Monday, 11 April 2011

Pickles talks rubbish

Rarely a weekend passes without Eric Pickles – the Conservative Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government – making a pronouncement about refuse collection. Pickles has even gone so far as to say that it is a ‘basic right’ for people to have their rubbish collected every week.

When I was young, most councils operated a ‘gold service’. Each week, the bin-man would come and find your dustbin from wherever you’d hidden it in the garden, take and empty it into the bin-lorry, and return the empty bin to its original location. Mind you, that didn’t stop lots of complaints that the bin hadn’t been returned to the precise location or that the lid was missing.

In the 1980s, three things happened to change all this.

First there was the concern about the environmental impact of landfill; there had been a dramatic growth in the amount of refuse and bigger and bigger holes were required to put it in – and some tips were leaking contaminants into land and water-courses.

Second, people became concerned about re-cycling. For the benefit of the environment and the economy, we needed to cut the amount of refuse. Some of this cut was to be achieved by recycling. A landfill tax has provided a big incentive to recycle and minimise waste.

Thirdly, as councils experienced the force of the Thatcher government’s cuts, they focused on the actual cost of collection. Neither the council nor the local ratepayer could afford the cost of the ‘gold service’. It was significantly cheaper to operate kerbside collections and that lead to the introduction of the wheelie-bin.

Those three pressures have continued to this day. Councils have found different ways of dealing with the issues, dependent upon their local circumstances. Most of Sheffield’s rubbish has been incinerated to provide heat and power for local homes, shops, offices and leisure centres. Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster are now busily exploring a similar scheme.

More than half the councils in the UK now operate either a two-weekly collection or an alternate week collection – recycling materials one week, general refuse the next – and some operate separate collections for garden materials. Given the cuts in council resources, it is inevitable that all councils will be considering further ways to cuts costs I refuse collection and disposal.

I like my weekly collection, but I have little time for Eric Pickles’ bluster on this issue. As the Daily Mail said this week “If Mr Pickles is unwilling to force councils to reinstate weekly collections — and he is not— he should not falsely raise people’s hopes."