Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas

To all my constituents, council colleagues (of whatever political hue) and particularly to all those who are working over the holidays to keep us safe and keep the infrastructure running - my best wishes for a happy Christmas and a wonderful New Year.

Wheelie Bins?

You may be aware that Eric Pickles offered a £250 million fund open to competitive bids from local authorities, ostensibly to help councils restore weekly bin collections - which Eric believes are a basic human right. The fact that best estimates suggest that it would cost something over £500 million to restore weekly collections may explain why only a single council actually bid to do that - Blackpool. Other local authorities have either used the cash offer to "protect" weekly rounds or to add something else to existing fortnightly collections. Birmingham submitted a bid for £29.5 million of that fund, that will increase the frequency of recycling collections for the quarter of the city that recycles the most, expand the rewards scheme, modernise our collection fleet and bring wheeled bins to about 90% of homes in the city. Although 40 bids were turned down, we had a bid sufficiently good enough to be allocated full funding as it delivered across the board exactly what the government wanted - Birmingham's bid received high praise for this. This will cover the capital costs of the service transformation. 

We've committed to consulting with residents as to how the scheme is introduced and to trialling it in two wards, to ensuring that it isn't a 'one size fits all' offer, so that where wheeled bins are entirely inappropriate, they will not be used. Assisted collections will be maintained, so that people who currently get help with handling their bin bags will get help with their wheeled bins (every round has a list of them, usually with a few more that the crews know about as well). Waste disposal has always been changing. BBC Four have had a couple of excellent programmes on recently about how we've dealt with rubbish, from the days when the old metal dustbins really did only contain dust, as food waste was put into bins for pig swill, through the expansion of rubbish as the economy recovered post-war and consumerism took hold, right through to the arrival of the black bag and their replacement by wheeled bins. 

I happen to believe that this will be good for Birmingham for a number of reasons, so I was disappointed to see the Liberal Democrat motion at the last council meeting, even more disappointed at the speeches and then at the call-in to scrutiny committee from the Tories last week. From the sound of it, you would believe that the 80% of authorities (including Solihull, Walsall, Sandwell, Wolverhampton, Lichfield and Coventry) that use wheeled bins must have descended into some post-apocalyptic hell, where the few bins not blazing in the street are being used to help burglars enter your home. Still, given their current rate of electoral descent, you aren't surprised at seeing the Liberal Democrats leaping aboard any bandwagon that trundles past. Their reports don't match the reality of anywhere I've ever lived or been that has these bins. Indeed, on a fact finding expedition into the dystopia that must be Solihull since wheeled bins were introduced back in 2009, I didn't have to negotiate rows of aflame bins or dodge hordes of burglars leaping down from conveniently placed chunks of moulded plastic. Friends living outside Birmingham's borders confirm that my experience is not unusual.

Yes, some people will set some bins on fire - West Midlands Fire Service currently attend ten fires a day involving rubbish. Yes, some will be used to facilitate entry to properties by thieves - who currently manage it anyway. I note in passing that one police team in wheelie-bin infested Solihull have just reported that they've managed a whole month without a burglary from a property being reported.

Will they obstruct the streets? Their physical footprint is very similar to the recycling boxes that are currently used, so if left out they will offer the same level of obstruction. Visually, they are more intrusive, but shouldn't we balance that against the wider public good of increased recyling?

Their objections entirely fail to address the funding gap. We know that by the end of the decade, if we do anothing, we will face an £8 million gap in the finances of this service alone. We currently spend £1 million a year on bin bags - and residents add to that with the bags they buy themselves. If anyone tells you that they want to retain bin bags - as the Yardley Liberal Democrats decided a couple of weeks back - then they also need to tell you what other service should be axed to pay for it, as we face a bleak funding future from a brutal and uncaring Tory/Liberal Democrat government. I'd rather see us spend that £8 million on services for those most in need than on continuing a failing system. Currently, we spend about £75 per household on bin collection - this will cut that cost to under £40 per property. 

I've praised the work that was done to improve recycling in Birmingham over the past decade - including that by the last administration - but we can't rest on our laurels. We send very little to landfill, largely because we send it to Tyseley to be burnt to generate electricity. We currently have a waste system not fit for the future - an elderly fleet of vehicles, with breakdowns causing missed collections. Our streets are strewn with rubbish, feeding a growing population of rats, all because of ripped bags spilling their contents onto the highway. Rubbish collection is our most visible service and the £29.5 million from the government allows us to invest in it and turn it round. 

Contrary to some views, this isn't a hasty decision. Way back in 2007, a council review suggested using smaller wheeled bins for weekly residual collections and noted that giving residents a 140 litre wheeled bin for recycling would “considerably increase capacity.” Indeed, the report proposed constituency-level pilot programmes, but failed to actually put any money into them. The new plans envisage a standard 240 litre wheeled bin for recycling – an even greater opportunity for improving volume, especially when allied to the incentive scheme and weekly recycling collections for a quarter of the city. We have learnt from the 80% of councils that collect from wheeled bins – their experience is that these are safer for our workforce, they increase the volume of recycling, they are cheaper to operate and they help keep the streets cleaner. 

The same report raised two objections to wheeled bins - one of the capital expenditure, which this bid will resolve - and one of the potential for them to increase the volume of waste disposed of. There is mixed evidence on this latter issue. Bear in mind that bins were originally launched some 30 years ago when the idea of a doorstep recycling provision was only a glint in the eye of the most determined tree-hugger. Bins were designed to handle volumes of residual waste and nothing else. There is evidence that the larger bins encourage more waste to be put into them - but there is also a slight gain there, as there is also evidence that the amounts of rubbish taken to household waste sites declined as a result, so saving the carbon dioxide emissions of several cars making that trip. There is a degree of 'channel-shift' there, not just increased volume. 

Like many councils, Bristol initially issued the large 240 litre wheeled bins for residual waste (residual is the technical term for everything that isn't recycled - whatever you currently put into your black bags), but they have recently replaced them with smaller bins, to encourage residents to recycle more - something that early adopters of wheeled bins now recognise as a good move. When I appeared on BBC Radio WM, residents from other authorities were incredulous at the level of opposition from Birmingham residents to the very idea of wheeled bins and I'm convinced that if you come back in five or six years' time, nobody will be asking for a return to black bags.

A decade ago, the Health and Safety Executive produced a report on manual handling in waste collection, which came out quite clearly in favour of wheeled bins - although they do bring about new issues in terms of safe handling. Far too many of our bin crew members either leave service early through ill health or die soon after retirement - it is a tough and very physical job. Providing a bin will help prevent manual handling and sharps injuries, as well as helping to reduce the food for the rat population. Our people have a right to come to work in as safe an environment as we can make it - that isn't about being a health and safety fascist, it is about being human. When you have a worker off sick with stress for six months following a needle stick injury - to the point where his marriage broke up - don't we owe them the safest working environment possible?

In 2009, the Local Government Association, responding to a brief campaign by the Daily Mail, surveyed 28 local authorities to get a quick snapshot view and every one that responded said that introducing wheeled bins increased recycling. As Richard Kemp, then Liberal Democrat deputy chair of the LGA, said,
All the evidence shows that most people like their wheelie bins and think that they make it easier and cleaner to throw out the rubbish. People also find that wheelie bins help to reduce litter on the streets
Food waste was part of the initial proposal from the last administration, but once we actually got to bidding stage, the Department of Communities and Local Government's own advice indicated that a food waste collection was not a high priority for funding – indeed, a third of those applications failed to pass the Pickles test, including applications from Bolton and a £17 million bid from Leeds. Elsewhere, we have seen Nottinghamshire scrap their food waste collections because of costs, as did Pendle in 2011. Shropshire scrapped their separate collections - used to feed an anaerobic digester - back in 2010 in favour of a mixed green/food waste collection to supply in vessel composting. I still want us to explore food waste recycling, but it has to cost in and we need to build the platform that allows us to go down this path. There is no doubt at all that wheeled bins and increasing the capacity for mixed recyclates will improve our recycling rates faster and more sustainably than food waste. That has great potential, but advocates of food waste collections now miss the point that it needs huge investment in education and massive behavioural change to achieve the figures that they have suggested. 

The other practical issue is that a weekly food waste collection would actually remove the need for a weekly residuals (black bag) collection - indeed, if you look at the two year WRAP study on food waste collections, the collection model with the lowest drop off in participation is exactly that model. The graph to the left shows a clear bias towards alternate week collections - note how the red stars are higher and further to the right, indicating both higher participation rates and higher volumes per household for alternate week collections. On that basis alone, I'm very surprised that any food waste collection schemes were approved, but that may be a matter of having to spend the money to avoid losing face. The DCLG were also quite firm that they wanted to see some public support for food waste schemes - either through specific consultation or even just through a manifesto commitment. As we know, neither the Tories nor the Liberal Democrats had the imagination to come up with a manifesto prior to May 2012, so they didn't even try to get over that hurdle. From what little we know of their scheme, I think it would really have struggled to get the funding required and would certainly not have won almost £30 million from the government. If we were already at an alternate week collection model, then we might have succeeded, but it is hard to see the economic justification for bringing in food waste collections and maintaining a weekly residual waste round - I'm not aware of any bids that offered that as an option. The Tory/Lib Dem bid would have failed on value for money terms.  

We found out in scrutiny committee on Friday that Cllr Tim Huxtable (Con) had taken it upon himself to discuss with government ministers whether they would be open to us reopening the bid to discuss changes - to reinsert the food waste scheme, for example. If Cllr Huxtable has such good contacts within the DCLG, then I think we'd be much happier if he could talk to them about not leaving Birmingham in the lurch by ripping away funding from a city with serious and broad needs. But he'd prefer to use his time to talk rubbish. 

To quote from experience elsewhere:
“The introduction of the wheeled bin service was a massive improvement to the bag and box format we had before. We wanted to give residents the chance to be able to recycle more and make it as easy as possible for them and it has been a huge success so far. It wasn't a one size fits all solution as we recognised many properties in the city didn't have enough space... so... we've adapted... some properties can have smaller bins, or can stick with the bag and box collection service. Since the introduction of the wheeled bins, the city has constantly exceeded recycling targets set by the government.”
That is from a Liberal Democrat councillor in Liverpool – a city with a very similar spread of housing to Birmingham and one where the council successfully collect from 90% of properties. 
Even a former Birmingham Liberal Democrat councillor and cabinet member wrote in August that if we won this bid, Cllr McKay and the Labour administration (actually, he also included me, but I can't take any credit) would have
“brilliantly outmanoeuvred every single council in the country and will brilliantly grab £28.5 million from a £250 million pot.”
Which we did.
Other parties seem determined to stand in the way of saving money, improving our waste collection service and delaying further development. Along the way, they would condemn the poorest in our city to further cuts to services. These bins will save money, protect our workforce from sharp objects and heavy lifting, keep our streets cleaner and make our city greener. Of course there will be problems and difficulties along the way - any change will bring challenges, but we will solve them. It is what Birmingham does. 

I accept change is difficult for many people, but even in these most challenging of times, shouldn't we try to make our city a better place to live?

At the last council meeting, we were treated to a Liberal Democrat led attack on Labour's plan to bring wheeled bins to Birmingham. This piece is based on a speech I hoped to deliver, before we were timed out without even a chance for Cllr McKay to respond to the attacks from the combined opposition forces. I've also modified it following last week's call in by the Tories of Cabinet's acceptance of the Pickles money.