Chris White writes: What would you do with £250 million?

This is the lottery dream, of course. Give quite a bit to charity. Pay off the mortgage. Buy a yacht and invest the rest sensibly for the future.

It’s not so clear what you do if you’re a government department.

Councillors across the country are waking up to the astonishing news that the Department for Communities and Local Government has been opening cupboards and jamjars and has managed to find £250 million it had not previously accounted for.

Not new money from the Treasury. Not money from other projects. But shiny, otherwise unused, cash.

So: what does the Department do? Allocate it to hard-pressed northern cities? Mitigate the impact of the academies top-slice on top tier councils? Make it easier for councils to ease the eligibility criteria for the elderly or vulnerable?

No. Something much more important.

Bins.

Yes: Eric Pickles has a thing about bins. Earlier this year he was announcing, in the true spirit of localism, that the Government wanted to end what he termed fortnightly collections.

You have to be careful here: the term fortnightly is not what it seems. Councils in general continue to collect bins weekly, but what can be collected alternates between general and recyclable. (And some councils anyway ensure that there are mechanisms by which kitchen waste can be collected weekly).

The reasons for this system are that many of the places used for landfill have filled up and so we need to encourage more recycling. Anything which can’t be recycled still has to go to few remaining landfill sites or to incinerators – a controversial option strenuously resisted by local communities.

Why fortnightly? Because it is obviously much more costly to operate a multiple collection system than the old fashioned stick-it-in-a-dustbin-and-forget-about-it regime many of us remember from childhood.

So if councils are to resume weekly collections they will need quite a lot of money to make them viable.

Why is weekly popular? Because of the risk of smell and vermin if you don’t shut your bin lid properly or if flies get in.

But that, of course, was always the case. I have had to deal with maggots under both weekly and fortnightly systems. And at least with wheelie bins you don’t get the rat infestations caused by leaving sacks on the pavement all night.

Yes: there are downsides to fortnightly collections. But to blow a quarter of a billion pounds on what is to most people a minor irritant is, in the middle of the harshest government settlement anyone can remember, the height of irresponsibility.

Worse still: it will send a clear message to many householders that recycling is not so important and that the chuck away society wasn’t really a problem after all.

See you at the incinerator.

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18 Comments

  • As ever, I can’t find the detail, but Pickles in the radio seemed to be suggesting that the money would go towards better designed collection systems (which allowed him to claim it would be good for recycling).

    Is it £250m a year?
    I assume that councils have to bid for it.
    What is the likelihood of councils being able to renegotiate long-term contracts and how long will that take?
    How will councils which have retained weekly collections feel about others getting a new bung?

  • Liberal Neil 30th Sep '11 - 9:55am

    In our area the switch to alternate weekly collections, with weekly food waste collection, has been hugely popular (and yes we have asked in lots of surveying and the answer has been clear). We also have an opt in green waste collection. The recycling rate is now running at 70% as a result. Look at the chart of council receycling rates and you will find that all the best performers are running this sort of scheme.

    There can be issues with such schemes, which should be dealt with. There is a special arangement for those living in terraced houses with no front gardens for example.

    But I think the key point is that if this money is available there are much more important priorities. How many extra houses could be built if that money was added to the social housing pot, for example?

  • @Liberal Neil surely if there are weekly food waste collections there is a weekly collection of a bin. Certainly the bin that matters to collect more frequently. Ho

    How is Pickles going to define this. Surely most places do have a weekly collection of something even if one week it is the recycling, the food and then the non-recyclables.

  • the depatment of communities and local government dont run maternity wards or dmploy soliders, while I can understand the other alternative uses, for example simply to distribute a slice of it to each council and say, retsore some projects that have been cut,m the bins thing was a tory manifesto pledge, one of their least odious manifesto pledgess and good luck to them for implementing it

  • Liberal Neil 30th Sep '11 - 11:52am

    @Louise – I don’t agree that it offers ‘great value’. What Pickles supports is a more expensive way of delivering a service without any significant benefit. I’d rather the money was spent on something additional.

    @Simon – indeed.

  • We could use 250m to create a financial scheme that would greatly benefit teenage students in low income families as a reward for high attendance………oh wait !

  • Large families in particular found the problem of alternate week collection of landfill waste a nightmare especially as some areas won’t accept plastic bottles in the recycling or sawdust from animal cages in the garden waste. Even if you separate out all the recyclables and haul them off in your car to the nearest centre you can still find your rubbish bin full before the fortnight is out.

    It’s easy to be sanctimonious if green living is high on your list of life’s priorities or you don’t have the demands of a family, but the general level of day to day annoyance caused by poor quality refuse collection really grates people. The reason Mr Pickles is incentivising councils to return to weekly collections is that the last government incentivised them to switch to fortnightly collections and many of those incentives remain.

  • ? Interesting that the Treasury are keeping quiet on this rather large item that obviously wasn’t in the Departments budget.
    Now if Gordon was still at number 11, I’m sure the money would of been repatriated to the Treasury…

  • So George Osborne makes it more expensive for councils to chuck waste into holes in the ground.*

    And Eric Pickles makes it easier for lazy people to avoid the effort of recycling, so more waste will end up in holes in the ground.

    Nice joined-up thinking there.

    Will the government be giving councils the money they’ll need to pay the increased landfill tax back to the government?

    see, for eg, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/earthnews/7877517/Council-tax-to-increase-because-of-landfill.html

  • I live in an area where we still have weekly collections for general refuse – plus a fortnightly collection for recycling. We make no particular effort to minimise what goes into the landfill bin, but it’s rare that it’s got enough in it after one week for us to even bother leaving it out for collection, we just put it out on alternate weeks along with the other two. That’s a family of five by the way, including a ten month old in nappies.

    What the hell are people doing to fill a wheely bin full of unrecyclable rubbish every week?

  • Maria Pretzler 1st Oct '11 - 8:37am

    I think this is a very bad decision.

    It seems clear – from answers here, and from what I hear locally and from people in other councils, that the problem isn’t *generally* with fourthnightly collections – it’s with councils who aren’t getting those collection regimes right.

    For example, tjhe problems Charles mentions: the solution isn’t to go back to the old system, the solution is to adjust the new system (e.g. accept plastic bottles and animal litter in the right categories, to use his examples).

    Many councils get this right, and where they do, people are happy. The solution isn’t going back to the old system, it is getting it right.

    Pickles is essentially paying councils who haven’t got it right so far so they don’t have to think about the best solutions for a bit longer. Is anybody really telling me that paying for the continuation of bad practice is a good use of £250 million?

  • Old Codger Chris 1st Oct '11 - 1:17pm

    Gareth Epps has hit the nail on the head. The coalition is generally opposed to ring-fencing grants to local government, even where ring-fencing is sensible.

    Tories are being heavily criticised by their allies in the press for giving too much ground to the Lib Dems in government and this move by Pickles smacks of the need to produce a good headline in the Mail and Express.

    If local authorities are to be dictated to in this manner, why not insist they issue residents with bins – as many already do – rather than the plastic sacks issued in some areas? Plastic sacks are envrionmentally bad and an invitation to foxes and rats etc.

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