DCLG to crack down on ‘backdoor bin charges’

The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has told Resource that it is ‘exploring options’ to prevent local authorities in England from charging residents for disposing of household waste/recycling at household waste recycling centres (HWRCs).

Expected to take the form of a ban, the move will mean that all councils will have to provide residents with access to HWRCs and other civic amenity sites used for disposal of waste and recycling, for free.  

Speaking to Resource, Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis said: “There is already a legal requirement for councils to provide free civic amenity sites for household waste and recycling [in The Environment Protection Act 1990], and we are prepared to take further steps to stop the imposition of backdoor bin charging.

“We are very much opposed to councils charging their residents for such services and are exploring options. Charging just leads to flytipping and its detrimental impact on the environment, is bad for recycling and is unfair on households who have already paid council tax.”

Highlighting that local authorities are increasingly under pressure to make savings due to budget cuts, Lee Marshall, Chief Executive Officer of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC), told Resource that councils, not central government, were ‘best placed’ to make local decisions, adding: “If government is following its localism agenda, then local authorities should be left to make their own decisions.”

Norfolk decision to charge for HWRCs

The news comes just months after Lewis and Minister for Resource Management Dan Rogerson wrote to Norfolk County Council expressing concern over its proposals to charge residents £2 to use nine of the county’s recycling points from April 2015, as part of its efforts to reduce costs.

The Putting People First consultation, which first opened in September 2013, asked local residents their thoughts on the proposals that aim to plug a predicted £189 million gap in funding for services under the council’s budget for 2014-17 (the proposals put forward, however, only bridge the year one gap of £66 million).

But in March of this year, Rogerson and Lewis wrote to Councillor George Nobbs, Leader of Norfolk County Council, hinting that the decision was illegal, and asking for the council’s legal justification for the move.

The letter read: ‘It has been brought to our attention that Norfolk County Council is consulting on proposals for a £2 public charge at 9 of its 20 household waste and recycling centres (HWRCs) in a bid to cut costs.

‘It is our belief that this backdoor bin charge will both inconvenience local council tax paying residents and create perverse incentives. 

‘Charging for using recycling centres will increase the risk of fly-tipping, harming the local environment and diverting taxpayers’ money to clean up the mess.’

The ministers went on to outline that not only could the charge see residents putting some materials that are only collected for recycling at HWRCs (such as electrical waste) into residual waste bins, but it could also go against the law.

They write: ‘In terms of legislation, the Environmental Protection Act (Section 51) states that local authorities have a duty to provide sites for the deposit of household waste. Where such sites are provided in fulfilment of this duty, waste must be accepted free of charge. 

‘We are interested to hear how Norfolk County Council squares its charging proposals with the requirements of the Act… We firmly believe that Norfolk County Council’s proposal to charge for HWRCs provision runs against the interests of householders and government’s environmental concerns and suggest it seriously revisits its thinking.’

Councillor Nobbs responded stating that, as the council would still be allowing residents to use 11 other HWRCs for free, it was ‘confident [the move would] not affect our responsibilities in any way under the Environmental Protection Act 1990’.

DCLG increasingly interested in local waste services

This is the second time in recent months that the DCLG has hinted at amending legislation to require local authorities to provide certain waste services, after the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles voiced his wish to legislate for ‘minimum service standards’ for waste collections.

In March, Pickles told the Daily Mail that the DCLG is looking at how to amend the Household Waste Recycling Act 2003 to set down new ‘minimum standards’ that could make it 'more difficult' for local authorities to offer fortnightly collections.

He is quoted as saying: ‘That Act does give me the potential to lay minimum service standards down. It would make it more difficult to do fortnightly collections and set out the type of collection that had to be made weekly.

‘That’s something we are currently considering. It would be quite a big step. But I really feel strongly about it. The political classes have got out of touch on this.’

However, as yesterday’s (4 June) Queen’s Speech– which sets out the government’s proposed legislative programme for the year ahead –made no mention of government plans to prevent local authorities charging residents to use HWRCs or new ‘minimum standards’ for the frequency of waste collections, it seems unlikely that these plans would come into effect before the general election next year (if at all).