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Dale’s Diary: How Big Eric’s departure could smooth Birmingham’s path to fortnightly bin collections

Dale’s Diary: How Big Eric’s departure could smooth Birmingham’s path to fortnightly bin collections

🕔08.Sep 2015

Ministers aren’t exactly shouting this from the rooftops, but if Birmingham city council did want to go ahead with a widely rumoured plan to switch weekly household refuse collections to fortnightly in 2017, the Government wouldn’t mind at all.

The departure from office after the General Election of combative Communities Secretary Sir Eric Pickles means that Tory MPs no longer have to be quite so obsessed with rubbish, which one suspects is a relief to most of them.

Sir Eric, when he was plain old Mr Pickles, had quite a thing about dustbins. He would reportedly break out into a cold sweat at the thought of Labour councils saving money by shifting weekly collections to fortnightly.

For traditionalist Eric, the arrival each week of the dust cart represented part and parcel of the fabric of England – what he would describe as the epicentre of municipalism. After all, if town halls can’t pick up the rubbish in a timely fashion, what can they do?

He even persuaded the Treasury to give him a £250 million fund to persuade councils that had switched to collecting bins once every two weeks to see the error of their ways and return to weekly collections.

Sadly for Eric though, it’s hardly been a case of grateful local authorities queuing up for the cash. And it now seems that ministers are to abandon entirely the Pickles weekly bin collection pledge.

Eric’s successor as Secretary of State, Greg Clark, simply doesn’t have the same passion for rubbish.

There will be no new initiatives to bring back weekly pick-ups of domestic waste, despite the high-profile pledge made by the Conservatives to preserve the “basic right” of householders to have their rubbish collected each week.

With the Department for Communities and Local Government under pressure to find its share of a £20 billion spending cuts package, the fund is certain to be, ahem, binned.

Councils that did tap into the Pickles fund mostly spent the money on boosting recycling rather than reintroducing weekly collections for household waste. With more families deciding to recycle, there was far more room in bins for non-recyclable residual rubbish and councils discovered they didn’t require weekly collections after all.

This raises a fascinating question about the future of bin collections in Birmingham.

The Labour controlled city council received a £20 million DCLG grant in 2012 to help pay for a £30 million switch from refuse sacks to wheelie bins. Under the terms of the grant the council had to promise Eric it would continue with weekly household rubbish collections until 2017.

Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors have always claimed it’s an open secret among the Labour ranks that weekly collections will disappear in 2017. That eventuality seems far more likely now that the Government is more relaxed over the fortnightly issue.

Just five councils – out of the 85 that secured money from the Pickles fund  – were named a year ago by DCLG as having plans to return to weekly collections: Stoke-on-Trent city council; Manchester city council; Rochford district council; Canterbury city council and Great Yarmouth borough council, although some have since changed their minds.

Manchester has denied it ever had such plans, instead spending the money on improving existing waste collection services for residents.

Stoke-on-Trent ended its plans for a return to weekly collections last year after a feasibility study revealed it would cost around £34 million more than the council’s existing household waste and recycling scheme – far more than the grant it had been offered.

A spokeswoman said DCLG continues to support frequent bin collections.

The Government encourages councils to support the wishes of local people, many of whom believe every household in England has a basic right to have their rubbish taken away every week.

The Government continues to champion frequent and convenient bin collections which protect the environment and public health. We will also be working with local authorities to make recycling easier for people.

Peter Box, the environment spokesman for the Local Government Association, said:

There is no one size fits all solution to collecting bins. What works in an inner city suburb won’t necessarily work in the countryside. Decisions are best made at a local level, with councils working with residents to find the best solution for them.

We know this local approach works as our own polling shows almost 80 per cent of people are happy with the way their bins are collected and satisfaction rates are broadly the same regardless of whether people have weekly, or alternate weekly collections.

But he said collecting and disposing of waste and recycling had become the third highest cost service for councils and spending would have to significantly increase to meet EU recycling targets of 50 per cent.

The £250 million provided in the weekly bin collections fund would go a long way, Box said, to helping local authorities meet the future pressures on their waste collecting services.

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