The collection of household waste is one of the most tangible services taxpayers receive in return for paying their council tax. Bin collections are always an important issue in local elections and councillors place a high priority on ensuring that the waste collection and disposal services their authorities provide are appropriate for the communities they serve.
The management of waste and resources is not, however, something that can be addressed entirely at the local level. The Government also has important responsibilities to ensure the country meets it international obligations to reduce waste, increase recycling and protect the environment. Many aspects of waste policy rightly require a national approach, from taxes on unsustainable packaging to national schemes for promoting recycling.
There is, therefore, a balance to be found between the right of councils to determine the waste collection services that are most appropriate for their local areas, and the duty of the Government to ensure that the country meets its recycling targets.
Since the publication of the Resources and Waste Strategy for England (‘Waste Strategy’) in December 2018, local authority representatives have warned that the Government has failed to find the right balance. We heard that, in too many areas, the Government has sought to dictate policies that would be better determined at the local level, with councils instructed to provide services that they feel are unsuitable for their communities or poor value for money.
Following a four-month inquiry into the implications of the Government’s Waste Strategy for local authorities, in July 2019 we wrote to the then-Minister for Local Government to outline our initial conclusions and recommendations, so they could be fully considered in advance of the publication of the Government’s consultation responses. In our letter, we committed to publishing a full report later in the year, setting out the evidence we heard in the written submissions and public evidence. This report, therefore, provides context for the recommendations we made earlier this year.
We agree that it is important to improve recycling rates in England and believes that it is right that the Government has set ambitious targets. It is also clear that, to achieve higher recycling rates, there needs to be greater consistency in what is collected by local authorities. However, there is an important distinction between what is collected and how it is collected. While it is reasonable for the Government to determine which materials should be recycled, we believe that local authorities should retain as much flexibility as possible to determine how waste should be collected in their communities.
While the Government has been clear that local authorities will receive additional resource to meet any new net costs arising from the policies it has proposed, including both up-front transition costs and ongoing operational costs, there is deep scepticism from local authorities that sufficient funding will be provided.
It is highly likely that some existing long-term contracts will need to be renegotiated if local authorities are going to implement the Government’s Waste Strategy proposals. The need to renegotiate existing contracts is one of the main unknown costs of the new system that the Government is proposing. Private sector contractors should commit to covering the cost of these contract amendments, but where this cannot be agreed, the Government should do so.
Our view is that the existing system, where food waste collection systems are determined by local officials who know their areas best, works well. There is also likely to be a significant cost associated with the implementation of this proposal, and local authorities have expressed concerns around funding for this service.
It should be for local decision makers, who are accountable to their communities through the ballot box, to determine the frequency of residual waste collections in their areas. We are also persuaded of the potential benefits to recycling rates of less frequent residual waste collections.
The current system, where most local authorities provide a chargeable service to households that want it, works well. While a free service might improve the Government’s recycling statistics, the environmental benefits of this approach are less clear.
We expect that most local authorities will not want to ask their residents to store six separate bins outside or inside their homes, particularly in urban areas where space is likely to be more limited. Even four receptacles—the minimum the Government is proposing—will be challenging in many circumstances.
We heard significant concerns about the financial implications arising from a DRS and the Government should not add further complexity and uncertainty into the system, given the significant changes it is already proposing.
It is right that producers bear a greater responsibility for the disposal of the materials they introduce into the system.
It is important that the EPR scheme provides a reliable, long-term source of funding for council services. There is a risk that the scheme could become a victim of its own success, with funding to councils reducing over time as producers improve the quality of the materials in their packaging. The process by which EPR funding will be passed on to local authorities requires greater clarity but must be transparent and fair.
The drive for greater consistency within the Waste Strategy provides an opportunity a fundamental review of how local authorities collect and dispose of waste. The Government should include this review in its programme of Waste Strategy consultations that are due to take place over the next 12 months.
Published: 5 September 2019