Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Bin Collections and Central Government Over Reach

Thankfully the Government has today been forced into (yet another) climb down on a poorly thought out policy: forcing local governments to collect bins weekly.

The government has admitted it cannot force councils in England to provide weekly bin collections.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles had hoped to include the measure in a new waste strategy but it was watered down following a row with officials at Defra, the BBC understands.

The strategy says collections should happen "more frequently" but it is up to councils to offer "local solutions".

Labour branded the move a "personal humiliation" for Mr Pickles.

But Mr Pickles insisted the strategy would provide better value for money for householders.

He said: "Families pay £120 a month in council tax. Both Whitehall and the town hall need to raise their game to deliver more frequent and better rubbish and recycling collections in return."

Downing Street said the government understood that "people have a reasonable expectation that their bins are collected on a weekly basis" but although ministers "had a view" about the frequency of collections "ultimately councils are accountable to their local electorate".
This mundane topic (if one that touches lives pretty closely and thus can get quite emotive) shows up several worrying issues.

1) The Centralisation Of Power

The arrogance of the Coalition Government in believing that it could mandate across the whole country how local authorities deal with an issue that is their responsibility shows just how tenuous local government powers are and how our hodge-podge unwritten constitution allows governments to take advantage of their powers over other authories.

Solution: we need to strengthen the push for localism. But even more important than that, we need to bring in constitutional changes (even, dare I say it, a written constitution) to clearly delineate powers.

2) The Disconnect Between The Tory National And Local Parties. 

I've been hearing rumours of Tory local organisations struggling recently, so perhaps this is a symptom of that, but the Tories ran in 2010 with the policy of bringing in weekly bin collections. Yet no one locally seems to have gotten the message. Our local, Tory-run authority here in  Shepway has just stopped weekly recycling collections, general rubbish collections were already fortnightly. They can't have got the memo.

Solution: I'm not a Tory so don't really care. But in a top-down party like the Tories it just seems strange.

3) The Disconnect Between Local Voters And Local Authorities

I think if you ask the man on the street, weekly bin collections will be a broadly popular policy.  But the weakness of local government means few vote on local issues when electing their councillors. This means that though people will grumble about the issue, few will do anything useful (like elect someone other than the party they support nationally at that moment in time) about it. There will be no discussion of how it could be funded nor discussion of how it could be implemented. Few councils will do anything more than a puff piece in their propaganda newspaper or leaflet about how effective their fortnightly collections are.

Solution: Clearly delineate powers to local authority (such as through a written constitution in a federal UK). By doing this and making local authorities more powerful we might instigate interest and oversight from the local electorate with regards to their local council's decisions. It'd be better than getting stuck in a country where local councils can get away with  things like this.

I've got no particularly axe to grind on this issue, I'm not much moved by arguments for or against weekly collections. I'm happy as long as the service is delivered efficiently. But I have growing concerns over the weakness of our local governments and on the lack of democracy and oversight on a local level.

If you feel benevolent and particularly generous, this writer always appreciates things bought for him from his wishlist

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