I am taking the unusual step of adding to this rarely used site, since Twitter’s 140 characters have defeated me. It’s the first time I have put ink to paper (so to speak) since ceasing to be a St Edmundsbury (SEBC) borough councillor, and so I do so with some caution.
It was via a Bury Free Press tweet that I learned of the council’s plans to consider an annual charge for emptying brown bins. My immediate reaction was mild outrage: after about 12 years of fortnightly collections, the notion of paying £35-50 per year just seemed a retrograde step. (NB It’s only the lower limit that has been widely quoted, since SEBC’s own release said “around £35” – getting worried?). I am lucky that I can afford to pay this, so the issue for me becomes one of principle. However, some would find the cost a burden, and those same people might well not have access to their local waste recycling centre.
I have read the council’s cabinet paper, explaining why the service will cost the two West Suffolk councils £500,000 a year, because of various changes in funding and other factors. To be honest, as a non-waste expert I found it somewhat esoteric, but its conclusions were clear: maintain a free service but find the cost elsewhere; scrap the service; or make a charge. It recommends the latter, along with a ban on the inclusion of non-meat food waste in brown bins.
I don’t think this ‘decision’ necessarily makes sense given some of the report’s own findings. It warns that there is a “high risk”, both of organic waste being put in black bins (which would add to costs) and of the charge being considered “inequitable” and branded a “stealth tax”. Furthermore, it accepts that a free service “maximises” composting and minimises disposal of garden waste.
But there are other arguments or concerns. How exactly will the service be organised and administered when collections are no longer universal – won’t this be very complex? What if only a minority take up the charged service; and how many households have to subscribe for it to remain at the estimated level? Surely if only a small minority pay, then it could cost the council even more, which would have to be absorbed in an increased charge, further savings or complete disbandment of the service.
Since tweeting about this issue it has been pointed out to me that charging may encourage back garden bonfires, with all the pollution that these can cause. An increase in fly-tipping has also been cited as a possible consequence of this policy.
The report mentions ways in which the charge can be mitigated, notably by composting. That may be viable in a large garden, but not in a modest one like mine – which nevertheless produces enough for the brown bin to be emptied on almost every collection. Sharing a bin with neighbours has also been suggested. I like my neighbours and am lucky to have them, but I want to keep it that way please!
I have on Twitter suggested that the ward locality budget for each SEBC councillor would in total meet nearly half of SEBC’s share of the estimated cost. (That scheme only started last year, and in my opinion does not always amount to money well spent nor aimed at a wide enough section of the borough’s population.) This is only one example of possible funding. Both West Suffolk councils have made very effective savings year on year, but do not seem keen on absorbing this particular amount. Certainly there are no savings options outlined in the report.
Does any of this matter? I think it does, if only because most voters will not digest nor accept the reasons why the councils face this situation, and may therefore perceive a charge for, or withdrawal of, brown bins wholly negatively. It is possible that this resentment may even surface at the 2019 elections, after the council tax bill that arrives in April includes an extra £50. Charging could also be seen as a green light for introducing charges for other services that have previously been subsidised – blue bins next?
I am not in principle against charging for what only some residents use (far from it), but the use of the brown bin service must rank among the most used of all council services other than the black and blue ones. It is part of the household waste collection service, something that all council tax payers benefit from – some would say it’s the only thing!