Monday, December 24, 2012

Rolling out the bins

You may be aware that Eric Pickles offered a £250 million fund open to competitive bids from local authorities, ostensibly to help councils restore weekly bin collections - which Eric believes are a basic human right. The fact that best estimates suggest that it would cost something over £500 million to restore weekly collections may explain why only a single council actually bid to do that - Blackpool. Other local authorities have either used the cash offer to "protect" weekly rounds or to add something else to existing fortnightly collections. Birmingham submitted a bid for £29.5 million of that fund, that will increase the frequency of recycling collections for the quarter of the city that recycles the most, expand the rewards scheme, modernise our collection fleet and bring wheeled bins to about 90% of homes in the city. Although 40 bids were turned down, we had a bid sufficiently good enough to be allocated full funding as it delivered across the board exactly what the government wanted. This will cover the capital costs of the service transformation. 

We've committed to trialling it in two wards, to ensuring that it isn't a 'one size fits all' offer, so that where wheeled bins are entirely inappropriate, they will not be used. Assisted collections will be maintained, so that people who currently get help with handling their bin bags will get help with their wheeled bins (every round has a list of them, usually with a few more that the crews know about as well). Waste disposal has always been changing. BBC Four have had a couple of excellent programmes on recently about how we've dealt with rubbish, from the days when the old metal dustbins really did only contain dust, as food waste was put into bins for pig swill, through the expansion of rubbish as the economy recovered post-war and consumerism took hold, right through to the arrival of the black bag and their replacement by wheeled bins. 

I happen to believe that this will be good for Birmingham for a number of reasons, so I was disappointed to see the Liberal Democrat motion at the last council meeting, even more disappointed at the speeches and then at the call-in to scrutiny committee from the Tories last week. From the sound of it, you would believe that the 80% of authorities (including Solihull, Walsall, Sandwell, Wolverhampton, Lichfield and Coventry) that use wheeled bins must have descended into some post-apocalyptic hell, where the few bins not blazing in the street are being used to help burglars enter your home. Still, given their current rate of electoral descent, you aren't surprised at seeing the Liberal Democrats leaping aboard any bandwagon that trundles past. Their reports don't match the reality of anywhere I've ever lived or been that has these bins. Indeed, on a fact finding expedition into the dystopia that must be Solihull since wheeled bins were introduced back in 2009, I didn't have to negotiate rows of aflame bins or dodge hordes of burglars leaping down from conveniently placed chunks of moulded plastic. Friends living outside Birmingham's borders confirm that my experience is not unusual.

Yes, some people will set some bins on fire - West Midlands Fire Service currently attend ten fires a day involving rubbish. Yes, some will be used to facilitate entry to properties by thieves - who currently manage it anyway. I note in passing that one police team in wheelie-bin infested Solihull have just reported that they've managed a whole month without a burglary from a property being reported.

Will they obstruct the streets? Their physical footprint is very similar to the recycling boxes that are currently used, so if left out they will offer the same level of obstruction. Visually, they are more intrusive, but shouldn't we balance that against the wider public good of increased recyling?

Their objections entirely fail to address the funding gap. We know that by the end of the decade, if we do anothing, we will face an £8 million gap in the finances of this service alone. We currently spend £1 million a year on bin bags - and residents add to that with the bags they buy themselves. If anyone tells you that they want to retain bin bags - as the Yardley Liberal Democrats decided a couple of weeks back - then they also need to tell you what other service should be axed to pay for it, as we face a bleak funding future from a brutal and uncaring Tory/Liberal Democrat government. I'd rather see us spend that £8 million on services for those most in need than on continuing a failing system. Currently, we spend about £75 per household on bin collection - this will cut that cost to under £40 per property. 

I've praised the work that was done to improve recycling in Birmingham over the past decade - including that by the last administration - but we can't rest on our laurels. We send very little to landfill, largely because we send it to Tyseley to be burnt to generate electricity. We currently have a waste system not fit for the future - an elderly fleet of vehicles, with breakdowns causing missed collections. Our streets are strewn with rubbish, feeding a growing population of rats, all because of ripped bags spilling their contents onto the highway. Rubbish collection is our most visible service and the £29.5 million from the government allows us to invest in it and turn it round. 

Contrary to some views, this isn't a hasty decision. Way back in 2007, a council review suggested using smaller wheeled bins for weekly residual collections and noted that giving residents a 140 litre wheeled bin for recycling would “considerably increase capacity.” Indeed, the report proposed constituency-level pilot programmes, but failed to actually put any money into them. The new plans envisage a standard 240 litre wheeled bin for recycling – an even greater opportunity for improving volume, especially when allied to the incentive scheme and weekly recycling collections for a quarter of the city. We have learnt from the 80% of councils that collect from wheeled bins – their experience is that these are safer for our workforce, they increase the volume of recycling, they are cheaper to operate and they help keep the streets cleaner. 

The same report raised two objections to wheeled bins - one of the capital expenditure, which this bid will resolve - and one of the potential for them to increase the volume of waste disposed of. There is mixed evidence on this latter issue. Bear in mind that bins were originally launched some 30 years ago when the idea of a doorstep recycling provision was only a glint in the eye of the most determined tree-hugger. Bins were designed to handle volumes of residual waste and nothing else. There is evidence that the larger bins encourage more waste to be put into them - but there is also a slight gain there, as there is also evidence that the amounts of rubbish taken to household waste sites declined as a result, so saving the carbon dioxide emissions of several cars making that trip. There is a degree of 'channel-shift' there, not just increased volume. 

Like many councils, Bristol initially issued the large 240 litre wheeled bins for residual waste (residual is the technical term for everything that isn't recycled - whatever you currently put into your black bags), but they have recently replaced them with smaller bins, to encourage residents to recycle more - something that early adopters of wheeled bins now recognise as a good move. When I appeared on BBC Radio WM, residents from other authorities were incredulous at the level of opposition from Birmingham residents to the very idea of wheeled bins and I'm convinced that if you come back in five or six years' time, nobody will be asking for a return to black bags.

A decade ago, the Health and Safety Executive produced a report on manual handling in waste collection, which came out quite clearly in favour of wheeled bins - although they do bring about new issues in terms of safe handling. Far too many of our bin crew members either leave service early through ill health or die soon after retirement - it is a tough and very physical job. Providing a bin will help prevent manual handling and sharps injuries, as well as helping to reduce the food for the rat population. Our people have a right to come to work in as safe an environment as we can make it - that isn't about being a health and safety fascist, it is about being human. When you have a worker off sick with stress for six months following a needle stick injury - to the point where his marriage broke up - don't we owe them the safest working environment possible?

In 2009, the Local Government Association, responding to a brief campaign by the Daily Mail, surveyed 28 local authorities to get a quick snapshot view and every one that responded said that introducing wheeled bins increased recycling. As Richard Kemp, then Liberal Democrat deputy chair of the LGA, said,
All the evidence shows that most people like their wheelie bins and think that they make it easier and cleaner to throw out the rubbish. People also find that wheelie bins help to reduce litter on the streets
Food waste was part of the initial proposal from the last administration, but once we actually got to bidding stage, the Department of Communities and Local Government's own advice indicated that a food waste collection was not a high priority for funding – indeed, a third of those applications failed to pass the Pickles test, including applications from Bolton and a £17 million bid from Leeds. Elsewhere, we have seen Nottinghamshire scrap their food waste collections because of costs, as did Pendle in 2011. Shropshire scrapped their separate collections - used to feed an anaerobic digester - back in 2010 in favour of a mixed green/food waste collection to supply in vessel composting. I still want us to explore food waste recycling, but it has to cost in and we need to build the platform that allows us to go down this path. There is no doubt at all that wheeled bins and increasing the capacity for mixed recyclates will improve our recycling rates faster and more sustainably than food waste. That has great potential, but advocates of food waste collections now miss the point that it needs huge investment in education and massive behavioural change to achieve the figures that they have suggested. 

The other practical issue is that a weekly food waste collection would actually remove the need for a weekly residuals (black bag) collection - indeed, if you look at the two year WRAP study on food waste collections, the collection model with the lowest drop off in participation is exactly that model. The graph to the left shows a clear bias towards alternate week collections - note how the red stars are higher and further to the right, indicating both higher participation rates and higher volumes per household for alternate week collections. On that basis alone, I'm very surprised that any food waste collection schemes were approved, but that may be a matter of having to spend the money to avoid losing face. The DCLG were also quite firm that they wanted to see some public support for food waste schemes - either through specific consultation or even just through a manifesto commitment. As we know, neither the Tories nor the Liberal Democrats had the imagination to come up with a manifesto prior to May 2012, so they didn't even try to get over that hurdle. From what little we know of their scheme, I think it would really have struggled to get the funding required and would certainly not have won almost £30 million from the government. If we were already at an alternate week collection model, then we might have succeeded, but it is hard to see the economic justification for bringing in food waste collections and maintaining a weekly residual waste round - I'm not aware of any bids that offered that as an option. The Tory/Lib Dem bid would have failed on value for money terms.  

We found out in scrutiny committee on Friday that Cllr Tim Huxtable (Con) had taken it upon himself to discuss with government ministers whether they would be open to us reopening the bid to discuss changes - to reinsert the food waste scheme, for example. If Cllr Huxtable has such good contacts within the DCLG, then I think we'd be much happier if he could talk to them about not leaving Birmingham in the lurch by ripping away funding from a city with serious and broad needs. But he'd prefer to use his time to talk rubbish. 

To quote from experience elsewhere:
“The introduction of the wheeled bin service was a massive improvement to the bag and box format we had before. We wanted to give residents the chance to be able to recycle more and make it as easy as possible for them and it has been a huge success so far. It wasn't a one size fits all solution as we recognised many properties in the city didn't have enough space... so... we've adapted... some properties can have smaller bins, or can stick with the bag and box collection service. Since the introduction of the wheeled bins, the city has constantly exceeded recycling targets set by the government.”
That is from a Liberal Democrat councillor in Liverpool – a city with a very similar spread of housing to Birmingham and one where the council successfully collect from 90% of properties. 
Even a former Birmingham Liberal Democrat councillor and cabinet member wrote in August that if we won this bid, Cllr McKay and the Labour administration (actually, he also included me, but I can't take any credit) would have
“brilliantly outmanoeuvred every single council in the country and will brilliantly grab £28.5 million from a £250 million pot.”
Which we did.
Other parties seem determined to stand in the way of saving money, improving our waste collection service and delaying further development. Along the way, they would condemn the poorest in our city to further cuts to services. These bins will save money, protect our workforce from sharp objects and heavy lifting, keep our streets cleaner and make our city greener. Of course there will be problems and difficulties along the way - any change will bring challenges, but we will solve them. It is what Birmingham does. 

I accept change is difficult for many people, but even in these most challenging of times, shouldn't we try to make our city a better place to live?

At the last council meeting, we were treated to a Liberal Democrat led attack on Labour's plan to bring wheeled bins to Birmingham. This piece is based on a speech I hoped to deliver, before we were timed out without even a chance for Cllr McKay to respond to the attacks from the combined opposition forces. I've also modified it following last week's call in by the Tories of Cabinet's acceptance of the Pickles money.

Hemming opposes Birmingham Living Wage

Last Wednesday, Eric Pickles, David Cameron's commissar for local government, announced the settlements for councils across England, bringing about new, enforced cuts to council services. A number of Birmingham MPs were in the House to hear the announcement and both Richard Burden (Lab, Northfield), Steve McCabe (Lab, Hall Green) and Shabana Mahmood (Lab, Ladywood), raised key issues about the unfair treatment of our City - defending the people who elected them.

John Hemming, (Lib Dem, Yardley) was also there and he too went on the attack. Strangely, he decided to attack the lowest-paid workers in the council who have seen an increase in their pay thanks to the adoption of the Living Wage.
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): When Labour took control of Birmingham earlier this year, the council immediately put up costs by what will be £10 million a year by increasing wages for some staff by as much as 70%. It is now aiming to charge the poor council tax at 24%. Does the Secretary of State agree that we should protect the poor and not put up costs in a time of financial problems? 
Mr Pickles: It was an outrage that Birmingham increased some wages by 73%— 
Steve McCabe: Who? name them. 
Mr Pickles: Birmingham. The council put 16-year-olds on the same wages as adults. It made a mistake and it was foolish to do so—[ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman should listen, because he is probably not used to dealing with poor people—[Interruption. ] No, no—a toff has an opportunity occasionally to meet the odd poor person. What was really bad about Birmingham involves the second part of the question from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) and how the council is seeking to get 23% council tax from poor people. As a committed socialist the hon. Gentleman should be on the phone now telling the leadership of Birmingham to look after the poor, not to tax them.
Let's see what other Liberal Democrats say. Simon Hughes
In my maiden speech to Parliament I quoted one of my predecessors, Dr Salter, saying "In a civilised society every worker has a right to a living wage. That is as true today as it was then.... it is hard to maintain the argument that the Living Wage is unaffordable"
Cllr Stephen Knight, Leader of the Liberal Democrats on Richmond Council - Vince Cable's turf:
"It is unacceptable that any council employees should be paid poverty wages. Thankfully there are very few council staff paid at this very low rate... but most are women and part time staff who always seem to get the worst deal. It is time that the council started treating its employees with the dignity they deserve and pay them at least the London Living Wage rate."
And again, just a few days ago
"In 21st century Britain no company should be profiting from the exploitation of its staff through the paying of poverty wages – and no local authority or other public body should seek to balance its books in this way, let alone a government department."
Gordon Birtwistle MP for Burnley and former PPS to Danny Alexander, co-chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills said in November this year
"Liberal Democrats support the living wage and we commend those employers who have introduced it."
Not only is there a moral reason for paying people a proper, living wage, there is an economic reason - money paid to the poorest in our society overwhelmingly goes straight into the local economy. 

I'm proud that the first item of business on the first agenda of the new Labour administration was the plan to pay our lowest paid staff a decent wage. 

We face exceptionally tough times in Birmingham - a government settlement that does not take account of the needs of the city (a settlement that John Hemming supports, by dint of his continued support for the government). The government has also imposed an impossible task on our council by handing over the delivery of Council Tax Benefit to local authorities - but with a 10% cut in funding. They have asked every council to develop a scheme to distribute this amount, but insisted that eligible pensioners cannot lose their 100% discount. This Labour council is working hard to protect other groups, such as the disabled, but unless we can find over £10 million to fill the gap (bearing in mind that other government cuts will slice £110 million from our budget in 2013), we have to spread the load over the unemployed and the working poor as well. That decision is enforced on us by John's own government. 

John would make better use of his parliamentary time if he supported the people of Birmingham, rather than attacking the poor and serving Eric Pickles' ego. Perhaps he's been spending too much time with the Tories. 

Vote Lib Dem - get poverty wages. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Budget Consultation 2013 Public Meetings

Tonight sees the last of the public meetings as part of the consultation process for the 2013/14 budget for Birmingham City Council. It will be held in Committee Room 3 & 4 in the Council House and the public are welcome. I've been to two of the three so far and they've been lively affairs, but generally well-ordered. We've heard the detail from Albert and the cabinet team, who have answered questions from the floor and spent far more time than was originally allocated to ensure that all those who want to speak get the chance.

Incidentally, if you miss the meeting, there will be a webchat with Sir Albert on Wednesday 19 December from 6:30pm to 7:30pm on twitter using the hashtag #askalbert. Even after that, you can send your comments to budget_views@birmingham.gov.uk or write to Budget Views, Room 127, Council House, Victoria Square, Birmingham B1 1BB.

Youth services and support for the disabled are key issues that keep being brought up. For those that doubt the importance of consultation, Cllr Ian Ward revealed that the consultation into the Council Tax Benefit scheme that we have to introduce next year has raised some important issues and he is minded to adjust our proposal to ensure that the disabled are protected, even if they are moved off Disability Living Allowance onto Employment Support Allowance and he is also looking to protect carers as well. Both of those are directly attributable to responses received from the consultation process.

One thing that comes up time and time again is a demand that we set an illegal budget, as Liverpool did in the 80s - where we plan to spend more than we actually receive.

Councillors can no longer be personally surcharged or jailed for setting an illegal budget. Actually, if that was all it took to sort this, there are several in the Labour Group who would accept it with equanimity, but that isn't the reality. While the council can move small amounts around between years to deal with events, it isn't legal for it to set a deficit budget that spends more than it brings in. The council could set a budget that was in deficit, but the chief finance officer (acting under s114 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 - after the Tories got wise to that trick) would refuse to sign it off. Thereafter, the council would be unable to incur any expenditure, enter into any new contracts or collect any council tax until a lawful budget was set. Services in Birmingham would actually cease to be delivered fairly rapidly. Ultimately, if the council still refused to set a budget, the Department of Communities and Local Government would send in a small team to consult with officers and agree a plan of action, which would result in a budget being set solely to meet financial demands, with no thought for services. As the council had not been able to collect council tax, this would lead to a further shortfall in our budget, meaning deeper cuts still.

I do not believe that residents in Birmingham would thank any council for playing that sort of political game and it would be a dereliction of duty on our part to play it.

Who would you rather take decisions about services that affect you - Pickles' Whitehall mob or your local councillors?

All those who cite Liverpool as an example should remember exactly what concessions the government made when faced with that stand in 1985 when the authority refused to set a budget. Nothing. Not one iota. Just as Gove is spoiling for a fight with the teachers to prove his muscularity, so Pickles would relish putting the boot into Birmingham. We know where it ends - which is why I've included the clip from Neil Kinnock's magnificent 1985 conference speech.

We're taking enough of a beating from this government already. A deficit budget would not work and would actually damage the services that this council is trying to protect.

We were elected in May to run this city and we'll do just that. The budget envelope within which we have to work is not sufficient for the needs of Birmingham, but that is not the fault of this council, but the fault of the Tory and Liberal Democrat government that sets that envelope.

We just have to do the best we can with what we have.

Monday, December 17, 2012

I hate to say it, but I did warn you....

A little while back, I challenged some 'research' done by the boffins over at the Taxpayers Alliance - a well-known Tory front group - about their belief that Police and Crime Commissioners would be cheaper than the existing police authorities. I pointed out that they were likely to be wrong.

And as sure as night follows day, it has come to pass.

Tim Fenton over at Zelo Street kindly linked to that post after he spotted that the TPA are now walking on the other side of the street, all the better to throw stones at the office that they supported. The media have, as usual, lapped up this press release without pointing out that the TPA used to be enthusiastic supporters of the idea. It appears that some PCCs are appointing additional staff - something that the legislation allows them to do. So far, fifteen of the 41 PCCs have appointed deputies, with more to come. The Conservative Northants PCC has appointed no fewer than four deputy commissioners and is seeking to appoint no fewer than seventeen additional staff members, so is the runaway candidate to be the first PCC to cost more than the police authority they replaced.

The West Midlands' Bob Jones appointed Cllr Yvonne Mosquito to the post of deputy commissioner. Over in West Mercia, Bill Longmore has appointed his campaign manager, a path also followed by the Northants PCC, Adam Simmonds. Up in Humberside, the Tory PCC has appointed a fellow Tory councillor to the post, as has the Tory PCC in the Thames Valley.

Now, there's nothing wrong with the PCC appointing staff. Hiring a deputy is entirely sensible - you can't expect the commissioner to be everywhere, in particular when the force area is particularly large, nor can they be expected not to take holidays, so a deputy makes eminent sense. In the future, it would make sense for candidates to name their deputy prior to the election (as both Labour's Bob Jones and the Tory Matt Bennett certainly did) so that they can be scrutinised by the electorate.

And above all, take any dodgy research from the TPA with industrial quantities of salt.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Know your cheese

"This budget has more holes than gorgonzola," said Cllr Paul Tilsley, after Sir Albert Bore launched the Birmingham budget consultation today.

To the left is gorgonzola, an Italian cheese. Notable for the lack of holes. It does have blue veins running through it and as the budget is given to us by a Tory/Lib Dem govt, that seems appropriate.

I rather think that Cllr Tilsley meant Emmental cheese, from Switzerland, as seen on the right. That is packed full of holes. Unlike our budget, but rather like the ones left by the last administration.

Perhaps Cllr Tilsley would like to explain exactly why his colleagues scrapped the events line from this year's budget, but kept booking events for April and May - with no money put aside to cover the costs.

Even better, he and the spectacularly complacent Cllr Mike Whitby, who also appeared on the same broadcast to tell the populace that it wasn't as bad as all that, could explain why their government has decided that the people of Birmingham deserve to face budget cuts twice the size of the average for the rest of the country.

Sadly, there aren't many laughs in this budget process.