Borough Council, for example, argued that they are "inextricably linked", while Shropshire Waste Partnership raised the "potential problem of a mismatch" where collection and disposal authorities take decisions independently of each other.[19] As the numerous examples of practical joint working revealed by our evidence suggest, local authorities are already acting together in some areas to overcome such difficulties, and examples of both good and less successful practice will be discussed in Chapter 6.

18. Central Government responsibility for waste policy and strategy rests with DEFRA. The Government's Waste Strategy for England 2007, issued on 24 May, includes new targets to reduce the amount of household waste not re-used, recycled or composted from the 18.6 million tonnes of 2005 to 15.8 million tonnes in 2010. It also sets out new re-use, recycling and composting targets—40 per cent by 2010, 45 per cent by 2015, and 50 per cent by 2020.[20]

19. DCLG has overall responsibility for local government, including its financing. It is also responsible for planning policy and is currently piloting through Parliament proposals allowing for the future creation of Joint Waste Authorities where councils choose to co-operate. The Government repeatedly made it clear to us that the way in which policy is implemented should be as far as possible a matter for the local authorities concerned. The Minister for Waste told us: "we do not think it is the role or job of central government to dictate to local authorities how they meet those objectives […] How local authorities do it we believe is rightly up to them".[21] Nevertheless, DCLG is responsible for the local government performance framework, currently being revised to identify 200 indicators and 35 'local improvement targets', and the Government has signalled that proposals are being developed on waste performance indicators focusing on the amounts of municipal and household waste produced, recycled and landfilled: "It is envisaged that one focus for local improvement targets will be local authorities' performance on the average amount of household waste per person that is not re-used, recycled or composted".[22]

20. We endorse the Government's clear indication that it intends to include measures on waste among the 200 indicators being developed for the new local government performance framework. Given refuse collection's significance and high public profile, we recommend that such indicators be priorities for inclusion among the 35 'local improvement targets' identified for each authority.

21. Given the sheer number of bodies involved in refuse collection and disposal in England, it is worth highlighting three areas of potential tension. First, although DEFRA clearly has full responsibility for setting waste policy and strategy, DCLG is responsible both for the funding and the regulation of the local authorities who, at least for municipal waste, put it into practice. There is nothing unusual about Government departments sharing responsibilities across policy areas—DCLG in its local government role alone must interact with the Department for Education and Skills, with the Department for Health on social care matters and with the Home Office on the local funding and activities of the police and fire services, as just three examples—but it is worth stating the obvious fact that the two departments need to interact appropriately if the Government's overall policy goals are to be achieved.

22. Secondly, with central Government setting policy that local government must implement, there is obvious scope for tension over the level of autonomy afforded. The multiplicity of authorities involved, vastly differing geographical, social, economic and political factors in play, and highly varied ways in which local authorities have come to exercise their responsibilities all work against any risk of over-centralised control. The balance of our evidence has stressed that local councils are best placed to apply local solutions to local collection problems, and both DEFRA and DCLG have strongly committed themselves to leaving authorities to get on with the job. All the same, more than 350 authorities each operating their own system cannot possibly take an overall, holistic view of our growing waste problem. Central Government remains best placed to give nationwide guidance on what needs to be done, even if local authorities remain best placed to do it.

23. Thirdly, therefore, it is clear from the evidence taken that the presence of 354 local authorities which collect refuse may well mean there are in place up to 354 collection systems of widely differing method, frequency and scope. While the Minister for Waste is right to say devolution means local authorities making their own decisions, it is equally right to note that numerous witnesses have said, in effect, "If we were designing a system, we wouldn't start from here".[23] The NAO has also suggested that significant savings might arise if different authorities spent "less time reinventing the wheel".[24] We endorse the autonomy of local authorities and recognise their expertise in implementing the best solutions for their own areas. The problems posed by waste collection and disposal are not, however, confined within local governmental boundaries, and require a national response driven by a clear vision energetically communicated from central Government. We recommend that the Government commission research to evaluate the best local collection, recycling, re-use and reduction schemes operated by local authorities and to develop a strategy to encourage their widespread adoption.

7   Richard Girling, Rubbish!, Eden Project Books, (2005) p.2; and RC 44, Waste and Resources Action Programme memorandum, printed in vol. II Back

8   DEFRA, Waste Strategy for England 2007. chart 1.2, p. 24  Back

9   DEFRA, Municipal Waste Arisings in England 2000-01 to 2005-06, and RC 47, DEFRA and DCLG joint memorandum, printed in vol. II Back

10   Environmental Data Services, Report 382, November 2006 Back

11   RC 28, Environment Agency memorandum, printed in vol II Back

12   DEFRA, Waste Strategy for England 2007, p. 23 Back

13   Q 210 Back

14   RC 47, DEFRA and DCLG joint memorandum, printed in vol. II Back

15   RC 31, National Audit Office memorandum, printed in vol. II Back

16   RC 43, Community Recycling Network memorandum, printed in vol. II Back

17   NAO, Reducing the reliance on landfill in England, p. 3 Back

18   NAO, Reducing the reliance on landfill in England, p. 10 Back

19   RC 15, West Devon Borough Council memorandum, and RC 34, Shropshire Waste Partnership memorandum, both printed in vol. II Back

20   DEFRA, Waste Strategy for England 2007, p. 103 Back

21   Q 212 Back

22   DEFRA, Waste Strategy for England 2007, p. 86 Back

23   Q 238 Back

24   National Audit Office, Reducing the reliance on landfill in England, HC 1177, July 2006, p. 24 Back

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