Commentary on how Whitehall will make councils pay for the waste strategy
Until Peter Fleming (Con) let rip, MPs on the housing, communities and local government committee had been having a polite and technocratic discussion with experts on the potential financial impact on councils of the government’s resources and waste strategy.
Financial models, public attitudes and unintended policy consequences had all been eruditely debated.
But then Labour MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi innocently asked whether councils were confident that the government would give them sufficient new burdens funding for the extra responsibilities involved.
Those who recall Fawlty Towers’ Basil Fawlty speculating that his wife might appear on Mastermind as “Sybil Fawlty, special subject the bleeding obvious” can guess Cllr Fleming’s response.
Speaking for the District Councils Network, the Sevenoaks DC leader did not mince his words: “We have zero confidence that funding will follow new functions, and that is borne out through history with multiple examples where government has passed on responsibility and talked about funding coming, but it hasn’t.”
He mutinously suggested that local government should “hold firm” and refuse to take on such new burdens “unless significant money is put in place”.
Councils are understandably suspicious of proposals in the resources and waste strategy - or indeed anywhere else - that could commit them to large and unquantifiable costs.
Cllr Fleming gave MPs the example that if council refuse collection vehicles had to be replaced with different models to deliver the strategy’s proposed free garden waste and weekly food collections the cost could be £150-250,000 per vehicle.
With around 300 English councils having collection fleets the costs start to look alarming.
If the government is serious about having all councils collect a consistent set of materials - let alone in consistently coloured receptacles - the costs could go yet higher.
And then there are the unintended - or at least unconsidered - consequences.
If the strategy’s proposed deposit return scheme were introduced for drinks cans and bottles, then every can and bottle returned to a shop to reclaim a deposit would be one less in a council’s kerbside collection.
While the ‘on the go’ option (mainly portable drinks containers) would be some threat to the viability of councils’ waste operations, the alternative proposed ‘all-in’ version could be ruinous since it would include everything up to jeroboams of fine wines.
Lee Marshall, chief executive of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee, told MPs: “An all-in system would cannibalise our kerbside system”, and said modelling suggested a cost to English councils of £44m.
These proceedings showed up the problem with the resources and waste strategy.
While there is a wide support for its aim of increasing recycling there is a lurking fear that ministers have given too little attention to how different parts of it might conflict, and an even greater suspicion that the costs will – whatever the government says – somehow fall squarely on councils.
Mark Smulian, contributor