Lucy Tomlinson attempts to explain the controversy over a rubbish initiative

Trafford residents are celebrating a small victory this week – the hated “green bin tax” has been dropped. Actually a voluntary fee for the removal of garden waste, as we reported on its introduction, many felt that this was representative of mistrustful dealings between the Council and the residents it serves. In fact, one of the only positives of the situation seemed to be that the council encouraged people to start composting in their own gardens, which in itself is a worthy thing, but not realistic for many people.

People were annoyed because they felt that service should already be covered by the council tax they paid.

However, with Labour taking control of the Council in last year’s General Elections, the £35 fee, is appropriately enough, getting dumped. Council Leader Andrew Western said, "Residents told us that scrapping the Tories’ hated green bin charge was a key priority for them and we promised to review it. We wanted to ensure that we could do this without raising Council Tax any more than the Tories had indicated for 2019/20 in last year’s Medium Term Financial Strategy, and that no other services would be cut in the Budget as a result. 

"We’ve managed to do that: increasing Council Tax yes, but by less than the Tories in each of the last two years and with no job losses or services discontinued.”

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Trafford's controversial bin charge was introduced by the Tory council in 2017

The garden waste charge was very unpopular even before it was introduced, with an 80% disapproval rating reported to the consultation on the idea. The Conservative-led Council pressed ahead with it, citing the need to generate revenue while under pressure from the cuts administered by central Government. 

After the charge came in, food waste was still collected for free but only those who had paid £35 for the special sticker could have their garden waste taken away. Any grey bins (i.e. waste destined for landfill) found with garden waste in them would not be collected either so residents had the choice of either taking the waste to the tip themselves, paying the charge or composting their own waste. 

People were annoyed because they felt that service should already be covered by the council tax they paid. The council claimed at the time that a garden waste service was not part of its remit – essentially that the previous unpaid-for service had been a ‘bonus’. 

Another argument was that the charge would be most stressful for pensioners or disabled people who would not be able to take their waste to the tip and would be unlikely to maintain a compost heap. They would also be the least likely to afford the extra cost of the license. People felt that by disguising what essentially amounted to an increase in council tax disguised as a voluntary charge, the Council was being disingenuous with its residents.

Garden Waste Trafford
Scrapping the garden waste charge is not the only hot news in the rubbish world.

A counter claim I heard at the time the charge was launched was that there was a requirement that garden and food waste be treated separately and the council were merely passing the cost of separate facilities to the public. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence to back this up however, as garden and food waste is recycled together at the in-vessel composting plant at Trafford Park. 

The Council was always committed to a free weekly collection of food waste, so a separate collection of garden waste was thought by many to be a revenue-generating exercise than a cost-saving one, with the council predicting it would bring in around £900k.

One thought is that the Labour council are merely getting ahead of the DEFRA consultation which has opened this week. It is thought to be likely that DEFRA will recommend mandatory food waste collection (which the council already supplies), and that support for recycling green waste and using it in other biofuel scenarios should be at the heart of the Government’s industrial strategy. As Amey missed nearly all of its targets regarding missed garden waste collections and biowaste it may be that the service was just not efficient enough to meet potential incoming standards anyway.

Now Amey's contract is under review after the company was fined £1m over missed collections and other issues.

One of the Labour pledges during last year’s local elections was to actively encourage recycling. It is important to recycle biodegradable waste properly – if it ends up in landfill it produces methane, one of the worst offenders when it comes to climate change, whereas properly composted green waste produces carbon dioxide, which is less impactful. 

Andrew Weston said, “Residents felt strongly that the charge was unfair and more than that I was always concerned that it may encourage poor environmental behaviour. We should be promoting recycling not creating a system that may increase fly tipping or lead to the burning of garden waste, and that’s what this change does.”

It will be interesting to see if the garden waste charge created a dint in the recycling figures for the 2016-18 period. 

Scrapping the garden waste charge is not the only hot news in the rubbish world. Amey, the private company hired by the Conservative-led council to provide frontline services including waste management, have long been criticised by Trafford residents for providing a less-than-adequate service. Problems included Amey failing to install equipment it was contractually obliged to deliver and self-reporting incorrect figures. Now the contract is under review after the company was fined over £1 million because of missed bin collections and other maintenance issues.

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Could Amey's time be up in Trafford?

The original deal with Amey and the then Conservative-led council was considered to be a pioneering one at the time. The contract promised to deliver £3 million in savings per annum on the previous deal with Veolia. The then-leader of the council Sean Anstee said “The contract will be monitored effectively by the council and there are robust measures in place for any breach of contract or less than adequate performance,” adding “I am confident the right contractor has been chosen to fulfil this brief.”

The Scrutiny Committee has now issued a report that recommends considering “alternative models of service delivery, including the development of an in-house service model, with a view to ending the contract with Amey.” However, if Trafford do end up ditching Amey, they could face financial penalties for ending the contract before the agreed 23 years. 

One thing Trafford residents might like to know is that if they have traded their big green bins in for the little caddies, Cllr Western has said that, pending approval in next week’s budget, there will be a window of time when they can reclaim a green bin for free. The current payment year ends on 2 June, and all garden waste will be collected for free from 3 June.

Labour says they’ve listened to residents concerns and no doubt they have. A more pragmatic way of looking at it might be that they have scrapped a deeply unpopular charge which would potentially run afoul of new strategies anyway and so manage to look good at very little cost. Either way, the majority of Trafford residents are happy, though the response of some is to turn their attention directly to the other perennial bugbear of potholes.