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Green waste row set to turn Birmingham council elections into gardeners’ question time

Green waste row set to turn Birmingham council elections into gardeners’ question time

🕔19.May 2014

There are many problems facing Birmingham City Council. A cuts package that could run to £700 million, an inadequate children’s social care department, and the Trojan Horse allegations about militant Muslim infiltration of schools, to name but a few local difficulties.

But ask any prospective councillor during the run-up to this week’s civic elections about the big issue on the doorsteps, and there is only one answer: rubbish, and the council’s failure to collect it.

The imposition from February of a £35 annual fee on households requiring the council to continue to collect and dispose of their garden waste did not warrant much in the way of headlines when pushed through as part of the controlling Labour group’s 2012-13 budget.

The charge was approved in the small print of a hugely controversial proposal to replace Birmingham’s plastic sack refuse collection service with wheelie bins. Massive political opposition focused on the bins, while charging for collecting garden waste, although annoying, did not at first attract too much in the way of comment.

But this is something that has bubbled away in the background and now, just as grass, trees and hedgerows burst into life, the garden waste issue has exploded in the faces of council leaders.

All politics is local, and you can’t get much more local than rubbish collection. This is what councils are expected to do. A need to pick up rubbish and clean the streets of the great Victorian cities like Birmingham were formative issues that led to the establishment of councils in the 1880s.

Birmingham’s gardeners are in a state of revolt. Only ten per cent of householders have signed up for the £35 fee, mini-mountains of garden rubbish are being dumped on pavements and verges, and the council was  forced into an embarrassing U-turn by paying binmen overtime a few days before the election to carry out an emergency cleaning of the streets, further infuriating people who have paid their £35.

Conservative and Liberal Democrat candidates, who had feared something of a drubbing at the polls on May 22, can hardly believe their luck. There has been no question about what to put on election leaflets – lots of pictures showing mountains of rubbish, and a pledge to rescind Labour’s garden waste tax.

Cllr Robert Alden

One seasoned Labour councillor, a veteran of many elections, told me he had not witnessed anything quite like it. “There are a few wards where it’s not mentioned much, but in many places it is a big issue. The atmosphere on the doorsteps is toxic. People are furious about the garden waste charge and there’s no doubt who they blame.

“Some of my colleagues have almost been in tears after canvassing. They fear a backlash at the polls, especially those standing in wards where Victorian and Edwardian terraced houses typically have large gardens.”

To make matters even worse for Labour, The Tories and Lib Dems don’t actually have any chance of regaining control of the council at these elections. Mathematically, they cannot succeed. Labour’s majority is too large. But that hasn’t prevented a proliferation of Tory and Lib Dem leaflets pledging to scrap the garden tax.

Lib Dem MP John Hemming

It seems unlikely that anyone in Labour’s high command bothered to carry out a risk analysis into the proposal to ask people to pay for a service hitherto provided free. The fee, £35, no doubt appeared trivial to the party’s largely middle class councillor contingent.

But had any work been conducted setting out issues of concern, the main points might have been:

Collecting rubbish is a basic council duty. Most people expect, rightly or wrongly, that this service will be provided at no additional cost, particularly when they are already paying £1,000 a year in council tax. It will be difficult for the council to make the case for treating garden waste differently to household rubbish, which is still to be collected free of charge.
– This is different to most other council cuts in that the vast majority of Birmingham’s, 400,000 households, have a garden of some sort. Typically, the city’s rows of terraced 1920s and 1930s housing have larger gardens than modern day housing, and many of the occupants do not have cars and are therefore unlikely to take waste themselves to civic refuse tips.
Charging for garden waste collection will only work if most people agree to pay. Customer resistance is likely to result in widespread fly-tipping, which may cause financial and presentational problems. Pictures of rubbish-strewn streets could damage Birmingham’s image, while there may be significant additional costs involved in picking up the illegally dumped waste. Also, green waste recycling rates are likely to fall, which will in turn mean a cut in Government grant.
Can we be certain that our tips can cope with thousands of additional journeys from householders disposing of garden waste? Most of these journeys will occur at weekends, and long queues can be expected at the entrances to the tips.
Council elections are held in May, at the peak of the garden growing season. So, if there is to be resistance to the £35 charge, the backlash will be amplified at this time.

It seems clear now that the saving to the council of levying a £35 charge – about £2.5 million – is simply not worth the political flak that the decision is causing. The stock line given to Labour candidates, and repeated often enough by council leader Sir Albert Bore and cabinet member James McKay, is that the charge has been forced on to the city by Government spending cuts, and that other councils charge even more for collecting garden waste.

But this piece of spin is not working. Most households in Birmingham simply won’t believe that the new charge has anything to do with the Government, and as far as other councils are concerned, who gives a damn what they do or do not do? As it happens, about two-thirds of councils continue to offer a free garden waste service.

While it is impossible to be certain exactly how an issue such as this will play out on polling day, what can be said is that a number of seats Labour expect to win, or to hold, are at the centre of the garden tax row.

Keep an eye on wards such as Harborne, Bournville and Moseley, where Labour’s hopes of winning were until a few weeks ago quite high, and King’s Norton, where cabinet member Steve Bedser is defending a slender majority.

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