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Westminster Hall

Thursday 28 February 2008

[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]

Refuse Collection

[Relevant documents:Fifth Report from the Communities and Local Government Committee, Session 2006-07, on Refuse Collection, HC 536, and the Government response thereto, HC 1095.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. David.]

2.30 pm

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): I assume that we have a low representation of Back-Bench Members, with the exception of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), because it is Thursday afternoon and there is only a one-line Whip today. It might also reflect the fact that there has already been enormous and extensive debate on the subject of this report. I shall get the joke in before anyone else does, which is that we are all going to be talking rubbish this afternoon—more so than usual.

There has been enormous debate on the reports both within and outside Parliament, and perhaps people feel that the points that need to be made have been exhausted. The debate is on the fifth report of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, but we also draw hon. Members’ attention to our sixth report of 2007-08 on the much narrower topic of waste reduction pilots, which is also relevant.

I shall start by putting the fifth report in context. Although refuse collection is the responsibility of local authorities, and therefore of the Department for Communities and Local Government, it sits within the Government’s general waste strategy, which is the responsibility of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The waste strategy places an imperative on us all, but particularly on local authorities, to reduce the amount of waste generated, to reuse and recycle, and only then to think about using landfill.

There are several powerful incentives for local authorities to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill. Such a reduction would make an important contribution to protecting the environment and to reducing energy use, thereby helping the country to meet its commitments on climate change. We are landfill junkies in this country, and if we carry on using landfill at the current rate, we will use it all up within 12 years. That fact alone—holes in the ground are going to run out—means that councils have to do something about reducing the amount of waste going to landfill.

There are also two financial imperatives on councils, the first of which is the landfill tax. The tax has been operating for some time, but the charge has been escalating, so it is becoming ever more expensive to put waste into landfill. The second is the landfill allowance trading scheme and the imperative that every council has to reduce, by 2010, the amount of waste that it sends to
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landfill against an individual ceiling. That ceiling is set by the past performance of that local authority area, and if it is not met by 2010, the relevant authority will receive large fines, which will end up being paid by council tax payers.

Although much of the debate about refuse collection and charging has focused on the so-called bin taxes, people must bear it in mind that if we do not collectively reduce the amount of waste going to landfill, we will all pay more to our councils anyway. The issue is more about whether we can reduce excess charges than whether we should add charges, or whether all council tax payers should pay or only those who do not make much effort to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill.

The report, which was published in May 2007, covers refuse collection policy in England, because the DCLG is responsible only for England in these matters. It touches on several points on which I shall not expatiate because I want to concentrate on relatively few. I have made the point about cost pressures on authorities. If we continue to produce waste at the current level, there could be an extra £150 on everyone’s council tax bill.

The report looks at the various ways in which councils have responded to that challenge. One of the most interesting parts of the inquiry was the sitting attended by representatives from different local authorities, all of whom had taken different decisions in response to the situations in their areas. They argued the case out in front of us, each trying to explain why they had made those choices and why they thought other councils had made other choices. That was particularly interesting because it was not a party political matter. There were huge differences of opinion between council leaders, but, without knowing, it would have been difficult to say which ones were from which party. People feel strongly about this subject, but it is not party political.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I congratulate my hon. Friend on the quality of the report. She talks about the various borough initiatives. Does she agree that there is one large untapped area in which savings can be made? Some 8 million disposable nappies are disposed of every day in this country; that is 1 million during the three hours of this debate. I calculate that this Chamber, which is about 50 ft by 30 ft by 20 ft, would be filled every hour by the disposable nappies thrown away in this country. What did my hon. Friend learn from the local authorities mentioned on pages 25 and 26 of the report in relation to encouraging the use of reusable nappies in the way that the Nappy Alliance and others have been promoting for some time?

Dr. Starkey: I sense a press release coming. My hon. Friend paints quite a disgusting word picture of piles of disposable nappies. We did not go into this issue in great detail, but disposable nappies are one of the smellier waste items. In a moment, I shall discuss AWC—alternate weekly collection—or fortnightly collections, as they are popularly known in the press. Obviously, a major issue in that regard is smell. Disposable nappies are a particularly smelly form of waste that causes particular problems, and several local authorities have introduced schemes to support and encourage parents to use traditional rather than disposable nappies.

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We had a little discussion about this before the debate, and it is a difficult area of personal behaviour to influence, because people have strong views on it. I am of an age that I used reusable nappies on my children and viewed disposables as an unhappy modern invention with unfortunate environmental consequences. However, both my daughters are wedded entirely to using disposable nappies for their children, and they cannot imagine how I managed with having to wash the reusable ones.

There are some good initiatives, but there has also been debate, which we reproduced in the report, as to whether the environmental damage is all on one side. If one reuses nappies, one has to wash them, which uses enormous quantities of water. I applaud councils that have addressed this delicate matter, as parents need to be aware of the possible environmental problems with disposable nappies. Incontinence pads, which nobody talks about, are even worse in one sense, as they are usually rather larger.

I shall speak in a little while about the different collection methods chosen by different councils, and about the perception of health risks that may be associated with some choices that have been made.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): Do not all local authorities share the same problems and have to solve them in rather similar ways? The hon. Lady says that refuse collection is not really a party political matter, and no solution is owned by any one political party. None the less, this is often a matter of local party political debate, and all parties are prone to use it as a political weapon against an incumbent party that sincerely endeavours to solve the problem.

Dr. Starkey: That is indeed the case. We compiled our report in the run-up to the local elections, and many assertions were made in the press at about that time that nemesis would arrive for certain parties—different parties in different places—in May, when the electorate would take revenge on them.

The interesting thing about the local election results is that some parties that introduced fortnightly collections lost control, but the changes of control were more to do with the political swing across the country. Some councils that had just introduced fortnightly collections, and whose main opponents ran on the platform that that was a big mistake and that they would reverse the policy, retained power. There is no evidence from the elections that AWC was quite the vote-losing policy that was suggested in the popular press.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): I, too, congratulate the hon. Lady and her Committee on a very good report. It focuses entirely on refuse collection, which is the right thing to do, but there is the immediate interaction with disposal. The issue is being driven by the landfill tax. Did the Committee at any stage consider innovative methods of refuse disposal, or has it any plans to do so? Some methods would incentivise communities differently. To produce electricity, they would need a continuous flow of waste-to-power anaerobic digesters, gas plasmification systems or incinerators.

Dr. Starkey: No, we did not, because the matter was not within the purview of our report or, indeed, our Committee. However, my view as an MP who resisted
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an incinerator in her area is that although energy from waste is an important option that could be investigated and considered, in general, most people agree that it would be a mistake to allow energy from waste to encourage people to be more cavalier about the amount of waste that they produce. We should still try to reduce waste generation, but also look at what we can do with the residual waste that will, inevitably, be produced. Energy from waste may be a sensible proposal along those lines.

One thing that I will touch on later is how the choices that have already been made in different areas for treating refuse have reduced the options available in those areas for refuse collection. For example, large investments are being made in a particular form of waste treatment plant, which then limit the choices that can be made by local authorities in that area in respect of waste collection.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Joan Ruddock): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on her report. On the point that she raises, may I make it clear that the Government’s large investment programme—£2 billion for private finance initiative credits for investment in waste infrastructure—is now designed in such a way that the conflict to which she refers, which is historical, will no longer arise? There is no question that authorities that brought such plants on stream would be allowed to have recycling rates that were jeopardised or kept down because of the potential for energy from waste.

Dr. Starkey: Excellent. Perhaps I had better get on to the key points that I intend to make. I shall pass over most of the statistics that I had planned to give—many are in the report anyway—except to reiterate that Britain’s recycling rates are relatively poor compared with those of many other European Union states. In particular, we have historically sent much more waste to landfill. I believe that everybody in this country is trying to achieve a large culture shift and a huge change in how each of us behaves, which is very difficult.

The report exclusively concentrates on refuse collection by local authorities. Most of that is domestic waste. Although local authorities can charge for and take away commercial waste, most commercial waste is not collected by them, and we note that. Important though domestic waste is, it is still a relatively small proportion of the waste that is produced; indeed, it is only a tenth of it. That is not a reason for us not be serious about it, but we need to keep it in perspective.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Lady and her colleagues on the Committee on the report. Clearly, they had some fairly tight terms of reference to do with refuse collection, but did they consider whether there was any role for local authorities in reuse schemes, as well as recycling schemes, to try to push people up the waste hierarchy?

Dr. Starkey: We mentioned reuse in the report, but did not consider it in depth. We said that local authorities need to be thinking about what they can do to promote all three aspects—waste reduction, reuse and recycling—but we did not look into reuse in detail.

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Turning to the part of the report on collection methods, there has been a gradual shift towards AWC, which is the slightly more accurate way of describing what are popularly known as fortnightly collections. In almost every case, what is described as a fortnightly collection is a weekly collection in which the same things are not collected every week. Some things may be collected fortnightly, but there is a weekly collection.

There has been a gradual shift towards AWC over the past decade, but it has accelerated in the past three years as councils have tried to boost recycling. There is a great debate as to whether the introduction of AWC has contributed to an increase in recycling. The Committee concluded that although there is an undoubted association between the introduction of AWC and an improvement in recycling rates, there is no demonstrable cause and effect. Councils that have introduced AWC have, quite properly, done so as part of a huge public education campaign in their area to explain what the change is, how it will work and why they are doing it. That may have contributed to the improvement in recycling rates as much as the waste being collected in a different way, although a number of councils that have introduced AWC were clear that, essentially, they were making it more difficult for householders to dispose of the residual waste left after they recycled.

Those councils were seeking to engage householders’ attention and get them to reduce the amount of residual waste, either by providing them with smaller bins, so it was more difficult for them to create large quantities of residual waste, or by deliberately having the residual waste collected only once a fortnight to make it more difficult and to encourage householders to reduce the amount of waste. However, councils that have not introduced AWC did have high recycling rates.

Dr. Pugh: The hon. Lady gives credibility to the persuasive powers of councils, which surprises me. Is she aware of any councils that have doubled their recycling rates purely by persuasion?

Dr. Starkey: That would be difficult to demonstrate; that is the point. Every time AWC has been introduced, there have been a large number of changes and it is difficult to decide which was responsible for the change in household behaviour and the improvement in recycling. However, the one thing that the Committee could say was that any council thinking of introducing AWC needed to involve itself in an extensive, effective public information campaign. Otherwise, it would be highly likely that the scheme would descend into chaos with—as we all saw on our television screens, although I cannot remember which council was involved—people on an estate pursuing a refuse lorry and throwing their rubbish at the refuse collectors, such was their frustration at the introduction of AWC, which was clearly, in that case, done without the necessary public education or back-up.

The Committee was not convinced that AWC is essential to improve recycling rates, but recognised that many councils introduced it because they believed that it would improve those rates. We debated whether it was simply a cost-cutting measure. That is difficult to work out. Essentially, when a council moves from an ordinary weekly collection to AWC, it is giving the
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householder the option of putting rubbish out in lots of different bags or boxes; if it does not introduce AWC, it will need twice as many refuse lorries as it had in the first place.

Accordingly, introducing the change to AWC and having more separate collections can be done without doubling the number of vehicles. It is not so much that councils save money through AWC, but that they reduce the additional investment needed to start collecting glass, plastic, paper and residual waste separately. To that extent there is a cost saving, but mainly the additional costs that those councils would otherwise have had to meet are reduced in respect of a system that allows them to recycle more.

David Taylor: Does my hon. Friend agree that it has been difficult for local authorities of all party political persuasions to introduce revised arrangements against the backdrop of the middle-market national tabloids jumping on a bandwagon, suggesting that AWC is the end of civilisation as we know it and conflating it with taxation and electronic chips in the bins at work, which, according to them, can track—in the south-west, for example—every last cider bottle, pasty and “Focus” leaflet that people throw away? It is difficult for local authorities to operate in that climate, is it not?

Dr. Starkey: I agree. I was amused that, after our report was published, even though it did not back up what the tabloids had been saying, they nevertheless managed to say that it entirely vindicated them and the campaign that they had been running. Of course, it does not do that.

The Committee’s view on the subsequent report on the Government’s waste reduction pilots is that they have pulled back on the original proposal to allow all councils to introduce charging if they wish and have instead focused only on five pilots precisely because of the vitriol in the tabloid press, which has made it difficult to have a sensitive debate about charges for residual waste.

It became clear to us that the collection method had to vary depending on the nature of the area served. Most obviously, it is difficult for a council in a dense urban area with lots of flats and houses in multiple occupation to have an alternate weekly system, which relies on individual households having a significant amount of space to store the recyclables, or whatever, for the fortnight before the collection. Alternate weekly collections have rarely been introduced in dense urban areas because they do not work well, whereas they seem to work well in more suburban or rural areas, where space per household is not at quite the same premium and people have a reasonable amount of outside area where they can stash stuff until it is collected. Instead, many councils in urban areas have collective recycling facilities dotted about closer to people’s homes, so people living in a flat can get rid of a lot of their rubbish themselves by taking it to the nearest recycling bin on the corner of the street. Clearly, it is horses for courses, which is why it is best to leave such decisions to councils, because they know their area better than anybody else possibly can.

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