Who's in charge?

The InsiderOn the whole, the UK doesn’t do too badly in the European Commission’s new ‘scorecard’ for municipal waste management performance, but I was especially surprised with its performance in the pay-as-you-throw (PAYT) category. Naively, I expected the UK to get a low score (or even a negative one for having a minister who has made steps to outlaw such an approach), but on a scale of 0-2, it scored 1 point. The scoring for the UK at the back of the report suggested that PAYT systems were in place regionally (news to me), and that there was 100 per cent coverage (just wrong). That doesn’t seem to describe the country I live in. 

Do you remember the fuss around the time of the 2007 Waste Strategy when Defra published a report highlighting the environmental and financial benefits generated by PAYT systems? The way was being paved for charging to come in, but it was hammered by the Daily Mail, the then political opposition (principally in the guise of an infamous duo, Eric Pickles and Caroline Spelman) and others. I even remember Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarty being quoted in the Mail to the effect that ‘spies in bins’ (RFID chips) constituted an infringement of personal liberty. Many people covered themselves in something that bore no resemblance to ‘glory’.

They say that you can’t keep a good man down. I’m not aware of any equivalent expression for clueless politicians, but Eric Pickles is continuing in his quest to force local authorities to offer the most expensive form of waste collection service. This, I needn’t remind you, is the bloke responsible for overseeing a reduction in local authority spending. 

In opposition, Pickles demonstrated a worryingly limited grasp of public finance as he repeatedly referred to systems charging households directly for their refuse collection as ‘bin taxes’. The Taxpayers’ Alliance seemed similarly ignorant of the difference between a charge and a tax. Imagine the equivalent argument around electricity use: that it would be better to have everyone pay for electricity through a local tax, completely unrelated to use, rather than having the electrical equivalent of a ‘spy in a bin’ – an electricity meter – to allow households to be charged according to the level of use.

Then, it was refuse. Now, it’s garden waste. Apparently, Mr Pickles has decided that garden waste collections should be free of charge. In February, he expressed disappointment at Derby City Council’s decision to charge for garden waste collections and said that other councils should ‘follow suit’ with Amber Valley, which had previously removed charges for garden waste.

This article was taken from Issue 71

A DCLG spokesman was quoted as saying: ‘Whilst councils can charge for discretionary services like garden waste, such charges are often unpopular with the public and can be counterproductive by reducing recycling.’

And Pickles’s chums at the Taxpayers’ Alliance were at it again. The political director waded in with the monumentally stupid statement: “One of the most basic services that people expect in return for their cash is for their rubbish to be collected. The news that some councils are charging extra for the collection of green waste is the thin end of the wedge for hard-pressed taxpayers.”

The rather obvious counterargument is that a free garden waste collection costs more to operate than a charged one. But, to spell it out to the Taxpayers’ Alliance and to Mr Pickles, here is the financial summary:

1. Free garden waste = more garden waste collected = more waste to be managed = higher service costs = higher level of Council Tax;
2. Charged garden waste = less garden waste collected = less waste to be managed = lower service cost + some costs offset by charges = lower level of Council Tax. 

The Taxpayers’ Alliance – the self-appointed voice of those who don’t want to pay more taxes – was basically arguing firmly in favour of higher Council Taxes. 

And as for Pickles, I can’t help but conjure up the image in my mind of this large man’s bulk exerting some gravitational pull that attracts daft ideas with the same ease that an apple falls from a tree. Is it credible for a minister to demand cuts from local authorities, and then berate them for saving money?