Eric Pickles’s decision to set up a support fund to help local authorities collect landfill waste once a week has been raising controversy today, and rightly so. It makes a complete mockery of his localist pretensions and, some argue, will put at risk landfill waste reductions that occurred in response to the widespread moves to fortnightly collection – such as this example in Kingston.
There are a few debates to be had. Is Pickles’s project localist or not? (A very short argument: it obviously isn’t). Would weekly collections have negative repercussions? (A slightly longer argument: there are examples on both sides of the debate on whether this would result in more waste going to landfill, but even if not, the cost of returning to weekly bin collections everywhere is quoted at £500m over 4 years by Government-commissioned research). But the tone of this policy announcement and the subsequent debate may well be more important than its content.
Pickles’ first target is councils. His claim that ‘For most people, the only visible service that they get from the council is the removal of refuse’ reinforces the myth that councils take council tax and do practically nothing with it. Firstly, a Secretary of State of a localist government should be drawing attention to the huge range of things that councils spend money on (nicely illustrated by Northamptonshire County Council here for the benefit of their residents) and putting the framework in place for communities to have more of a say on how the money is spent. Secondly, this dog-whistle to the ‘Why should I have to put up with this recycling malarkey, I pay my taxes’ brigade tacitly reinforces the commonly held idea that council taxes are how councils get their funding – which they aren’t. (See page 2 of this Government document for a very clear illustration.) A cheap moment of populism has just put another obstacle between local people and a clear understanding of how Government works, an understanding that is crucial for people to be able to direct their energies to change things they want changed.
Pickles, ludicrously, describes weekly bin collection as a ‘basic right’: absolutist language which stops dissenters dead in their tracks, unable to relate the measure either to Britain’s mounting waste crisis or to the question of what other budgets will have to take the strain of the costly switch to weekly collections. His extension of the idea of every Englishman’s ‘right’ to throw huge amounts of material into a non-existent place called ‘away’ culminates in what he calls the ‘chicken tikka masala test’: the idea that ‘the nation’s favourite meal can be consumed on Friday night safe from the worry that two weeks later its remains will still be rotting in the bottom of the bin’. There’s two beautiful Picklesish moments here for the price of one: the attempt to be jocular and matey by talking about the great British tradition of the takeaway curry, and the complete obliviousness to the fact that most sane people, rather than chucking this culinary treat away, would tend to, y’know, eat it. I’m not sure which is more cringeworthy. What do you reckon? Tell me when you’re done with the cringing. Take your time, I know it might be a while.
Close readings of the nation’s favourite everyman orator aside, though, the hard fact is that this is going to cost money – both directly and, potentially, in increased landfill taxes. That’s fine – services do tend to cost money. But rather than let communities make their own hard choices about how to raise and spend that money, our Government finds £250m down the back of CLG’s sofa and set up a ringfenced fund. It’s the British way.
The debate is narrow to the point of absurdity – cast in terms of ‘Do you want weekly or fortnightly collections?’ rather than asking the real questions: ‘What do you want your local area to be like?’ and ‘What are the different bits that make up that area worth to you’? If there’s £250m available, local communities should be able to decide whether they want to spend that money on weekly bin collections or something that they consider more important: maybe improving schools, or fixing potholes, or keeping libraries open, whatever’s their priority.
“My view is this goes beyond bins – it’s about a question of trust between politicians and the public” says Pickles. Spot on. But trust is hardly going to be engendered by the dispiriting spectacle of councillors pathetically chasing pots of central government funding in an admission of their lack of power and consequence. When a councillor stands up and says ‘We’re having to make cuts in social care because the big bad Government didn’t give us as much money as they used to. But hey – we’re going to be able to bring back your weekly bin collection, thanks to that lovely Mr. Pickles’, you don’t exactly put your faith in their ability to drive positive change in your area.
It’s pretty impressive to manage to infantilise councils, the public and the whole nature of British political discourse with one announcement. “If councils want to have a fortnightly collection and are supported by their populations, then fair enough” says Pickles, sounding reasonable, but the fact remains that there is extra money and warm words for those who comply with his staggeringly irrelevant crusade, and wrath from on high for those that don’t. Artificially rigged, falsely binary ‘choices’, deliberately narrowed ‘policy’ debates and yet more centralism: signs are getting steadily clearer that the ‘Invitation to Join the Government of Britain‘ has been rescinded.