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Waste collection standardisation would toll local government’s death knell

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A guest briefing, arguing against a “nationally consistent” system of recycling, by Wyre Forest DC chief executive Ian Miller.

The title for this article is intentionally provocative. It has been prompted by an exchange on Twitter with the editor of LGC who – in a rare, centralist moment perhaps – confessed his support for a common system of recycling.

I understand entirely Keep Britain Tidy’s plea for a “nationally consistent” system of recycling, from the perspective of trying to drive up recycling rates.

But I cannot bring myself to support the sacrifice of local government independence on the altar of increased recycling. A common approach to recycling, in terms of what methods are used and what items are collected, would be likely to happen only if imposed by Whitehall, through primary and secondary legislation and no doubt voluminous guidance to boot. On many measures, the UK is already the most centralised state in Europe, even allowing for the proper devolution that has happened for Scotland, Wales and (albeit now rather in limbo) Northern Ireland.

If Whitehall is to dictate how recyclates are collected, what next? The inspection and maintenance regime for parks and roads? The opening hours and stock purchase arrangements for libraries? How social care assessments are to be performed, or what type and amount of social care services are to be provided for individuals with particular conditions?

A nationally consistent approach on recycling would mark a move towards local administration, and away from local government overseen by democratically elected councillors. But it would have a much greater symbolic impact. Recycling is part of the most visible and valued of local services: waste collection. This is a service that is at the heart of what councils were created to do in the latter part of the 19th century (the Public Health Act 1875, in case you were wondering).

“Plus ça change” might be the response. The loss of local responsibility for and control over further education colleges, most aspects of primary and secondary education and magistrates courts is part of a trend to whittle away at local government responsibilities since the 1980s – with only a few things moving in the opposite direction (public health, council tax reduction schemes but only for those of working age: councils can’t be trusted with pensioners!).

Apart from any concern about erosion of local decision-making and accountability, we should also worry that, if Whitehall interferes in how councils collect recyclates, it will not pay the full cost of moving to national arrangements – which could range from paying for replacement bins and even vehicles to unpicking outsourced contracts for collection and disposal, including energy from waste contracts. These costs would not fall evenly and therefore there would be a huge bureaucratic exercise required to establish what the implications for each council were.

And why would ministers and their civil servants stop at recycling?

Remember it is only a few years ago that the then Mr Eric Pickles was calling for a weekly bin collection as almost a human right. (We’ve been there before, by the way: section 72 of the Public Health Act 1936 could be used, in effect, to force councils to arrange collection at least once every seven days…)

If standardisation is required, I submit that it is far better and would be cheaper for Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs to legislate to tackle the real culprits: manufacturers and the food industry. They would not have to compensate them as private companies are not subject to the new burdens doctrine. The government could ban some sorts of packaging altogether that can’t be recycled (watch out, Pringles!), and require that only specified types of material could be used. The approved materials could be even more clearly labelled as recyclable and thus make it easier for the public to know what to put in their recycling bins or boxes. The size and colour of the bins/boxes and frequency of their collection really don’t matter.

Such a system could be easily reinforced with government-funded publicity and education programmes. It would mean that it was manufacturers that made their products customer-friendly in terms of recycling. To me, this seems far better than local government having to surrender part of its remaining autonomy and being exposed to risks that government-imposed changes on councils would not be properly assessed and funded.

Ian Miller, chief executive, Wyre Forest DC

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