My local binmen went on strike recently. This is now a pretty rare event so it excited some local interest. The local paper described it as a “wildcat” strike, but since the allegation was that management had described two refuse collectors as “fat and lazy”, perhaps the analogy should have been to a different type of animal, an elephant seal for example.
Of course the management strenuously (in an active, svelte way) denied saying any such thing and claimed it was all to do with altering team rotas. I’m sure that’s true, but part of me wished that the dispute had been couched in the more direct terms suggested in the paper.
I imagined the council equivalent of the Life on Mars DCI Gene Hunt, sitting with his feet on the desk, smoking his 40th cigarette of the day, and telling the binnies to ‘get their lazy, fat backsides moving’ or they would forever lose the chance to buy the foreman’s job by standing his many rounds in the pub that night.
If you are a refuse collector, you must be entitled to gain a few extra layers of body fat to cope with the elements. Council top management on the other hand should be shedding the pounds, since I’ve lost count of the number of council offices I’ve been in this winter that are totally overheated, and I don’t mean during the debate about members’ allowances. There is something deeply ironic in seeing council officers lolling about in shirt sleeves under posters outlining the authority’s conviction to tackle climate change, as the heat, and therefore council taxpayer’s money, wafts gently out of the window.
I don’t know what our local refuse collectors think of the fact that the Climate Change Bill will now only allow five local authority areas to pilot new initiatives on recycling. ‘Pay as you throw’ has been chucked out as ceremoniously as a pile of old potato peelings. The Commons Communities and Local Government Committee has criticised the government for “lacking courage” to allow more councils to charge top-up fees for those households which produce more waste.
The climbdown doesn’t surprise me. Local elections have been lost on the issue of surveillance microchips inside the humble wheelie bin.
The Local Government Association recently published research to show that perception of value for money, rather than level of council tax per se, is a key driver in resident satisfaction. It’s hard to see how the average householder would feel they were getting value for money for their refuse collection service if they were also being asked to pay extra in order to do something they had been doing already, like putting the rubbish out.
The pay-as-you-throw proposals have always had less to do with tackling climate change and more to do with closing the gap on funding for council services. Now that wholesale change of the local government finance system is off the agenda once again, there has to be a new focus on getting local people to understand the limitations of council spending and revenue-raising powers. Value for money has to be put into the context of the bigger council picture.
The LGA has made an admirable start with its new website which allows people to see exactly how the balance of funding formula works in practice. For example, I was able to see that in my local area I pay five times as much tax to Whitehall as I pay to my local council. This is less than the national ratio, which, according to the LGA, runs at 6:1, which compares unfavourably to Sweden, Germany and France.
Since councils have also had much more success in meeting efficiency targets than Whitehall, the value for money argument is there to be won. As long as we turn down the thermostat and shut the windows of course