blue bin bags

A wokyrubbish update: obstinancy, but also progress

Before I went up to Manchester for the Labour Party conference, I attended a meeting with Councillor Angus Ross, who after the May elections took over responsibility for the new waste collection scheme. As meetings go, bin bags aren’t the most exciting of schemes, but after over six months of debating them it was refreshing to be able to discuss it frankly and openly with the man in charge.

There were good and bad points to the meeting, but I was reassured that the purposes behind the scheme are sound, even if I think the details are a little misguided. The fact is that cutting down on the amount of waste going to landfill is a noble aim, both for reasons of avoiding the incurrence of extra cost to the council and for the sake of preserving the environment.

Equally, I was surprised to find good answers to my questions on the sorely limited range of materials which are able to be recycled. The council wants to be able to track the materials they send to be recycled, in order — presumably — to make sure they actually are being recycled. If waste is sent abroad, then tracking it is impossible.

I’d like to see more recycling, but it looks like that’s going to take wholesale investment in recycling as an industry, something which will need to happen at national rather than local level — and with George Osborne squatting on the Treasury and the economy like an anti-green tumour, I think it’s safe to say that won’t be happening soon.

But Wokingham Borough Council could increase the range of materials collected. Glass, for example, and Tetra Paks, which are able to be taken to static sites, but a door collection would be a great boost to take-up.

On the subject of the much-maligned bags, there was acceptance that the bags aren’t fit for purpose, without actually saying that. In fact, I was specifically told that Veolia had been directed to look into a new model of bag. So there’s a partial victory.

But there’s still a partial (at least) obstinacy on the part of the council administration, to accept that mistakes were made. I can understand Cllr Ross’ point that the consultation would naturally bring out a lot more of those against the scheme than those signing it’s praises, but it still seems a stretch when Cllr Ross claims:

I haven’t seen the breakdown yet, but inevitably a number of people who respond will have concerns and issues rather than the vast majority who are happy.

I’m not sure a vast majority is happy with it, from my canvassing in the May elections. In fact, I think the vast majority are quite unhappy.

Still, if the problems are addressed, then this will all have been successful. The results of the consultation  as well as a recommendations for changes, will be presented to the executive next month. I’d very much like to see a change of bags come out of that meeting, but we shall see what results come back. I don’t want to over-egg the positive murmurs just yet.

Deafening Criticism, Met by Deafening Silence

As the letters page of the Wokingham Times fills with criticism, and the council holds its silence, the scandal shows no signs of blowing over.

We are now at two weeks since Wokingham Borough Council’s new waste collection started to roll out across the borough. As blue bags and explanatory notes reached residents, the true meaning of the new scheme sank in. And they weren’t amused.

On Monday I blogged about how the council had issued no response to residents’ concerns, or to my accusations of illegality. Rebuttal was left to non-political local government officers, and even as The Wokingham Times picked up my line about it being a stealth tax, none of the council executive members mounted a response. Even the usually vocal Cllr Keith Baker has been conspicuous by his absence from the comment threads.

I knew that the letters page of this week’s Times would be dominated by it. I half wondered if it would be there that the council issued it’s response. But no. None of the letters about bins were signed by “Cllr” anybody. So I can’t issue a response to a council statement, because one hasn’t been made. What I can do, however, is give you a flavour of the letters sent in.

I’ll start with Mrs N Hamilton, who I strongly suspect is @NikiH7. She too requested a breakdown of the cost, and comments on the enormous overheads included in the fee:

“If you purchase several rolls at a time whilst there is only one cost to the council we are still charged as of each roll were delivered separately. Either the council or Veolia will profit if people do this. When I suggested that surely we could purchase from the council offices and not be charged for delivery, I was informed that this is not possible as they can’t monitor the distribution of bags to ensure they are not used for commercial waste but Veolia can.”

If you’re wondering what precisely Veolia can do to monitor usage that the council can’t, you’re not the only one.

Next we have Mrs AW, from Charvil:

“I today received my new blue bags for my rubbish. They are 3/4 the size of normal black rubbish bags, and two have broken simply trying to get them off the roll…It is not sufficient for a family of two. Imagine a family with two or three small children- they will use their allocation in a month or two.”

She finishes, tellingly, by saying:

“I am a taxpayer, I am paying the salaries of council officials who have not consulted me or any other taxpayer I know in WBC about how to solve the waste problem – instead diktats from the lofty council officials we cannot speak to because we now have Wokingham Direct. Value for money from WBC? I think not.”

Karen Barnard says:

“…the bags are smaller and thinner than black plastic bags bought from the supermarket, so they can’t be filled as much and are likely split very easily, meaning that the rubbish may need to be double bagged. WBC may claim that they haven’t increased the council tax, but I beg to disagree… I feat that many people will take to dumping their rubbish in a ditch. But I suppose the old saying is true after all – where there’s much, there’s brass. Its certainly true for WBC and the company contracted to collect the rubbish.”

Oddly (or perhaps not, since he’s listed as UKIP candidate for Norreys ward), Keith Knight reckons it’s all the EU’s fault:

“The main reason being is that landfill in the UK and Naples, along with the rest of the EU comes under the EU Landfill directive. All countries across the EU are expected to comply…no matter who is running our council, our council has no choice but to cut down on the amount of waste going to landfill or face EU fines.”

Which I don’t buy. If it’s purely the fault of the evil EU, then why aren’t other councils burdened with such ridiculous waste schemes? Cutting down on landfill is, I feel, a noble aim. The problem is this isn’t the way to do it. Rather than using charges to stealth tax residents, the council should aim to expand the range of materials that they recycle.

June Wilson agrees with me about the stealth tax:

“How dare the council say that there is a council tax freeze… As someone who pays £107 per month council tax, when I learned that the £60 for the wheelie bin is not a one-off payment but an annual fee I was outraged. This is 56 percent increase in the council tax of those who have an environmental conscience.”

I’ll finish with this from John Barnard, in Lower Earley. It did rather tickle me, and it sums up how I (and, it seems, many others) feel about the council and this policy:

“‘Yippee,’ said Noddy. ‘If we give everybody small flimsy rubbish bags, not only will everybody throw away a lot less rubbish, but most of the bags will break before they reach the lorry, so we only need one lorry instead of two.’

“‘D’oh!’ said Homer, ‘but where will all the real rubbish go?’

“‘It will be taken away by the fairies,’ said Noddy, with undisguised glee.”

Botching the Bins

The new bin bags of Wokingham's (possibly illegal) waste collection scheme, and a poll from the Wokingham Times showing how residents feel about it.

It’s unpopular, its possibly illegal, and it’s happening now! I am, of course, talking about Wokingham Borough’s new waste collection and disposal scheme, the rolling out of which has begun today.

The gist of the scheme is that households will be restricted to 80 bags of waste per year. These bags will be given out to residents, and waste in any other bags will not be collected. If more bags are needed, then residents will have to buy them at £0.40 each.

Today saw the first stage of distribution of the bags. Now, since these are rationed out amongst households, and more have to be paid for if needed, this means that the rolls of 80 bags going out today and throughout this month are worth £32 each. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that they were simply being left on doorsteps.

There has already been some discussion of a “blue bag black market” once this scheme is rolled out, so the council should be on top of this. There is so much potential for opportunistic theft here, as people look to amass a stock of bags to meet their own needs, and to sell any surplus for profit.  These bags represent £32 of council tax paid by each household- what the council are doing is the equivalent of giving you a £32 tax rebate and leaving it in cash, in an envelope taped to your front door.

This is shocking, but not terribly surprising. The whole scheme has been poorly thought out from the beginning, and potential problems with it have been raised from all sides, and been brushed off by the Conservative administration. What they are doing is introducing additional charges (“stealth taxes”, if you will) for services which were previously paid for by your council tax, in order to be able to shout about how your council tax isn’t going up (which, incidentally, if you live in Wargrave it is). They aren’t actually saving you money, they’re just charging you more on the sly.

Credit where it’s due, whoever operates the @WokinghamBC twitter account has been trying their best to field queries about this all day, and I had a particularly enlightening exchange with them (below) which explains what to do if your bags are stolen. But with a policy which was never popular, the council seem determined to scale new heights of criticism. The Wokingham Times article about it is brimming with unhappy commenters, and their online poll (pictured) shows just what residents feel of it.

My somewhat-helpful exchange of tweets with the council, about the distribution of the new blue bin bags.

For Remenham, Wargrave and Ruscombe (and other RG10 area) residents then, your blue bags will be delivered on FRIDAY 9TH MARCH. I’m not sure how much use knowing this will be, as it’s likely to be in the day and many residents will be at work, but you might want to make arrangements for someone to secure yours on your behalf. Other than that, I’m not sure what else can be done, but if you want to send an annoyed letter to your local councillor then maybe they’ll at least realise how riddled with holes this scheme is.

The truth is that this was a botched idea, a botched conception, and now a botched execution.

UPDATE: Fresh news on this fiasco this morning. The Wokingham Times are reporting that Paul Baveystock, the head of waste and recycling, has promised to replace all bags reported as stolen free of charge. This is a positive step, and frankly the only reasonable thing that the council could have done, but questions still remain.

Firstly, this has been a disaster. And not an unpredicted one. The council executive repeatedly ignored concerns raised over it, assuring everyone that these problems would not occur. Well, they have. And whilst I salute Mr Baveystock stepping in, what needs to happen is for Cllr Gary Cowan (executive member for environment) to stand account for these failures.

Secondly, the entire point on which this scheme was mooted was one of savings (though, in fact, expense was only shifted onto residents, through a stealth tax). If Mr Baveystock will replace all bags reported stolen free of charge, and has said:

“We take those reports at face value…”

then, whilst that is definitely the right thing to do, the scheme is opened up to fraud. How much will this cost the council? How will this affect the finances? And what other public services will have to be sacrificed to pay for Wokingham Borough Council’s ineptitude?