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Dale’s Diary: Rubbish statistics, and Labour trims bins privatisation plan

Dale’s Diary: Rubbish statistics, and Labour trims bins privatisation plan

🕔07.Mar 2016

John Clancy’s pledge to turn Birmingham city council into an open data authority has triggered a mini-explosion in requests for statistical information from opposition Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors.

And given that most of the questions submitted are on the subject of, you guessed it, rubbish, the council leader may be beginning to regret being quite so open.

The refuse collection service is appalling. We know that because the cabinet member responsible for bins, Lisa Trickett, said so, although she followed up by insisting missed collections and issues with wheelie bins were nothing whatever to do with the hard-working bin men who were doing their best in trying circumstances.

It’s more a matter, apparently, of bumbling council bureaucrats ordering the wrong type of lorries, or failing in the past to embrace new technology, and permitting Birmingham’s four fleet and waste depots to behave independently and pretty much with no corporate managerial control.

Meanwhile, in a little-noticed change of wording, Clancy’s Labour administration appears to have rowed back slightly from the contentious suggestion that the council’s waste collection services be privatised to save £17.6 million.

It was proposed in the draft 2016-17 budget booklet to “consider outsourcing the street cleansing and waste and refuse collection services”. The budget booklet finally approved by the council on March 1 still promises to save £17.6 million but contains a subtle change of wording, which fails to mention “outsourcing” and talks instead about “considering potential market testing” as part of a post-2019 contract for street cleaning and refuse collection services.

Market testing, literally looking at what the market has to offer and comparing against in-house provision, is a step councils take before moving towards outsourcing (privatisation) and Birmingham has market tested street cleaning and refuse collection as recently as 2012, but the previous council leader Sir Albert Bore took the matter no farther.

This month’s full council meeting saw a record number of written questions from members seeking information, a total of 53. Many of these were asking about refuse collection, street cleaning and fly-tipping. It would take a clever statistician, however, to crunch the data and work out exactly what is happening out there on the streets.

In the past, before the Clancy era which began on December 1 2015, councillors wishing to know, for example, the number of dustcarts that had broken down would have been rebuffed and told either it was all too difficult to collate such information or that the figures did not exist.

Now, amazingly, statistics are flying out of the Council House at the speed of light and we learn that there were 332 recorded breakdowns in 2014 and 325 in 2015.

Meanwhile, the clean-up Birmingham campaign waged with gusto by the three political parties, is certainly giving additional work to the environmental health division. Almost 3,500 incidents of fly-tipping were reported during a single month, February.

As far as catching and prosecuting the litterers is concerned, the story is rather mixed.

Much of the fly-tipping, it is claimed, is not by householders but by businesses that are unwilling to pay to have their rubbish collected. Almost 400 investigations into suspected offences were mounted by the council last year, but only 162 fines were issued, and only 27 per cent of commercial operators have actually paid the £300 fixed penalty notices issued to them.

The overtime bill for Fleet and Waste between November 2015 and February 2016 totalled £437,000, which sounds a lot but is in fact only 1.5 per cent of the annual £29 million wage bill. Yes, Birmingham spends £29 million a year paying the wages of workers in the refuse collection, recycling collection and street cleaning sections.

Conservative councillors have been particularly keen to compare the performance of the four depots, and there appear to be some odd anomalies. Montague Street depot has significantly fewer staff and refuse and recycling wagons than the others.

Poor old Montague Street gets by with 69 refuse collection staff while there are 130 at Lifford Lane, 149 at Perry Barr and 173 at Redfern Road. This begs the question why it is necessary to have four depots when one is far smaller than the others? There are no answers, yet.

Cllr Clancy, who kicked off the rubbish revolution, is known to be amenable to radical new ideas. However, he took a traditional stance when asked by Tory councillor Lyn Collin whether, since the refuse service is not fit for purpose, residents would get a council tax refund.

Clancy replied:

The council tax only partially funds our services and is not directly attributable to a specific service and therefore there will not be a refund.

That’s a no, then.

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