Law does not prevent HWRCs reopening, says government

The government has stated that there is ‘no reason in law’ why Household Waste Recycling Centres (HWRCs) shouldn’t be open and has yet again urged local authorities to reopen sites, issuing guidance on how to do so safely during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The guidance released yesterday (5 May) by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) sets out the rationale for reopening HWRCs while Covid-19 lockdown measures remain in place – some 98 per cent of local authorities have closed their HWRCs since the pandemic began.

Law does not prevent HWRCs reopening, says governmentWith reports of a 300 per cent increase in fly-tipping, the government has reminded local authorities that they are ‘legally obliged’ to provide places for residents to take their waste. With residents staying at home, greater than usual amounts of waste are being produced, some of which is not able to be stored safely, according to the government.

Citing the Coronavirus Act (2020), the government has stated that a journey to an HWRC would be ‘reasonable’ – therefore not ‘non-essential’ – if extra waste or recycling generated could ‘not be stored on their property without causing a risk of injury, health or harm to the resident or other members of their household or harm to public health and amenity’.

The government adds that although local authorities may consider journeys to HWRCs as unjustifiable alongside ‘stay at home’ advice, the law ‘does not require HWRCs to close’.

While the government is advising local authorities to reopen HWRCs, it stresses that it is ‘not setting a date by which HWRCs should be open’ and that ‘the key principle of this guidance is that human health must be protected, while maintaining safe systems of working’.

The guidance identifies the social distancing and hygiene measures that should be implemented to ensure health and safety on site, including two-metre distancing between individuals on site, disabling alternate parking bays, introducing markings to enable a two-metre distance between people, regularly washing hands with warm soapy water and self-isolating if staff members display Covid-19 symptoms.

If social distancing and other measures cannot be implemented to guarantee safe operation of the site or if there are insufficient staff then it is ‘legitimate’ for HWRCs to remain closed.

The guidance adds that it is ‘for local authorities to determine what measures are needed to safely operate a particular site’, including what materials can be safely accepted and stored. A group of local authority networks released guidance on Monday (4 May) on measures that would need to be in place before HWRCs could be reopened.

While the police should be consulted on reopening HWRCs, the government says that they will not be able to assess what is or is not a legitimate trip to an HWRC and will not be able to assist in determining so – though it is not expected that HWRC staff should be able to determine so either.

Maintaining waste services ‘top priority’

Councils have come under increasing pressure to reopen HWRCs, with Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick last week stating that councils would be asked to “plan the organised opening” of HWRCs in the coming weeks. This followed Defra’s call on 14 April for local authorities to reopen their HWRCs to allow people to dispose of their bulky waste and reduce fly-tipping.

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said: “Maintaining crucial waste services while protecting public health remains a top priority during these unprecedented times, and I commend our councils on the superbly efficient job they are doing in keeping waste collection services running.

“We are publishing this guidance to help local authorities re-open their recycling centres over the coming days and weeks. This will ensure that more waste can be properly disposed of and we avoid the likelihood of fly-tipping.”

Cllr David Renard, Environment spokesman for the Local Government Association (LGA), said:
“Councils are keen to open household waste and recycling centres as soon as practicable. The decision to re-open sites will be taken by individual councils based on risk assessments in their area.

“This will be a gradual process over the next few weeks and based on whether they have enough staff, social distancing measures are in place to protect workers and members of the public and waste staff are given personal protective equipment to reduce the risk of infection and provide reassurance.

“Councils will introduce measures to keep staff and customers safe, for example by managing visits through pre-booked time slots.

“People should only travel to re-opened HWRCs if it is essential – if their waste is posing a risk to their health, the local environment, or a risk of injury. They should always check with their local council that their waste and recycling centre has reopened before driving there.”

You can view the government’s advice on reopening HWRCs on the government website.

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