Waste collection outsourcing causing collection complaint issues

A report by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has revealed that 81 per cent of waste and recycling collection complaints last year were upheld, a sharp rise from the previous year’s 59 per cent

Missed bin collections are among the most common complaints
The ‘Lifting the lid on bin complaints’ report suggested that this rise could be explained by around 40 per cent of 140 local authorities in England now choosing to outsource their waste collections.

More local authorities are now choosing to reduce bin collections to fortnightly or even every three weeks due to budget challenges. Complaints to the Ombudsman show a trend that often the reduced frequency collections are in addition to a commercialisation of services, leading, the report says, to councils failing to have sufficient oversight of their contractors.

“I recognise we only investigate a small fraction of collections,” said Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman. “Councils in England manage more than 26 million tonnes of waste a year. Many thousands of bins are collected successfully every day in England, and most people receive a seamless service. We only see the tip of the iceberg, but the complaints we investigate tell the story of real public experiences behind the statistics. When things do go wrong, it’s how councils put them right that matters.”

Complaints include instances of repeated missed collections, compounded by the infrequency of collections, in some cases alongside poor complaint handling and monitoring of reported issues.

One example given in the report involved a man receiving assisted collections repeatedly failing to have his bin returned to the correct place for five months. The council assured him that this would be amended, but the problem continued for a further five months. When investigated, the council was unable to provide any evidence to show it taken meaningful action.  

Although missed collections are to be expected, the report puts emphasis on council improvements to meet the realistic expectation of residents that effective action will be taken in response to reports of missed collections. It also highlights that it is important that the council remembers it retains responsibility for the waste collection service, even if outsourced to a commercial contractor.

King added: “Councils can contract out their waste services, but they cannot wash their hands of it. They are responsible and accountable for delivering those services, and for putting things right when they go wrong. Outsources should not mean out of touch.”

Standardised, formulaic responses that fail to acknowledge individual circumstances caused increased frustrations, especially in cases where people had paid extra for a service only to have it not run smoothly. The report aims to help improve council complaint handling and waste services by providing suggestions for changes going forward.

From the investigations the Ombudsman has developed some good practice points for councils, including calls for increased quality of communication both in advertising changes in bin collections to residents, as well as providing considered responses to complaints, rather than handling all with the same stock response.

If someone has a problem with their waste and recycling service, they should:

  • Report the issue to the council as soon as possible.
  • If the problem is not rectifies in a reasonable period of time, make an initial complaint, either to the contractor or to the council depending on their process.
  • If you are still dissatisfied, escalate your complaint to management with the operator or council.
  • Complain to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman if the problem is still not rectified.

The ‘Lifting the lid on bin complaints’ report can be read and downloaded on the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s website.