DCLG and Defra warn of ‘backdoor’ bin charges

student flats

Ministers from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) have written to local authority chief executives urging them to refrain from applying ‘backdoor bin charges’ to students in self-catering accommodation. 

In a letter to local authorities, Parliamentary Under Secretaries for Defra and DCLG, Lord de Mauley and Brandon Lewis MP, warned that placing the cost of waste collection onto landlords, and subsequently onto students, to try and raise incomes ‘is likely to harm the environment, by creating an incentive for fly-tipping and backyard burning’.

The letter was prompted after an increasing number of local authorities wrote to student accommodation landlords, saying that free domestic waste collections will cease and commercial arrangements, requiring a charge, will be put in place.

According to the letter, dated today (29 July), local authorities are erroneously applying the description in the Controlled Waste (England and Wales) Regulations 2012 of ‘domestic property used in the course of a business for the provision of self-catering accommodation’ to waste from businesses that provide self-catering accommodation to students. This, the letter claims, was ‘never government’s intention’. 

Continued practice could result in ‘legal challenge’ 

The letter reads: ‘We gave local authorities powers through the 2012 Regulations to charge for the collection and disposal of waste from a wider range of non-domestic premises than before, so that local authorities and their residents are no longer obliged to subsidise the waste management costs of local businesses in all cases. Using the Regulations to charge for the collection and disposal of waste from privately owned student accommodation blocks would be to go against our intentions. Our intention was to permit charging in cases of the provision of accommodation for individuals whose sole or main residence is elsewhere. 

‘We are writing to provide clear guidance that such charges should not be made.’

The signatories went on to say that if charges relating to self-catering student accommodation continue to be made, they would consider amending ‘secondary legislation to ensure that this practice is stopped’. Further, government said that any local authorities that continue to charge may also be liable to legal challenge, investigation by the Local Government Ombudsman and/or a formal complaint to the local auditor for ‘ultra vires charging’. However the signatories added that they hoped such a step would not be necessary. 

‘Instead, we should seek to work constructively to promote recycling and responsible waste management by student households’, they concluded. 

‘Sneaky councils’ using students as ‘revenue generator’ 

Speaking of the letter, DCLG’s Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, said: “Sneaky councils attempting to make a quick buck by charging landlords of hard-up students for their bin collection is the worst form of short-term thinking. The subsequent increase in fly-tipping and backyard burning could cost them more in the long run and undermine community relations. 

“Instead of using students as a revenue generator, local authorities should be working with them to improve recycling rates and building community cohesion.” 

Lord de Mauley added: “These councils need to think again. I would ask them to work with students, communities and each other to reduce waste and encourage more recycling. 

“Councils run the risk of fly-tipping and illegal dumping, not to mention large clean-up costs which could cost them more in the long run.”

‘It's not surprising

Speaking to Resource, however, a local authority insider said: "It's not really surprising that councils are looking at every aspect of their services in the current climate to see where they can legally cut costs. If ministers keep voting in cabinet for big cuts in council funding, what do they think is going to happen? Ironically, student areas have often been difficult to engage in recycling schemes but the current government have seen fit to take away some of the tougher measures to get people recycling." 

The Local Government Association (LGA) have also voiced their confusion over the letter, with Councillor Clyde Loakes, Vice chair of the LGA’s Environment and Housing Board, saying: “Local authorities want to do the right thing but are currently a little confused. Just last year government laid out new regulations which enabled councils to introduce commercial waste charges for these sorts of businesses because they do not pay business rates or council tax. Clearly their bins have to be collected. And the collection services have to be paid for, either by the businesses themselves or by council tax payers.

"Councils are trying to do what is right by our residents, but if government is now saying that its own regulations are not in line with their policy then they need to make this explicitly clear by revising the regulations and removing the scope for confusion. It’s untrue and unfair to say that councils are imposing back door bin taxes. The real issue for councils right now is the £600 million a year they have to pay to government in landfill tax charges. This is despite councils reducing the amount we send to landfill by half over the last decade. 

“We would ask the government to focus on the big picture and help ease the burden on cash strapped householders by joining with councils to petition the Chancellor to cap the rises in landfill taxes. Additionally we believe that the money raised from landfill tax should be returned directly to councils and reinvested in new recycling facilities to create jobs and make sure we can capture economic benefit from a growing waste sector.” 

DCLG has been vocal in the way it thinks local authorities should handle waste management charges and fines, with Pickles recently announcing that government will seek to abolish ‘heavy handed bin fines’ through the new Deregulation Bill.

The DCLG and Defra have previously issued a joint letter to local authorities to prevent them charging residents for bin bags

Read the letter to local authority chief executives.