Bob Neill reveals thinking behind £250m weekly fund
12 March 2012
The thinking behind the £250 million Weekly Collection Support Scheme reflects the government’s localism policy agenda, Communities and Local Government minister Bob Neill has told letsrecycle.com.
The minister, who was a councillor in London for many years, said that fundamental to delivering localism are the government’s policies on housing support, planning and on waste and recycling. And, this has prompted the decision to create the £250 million fund.
Mr Neill declared that residents “do want to recycle” and that councils should act accordingly. “Local authorities generally are aware that their communities recognise both the need to recycle and the importance of achieving positive environmental outcomes.”
Arguing that residents should be treated in a fairer way than they have been, Mr Neill said that councils should have a flexible approach and offer incentives for recycling. “That is why we have moved away from the previous government’s view of alternate weekly collection and bin taxes. Residents should be encouraged to recycle and the idea that there should be a big stick is not the answer. The evidence is there that where local authorities have sat down and talked to their communities people will buy into this.”
Turning to the Fund, Mr Neill emphasised that its development had been “worked out with Defra”. And, he said that he had lined up with Defra on a ministerial level with the aim of “getting households to recycle what they can. I think people want to be green, they just want it in a way that is user-friendly.”
The minister said that there are two actions that he would like to see at local levels. “Flytipping should be jumped on and if there are particular issues with enforcement then it’s best for councils to deal with residents.”
He explained that his department would like to see more incentive schemes. “The fund is predicated on the maintenance of one week collection, value for money and environmental enhancements.
“I am very pleased that we were able to get up to £250 million in new money specifically for investment in waste management. Over a period we will get the bids in and this will have profile over the next three years. This can be capital or revenue, and we are much more flexible on this. We have said there are certain key bits we want to achieve. The foodstuffs and other rotting stuff to be taken away on a weekly basis, we might want to take more to MBT, we want to make it more user friendly and we want a core weekly service so we can calibrate it.”
"This fund is new money and that is why we will see the take up"
Mr Neill continued: “We are encouraging people to take the smelly stuff weekly. Waste collection is a very visible, a basic service. There are some people say that they don’t use council services but they do use the waste services.”
Incentives are clearly important to Mr Neill as well as actions by local authorities to preserve services. He highlighted the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead as one authority where incentives have worked: “70% of people have signed up voluntarily to the rewards scheme. Windsor and Maidenhead are not asking for more draconian powers.”
And, on the issue of whether councils can afford to run weekly services when they are facing budgetary pressures, he said: “I accept these are challenging times.”
But, he referred to how Dartford had held a referendum which found residents wanted to maintain weekly collections so the authority had joined services with Sevenoaks to make savings and ensure frontline services were maintained. Another example of savings was given by Mr Neill as Sandwell council in the West Midlands where it had awarded a contract to Serco which would bring higher recycling levels and £50 million of savings over three years.
Asked whether the funding would still be sufficient for what he was aspiring to councils to do, Mr Neill replied: “People have seen the details of the scheme. Let’s not think about running out of money, lets cross the bridge when we come to it. Councils also get the formula grant, they have the funding for the core service. This fund is new money and that is why we will see the take up.”
The minister also clarified that local authorities which had planned to move to fortnightly collections and now might seek not to if they could not get support from the fund, are eligible for support.
He said: “Where a local authority can prove that it was planning to move to AWC before the announcement of the Weekly Collection Support Scheme and would be unable to afford a weekly residual waste collection without funding from the Scheme, they are welcome to bid for funding.”
Mr Neill said that changes to the planning system being made by the government reflect localism and that waste management companies needed to make sure that they fully consulted on their proposals or they would be out of step with others in the sector.
“The real problem about the planning system all too often is that you get a knock back and you win on appeal,” he said. Accordingly, changes made by the government have included the national planning policy programme (NPPP) presumption in favour of sustainable development. And, there is also the change to the predetermination rule.
In the past it was generally wrong for a councillor, under the predetermination rule, to decide ahead of a planning meeting on a particular application.
“Now this has changed,” said Mr Neill. “The whole reason is to allow for a pre-application discussion which can help to try and identify the problem. Then the local authority has to say what is acceptable or not at the proper time and then you can say to the developer there is a need to consult and maybe that he can reconfigure his proposal. Logically that can be applied to waste developments as well - what you don’t want is uncertainty for two years on top of that.
“With ending the predetermination rule we want to be less confrontational and move from where you would have a chat with officers and didn’t know what members would think.”
Energy from waste
Mr Neill accepted that planning applications for energy from waste plants remain difficult. “Any planning application for energy from waste of any kind has to be judged in context of the waste plan and national policy and other material considerations. What we can also do around this is to make everything much more transparent. Some of the fears may be unjustified and some people may never believe. Then there is the moderate majority who want to see environmental sustainability and the environment looked after visually.”
The minister reminded local authorities of their responsibilities in the context of new infrastructure: “Councils do have to meet their obligations under national policy and their commitment to recycling.”
One incentive to support new plants could be business rates being returned to local authorities. Mr Neill noted that “this will become an increasingly important consideration. We are seeking to have a view where people are more positive about developments in the right place.”
In terms of green thinking and green government, Mr Neill made it clear that CLG is “green” and considers the environment rather than the opposite as some in the recycling sector feel.
“I am disappointed people do think that - along with all parts of government, we want to deliver the green agenda. That’s why I stress the three criteria and this fund demonstrates our commitment to the environment. We do believe that the green agenda is more likely to deliver through a bottom up approach rather than top down.”