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Fylde's Green Bin Bill

Green Bin BillThe ink isn't properly dry on Fylde's budget for the year, and the Council Tax bills are only just landing on doorsteps, but already, Fylde's Conservatives are planning the extra charges that we predicted in recent articles.

An extra-ordinary meeting of the Operational Management Committee has just been slipped into Fylde's meeting schedule for 31 March, and an urgent extra meeting like that nearly always means something exceptional is going on.

 WHAT'S BEING PROPOSED?

Under plans to be discussed on 31st, from this summer onward, if you want to put garden waste into a green bin and have Fylde take it away, you're going to have to subscribe 30 a year.

The charge will be non refundable, it will have no provision for part year payments, you can't transfer it to another property if you move house, and there are no concessions for the elderly or disabled.

That charge is likely to be on top of the 32 or so you now have to pay to 'buy' (or replace) one of the Green Bins in the first place.

Previously Green Bins were supplied to all houses without charge.

This was supposedly to encourage domestic recycling. But the more likely reason was to let FBC hit its recycling target. (That's because doubling what you collect by adding green waste from every house means that even with no additional recycling of household waste, you can say you were recycling around 50% of all collections).

But the new report seems to say that even for those who've already paid the 32 to 'buy' one, if they choose not to participate in the new subscription collection scheme, they (and everyone else) will be allowed to keep it until the scheme has "had the opportunity to mature" but after that, there will be arrangements to return 'unused bins.' to FBC.

That's likely to go down as well as a lead balloon with those who have bought them.

The plan also says that "Householders attempting to use the service fraudulently will be barred from the service"

We're not yet exactly sure what 'fraudulently' means in this regard, but we don't much like the language or the tone of the implied threat.

Readers will recall that Fylde Conservative Group's budget - which all the other groups on the Council did not support - was prepared in secret over the winter, and hailed as a wonderful thing when other councils were cutting spending.

But in reality, Fylde's Conservatives are simply going about things in a different way. They're putting up the Council tax by the maximum each year before it triggers a local referendum on their plans, and then they're going to be introducing a whole raft of charges for things we don't have to pay for at present, (and, we suspect, higher charges for those that we do pay for now).

This green bin subscription idea will become a big local issue, because almost 34,000 properties in Fylde have one. (that's about 90% of all households).

Experience elsewhere has shown that people don't like the idea of paying extra. People will likely be critical of Fylde's push for re-cycling when they are told they should compost it at home or take it to the local re-cycling centre (which in St Annes was closed down despite lots of public opposition), or - and this is what seems to stick in the craw - to put green waste in the household waste stream - (i.e. the grey bin) unless they subscribe to the new service.

There will also be some who resent being asked to pay a subscription for a service that they're paying for already.

 SO HOW HAS THIS COME ABOUT?

We've been reporting this matter since our article The New Committees: Operational Management last July, and we alluded to it again in Snippets: November 2015, and gave it as being a likely example of a charge in our recent article Council Budget 2016 on 11 March.

But the cause of the problem is much further back in time.

Way back in 2004, Lancashire County Council (who DISPOSE of waste) persuaded Fylde (who COLLECT the waste) to begin 'three-stream recycling' collections of waste from domestic properties.

Essentially this was an annual payment from LCC to FBC to help them meet the cost of separating out the recyclable materials they collected from households. It was in anticipation of the introduction of a 'PFI' scheme by Lancashire, and it was also the cause of Fylde changing from the old style metal dustbins on weekly collections to what we have today.

In March 2007, Lancashire County Council, Blackpool Council, and a private company known as 'Global Renewables', signed what was then the UKs largest waste PFI contract for 2bn (yes, that's billion).

This was to transform Lancashire's waste and recycling arrangements.

In December 2009, just after Fylde's Streetscene Department disaster was whitewashed and the Chief Executive renamed Fylde's "Operational Services Department", he produced a 'Modernisation Strategy' setting out the plan for its next six years. In Town Hall jargon this plan spoke of 'Business Process Re-engineering' and modern technology being introduced into refuse collection.

Most especially it said "Service delivery and support service outcomes required include: Developing and implementing appropriate service delivery changes to meet the requirements of the LCC PFI waste facilities in 2010."

In real English that means "We will have to fit in with what the County Council is doing"

It went on to say that: "During the first half of 2010 the Council will be required to implement a number of service changes in order to meet the requirements of the LCC Waste PFI facilities. A piece of work is currently being undertaken to establish the options and costs associated with these changes and this will be incorporated as an appendix to the final modernisation strategy. This will include:
  • Collecting food waste together with green waste from August 2010
  • Collecting cardboard separate from the green waste from April 2010.
  • An option to co-mingle glass, plastics and cans from July 2010.
  • All waste tipping points will be via waste transfer stations (not direct landfill) at Blackpool (Sita) and Preston Riversway (LCC).

The longer term changes and benefits that may develop as part of the Lancashire Waste PFI are unlikely to be known until after 2012 when the new facilities at Thornton and Leyland are fully operational and bedded in."

These 'PFI' letters we've used stand for 'Private Finance Initiative'.

This disastrous, money-laundering, off-balance-sheet accounting trick was invented in 1992 by the Conservative government led by John Major, but it became widespread under Tony Blair after 1997.

It was a device to avoid infrastructure costs being seen Government Debt.

PFI's usually involved a consortium of private sector banks and construction firms who would: finance, own, and operate facilities which - over a period of 25-35 years - they would lease back to the UK taxpayer as large scale buildings such as new schools and hospitals, and they would provide the services within them.

Eventually PFI's were used for all sorts of infrastructure and, as we see above, Lancashire County Council and Blackpool Council had entered into one with an Australian company called "Global Renewables Lancashire Operations Ltd" to provide waste processing facilities at Farringdon near Leyland, and at Thornton.

Both of the facilities had a dedicated containerised composting vessel for garden waste, (which could heat process 80,000 tonnes per annum), while Farington also had a 55,000 tonne materials recovery facility for source-separated dry recyclables.

Anyone who has worked in the PFI system will know the disaster it has been for our health service costs. Typically the owning company were contractually the exclusive suppliers of goods and services within the scheme. Horror stories abound regarding massive sums charged as extras for 'off contract' work such as additional services or minor things like adding an extra electric socket or light fitting. In one famous instance, a school was charged 320 for one extra plug.

Worse, the two sites (which each cost around 125million to build) became mired in controversy with neighbours and unfulfilled contracts. In 2012, reports existed that more than 70% of the waste sent there for reprocessing was actually ending up in landfill.

The cost became unbearable and, in 2014, the contracts that had been entered into were bought out early by Lancashire County Council and Blackpool Council (when they should have run until around 2040).

The cost of terminating the 25-year contract has never been made public (however, similar or comparable instances elsewhere suggest a buyout cost might have been in the region of 25 to 50 million)

Opposition members at County Hall said their colleagues had needed to increase the Council Tax by 10% to pay for it.

But taking it over didn't solve the problem, and in November last year, LCC made further changes to save costs, They ceased composting mixed organic waste (which needs exceptionally high temperatures to kill off food bugs) at the sites.

This is why you can no longer put food waste in your green bin in Fylde after the end of this month

Coincidentally 31st March 2014 would also have been the end of that initial agreement with LCC to separate the waste, but in 2012 that agreement had been extended for another 5 years - so it became due to end in March 2018.

However, in January 2014, LCC wrote to all Lancashire councils who collect the waste (including Fylde) to advise them that the scheme would not be extended again beyond 2018.

That means after March 2018 Fylde will no longer get the (approx) 760,000 a year it has been getting from LCC.

And that's why we noted in our recent article 'Council Budget 2016' on 11 March "It is a loss on the scale that could easily see the garden waste (green bin) collection scheme abandoned or become a subscription service as other councils in the area are doing."

We also said "But a subscription service for green waste will have an unknown take-up, and the current green bin collection cost is predicated on low unit costs (because most houses take part and collection/transport planning - and thus costing - is pretty straightforward and known).

However, changing to a scheme where one house here and one house there subscribes to a service would likely have very different unit costs and that will make it difficult to set a price in advance of seeing how many people want to subscribe."

And those are exactly the issues that the Operational Management Meeting on 31 March will have to address.

Just one final point before we leave the history. It is entirely arguable that the reason Fylde no longer need to be 'incentivised' with cash to do recycling is because the EU has now made it a legal requirement for District Councils to separate the waste they collect.

So if you want someone to blame for the underlying principle........

 THE IMPACT ON FYLDE

Fylde's officers have been working in the background with other Lancashire Districts looking for cost savings by closer co-operation, but it's now clear - as it has been all along to those with a bit of foresight - that was never going to generate the sort of savings needed, so it was time to 'think again' which is what Fylde has done to come up with the plan to be considered on 31 March.

We have some sympathy with Fylde on this matter, it is not altogether of their making. And the EU law would have changed to require them to undertake recycling anyway, whether or not they had done so 'early'.

Furthermore, they are not the only, and they were not the first, Lancashire Council to introduce this idea. Our neighbouring authorities have or are considering introducing a subscription charge, or they have abandoned green waste collection altogether. Nationally, we understand that just less than one third of all councils have decided to implement charges.

One of the common arguments about alternative cost saving measures for garden waste is to make the green bin service only available in the growing season, or at least operate it much less frequently in the winter.

This is plausible and seems to us to have some sense to it, but it will depend on quite complicated arrangements to fit in with household waste and other recycling collections Fylde undertakes.

That said we wonder if there would be scope to operate a glass and garden waste round on alternate fortnights outside the growing season.

We think residents in Fylde are quite keen recyclers, and in reality, the cost of 30 a year probably isn't that great. But it will seem to be so when residents realise they are already paying for the service until 2018.

So we think quite a lot of people will not take up the subscription service, and will muddle through with a mixture of home composting and using the grey bin, with an occasional trip to the tip for bulky or overflow items.

Our own position is quite straightforward. At counterbalance towers, garden waste is (and always has been) all home composted excepting for woody branches and the occasional perennial weed, and those exceptions will quite readily go in the grey bin if necessary. So it's unlikely we will be joining the scheme.

But trying to predict how 34,000 households will respond to this charge can't be an easy matter.

And overlaying all of this is a European requirement for all councils to recycle 50% of all household waste in four years time.

So as we said, we have some sympathy with Fylde's officers who are trying to make realistic assessments of what will happen when the charge is reduced.

But that sympathy isn't unconditional.....

 FYLDE'S HARD HEADED (AND HEARTED) APPROACH

Our sympathy is tempered by the way Fylde's Conservative Group seem to be going about it.

The reason for the urgent meeting on 31st is because they want to implement the subscription service this year starting on 1 August 2016.

There are three things we don't like about this.

The first is the deceptive and dishonourable way Fylde Conservatives have gone about introducing it. Whether this is cock-up or a deliberate deception we leave our readers to judge from the evidence we now produce......

In the 16th March 2016,  the Blackpool Gazette carried an article headlined  "To bin....or not to bin."  It was primarily about Wyre BC introducing a charge for residents using green bins. But the reporter appears to have asked Fylde if they were going to make a charge. Readers will see Fylde's reply by clicking the image below for a bigger version of it. (NB the green text colouration is ours).

Gazette coverage

please click the picture for larger version

This article - (saying Fylde were not charging and they had no plans to charge, because they recognised that people were already paying for the green waste to be removed) - was dated 16 March.

But now, that has all changed. The report on Fylde's agenda for 31st March is recommending double charging.

So the question our readers will want answering is - if the meeting on 31 March had a complicated report about the costing alternatives (which will have taken several days if not weeks to produce), just when was that report produced? And did Fylde know a charge was planned when they told the Gazette there would *not* be a charge? Or has this all been a very sudden change of mind? Is there a financial panic going on at Fylde?

Well, we can't tell when the report itself was prepared, but we *can* tell when the Agenda for the meeting of 31st March (which contains the report) was prepared. (And if readers click the image below they can see that for themselves from the AgendaAgenda's 'properties' )

The agenda was prepared on 18th March 2016. That's just 2 days after "a Fylde spokesman" (who was probably their current spin doctor, but could have been a senior officer) told the Gazette the exact opposite story.

It is wholly incredible that the plan for charging for green waste was not known about when the Gazette was told: there would be no charge, there was no plan to charge, and Fylde's taxpayers were already paying for the service anyway.

So, is it a cock-up or a conspiracy?

It certainly could have been a simple cock-up. It could be that Fylde's Spin Doctor didn't know about the plan to implement charges when he gave the press quote.

And if that was the case, it neatly illustrates the reason we argue that Fylde should not have a spin doctor, and the councillors we elect should be directly and personally accountable for what they do and say. That is how we judge them. They should not have their acts or omissions sanitised through anonymous spokesmen.

But there is another aspect to this matter which we think casts doubt on the logic of it being a cock-up.

It is the aspect which follows the next question to which our inquisitive readers will want an answer - namely....

First of all: Why were the setup costs and the emptying charge not considered as part of Fylde's budget setting meeting that had taken place just a fortnight earlier?

The purpose of that meeting was to identify the costs for this year, and to set the charges that would be made.

But this matter was completely excluded from consideration in the budget and a cynic might well see this as way to remove it from the Council debate that would have forced it to be considered against other priorities.

It is beyond credibility that this scheme was not known about at the time of the budget debate, and it absolutely should have been part of the consideration of budget items during that meeting.

In particular, we think the setup costs ought to have been part of the annual budget decision and they should have been considered alongside other spending priorities at the time.

Some Conservative councillors - who supported the budget as it was, might not have done so had they known the details of this matter (especially if they had understood the ire that will be directed to them when the green bin scheme is withdrawn unless you pay 30 a year)

Fylde's Conservative group - who isolated other councillors from understanding the detail and options within the budget - will, and indeed should, bear the brunt of the criticism when public dissatisfaction becomes widespread as it inevitably will later this year.

Second: Fylde will be receiving the payment from LCC until 31 March 2018, so they will garner a full year's subscription of top of it's being paid from the taxes we pay to LCC. That really is double taxation for the same service.

We think Fylde's Conservatives want to cover the setting up and one off costs for the subscription-based service, with what they raise from the double tax they charge this year.

Third: That's bad enough, but even worse is their specific choice to start the scheme in August - at the height of the gardening year.

They are doing this because they think it's more likely that people will be prepared to pay a subscription when they're up to their ears in grasscuttings than would be prepared to subscribe in the less busy wintertime.

That's an awful philosophy for a Council to have underpinning its actions, and it shows just how far Fylde's Conservatives have been prepared to move from being a provider of not-for-profit public services, toward an income extracting entity. (And we think that's going to get worse over time).

This hard-hearted approach is based partly on the experience of other Councils who have found that when a chargeable scheme is first introduced,  a strong reluctance to pay initially delivers a significant reduction in the number who do subscribe.

It has also shown that over the first two to three years of a chargeable scheme, the take up rate steadily increases.

So the view has been taken by Fylde's officers that optimal scheme income will not be realised until 2019/20, (that's after the payments from LCC that currently support the service have ended), and because of this, Fylde wants to get a head start, and it is rushing to get the scheme in as soon as possible.

Fylde has four worries about the change

 ADVERSE REPUTATIONAL IMPACT

The first worry is angry residents and what Fylde neatly calls "An adverse impact on the reputation of the Council by introducing a charge to the service.";

This is wrong.

It is not 'The Council' who are introducing the change in the way it is being made, it is Fylde's Conservative group who have side-stepped its consideration as part of the normal budget (and fees and charges setting) process in order to avoid it being considered against other budget items.

They hope to get around the 'adverse reputational impact' in what is now their favourite way - using as much spin and as much smoke and mirrors as possible.

So our readers can expect to see the blame laid at the door of Lancashire County Council - whose generosity Fylde has been happy enough to rely on for the last 14 years or so. We can also expect to see lots of Fylde Conservatives saying that 58 pence a week or 1.16 per empty is a very reasonable price to pay to have your green bin emptied, and how some really awful cuts would have to be made in other services that people value if they don't make this charge, and well, if you don't want to use it, you don't have to, and Fylde is famed for delivering value for money services so it's really alright.

Like we said, there will be a big drive - oiled with spin and smoke and mirrors and you'll see that operate using leaflets, press releases, social media, Fylde's website, and posters, vehicle signage and so on.

They have already launched a website consultation from 18 March to 6 April (even though the committee that is going to consider whether or not to do it does not meet for another 10 days!). For as long as it lasts, readers can click the link above to make comments about the planned charge for garden waste removal.

There will be press articles (the first one has already gone out) to explain Fylde Conservative's rationale for the charge. This will be followed by another push to explain new service so as to gain subscribers.

For those who do subscribe, we expect an information pack to explain what your collection days will be and what can be collected, a sticker to attach to the green bin to identify you are part of the scheme - (but we would not suggest you copy your neighbours sticker and put that on your own bin, because there is 'spy in the cab' technology to alert drivers and loaders to who has paid and who has not).

And as a diversionary tactic (so often used by spin doctors these days), you can expect to see a big push to persuade people to compost green waste at home, or to take it to the tip yourself for recycling. (That last one will be greeted with a certain irony in St Annes where we lost our recycling centre at Everest Road not so long ago).

As a last resort they will recommend the use of grey bins for those who cannot otherwise manage, but they will refuse to empty them if the lid isn't properly closed. And they won't be taking any bags from alongside the bin.

 RECYCLING TARGETS

The second main issue for Fylde is what happens if it fails to meet the EU and Government recycling targets?

Over the last 3 years, green waste has represented between 45% and 50% of Fylde's overall recycling, and that is further lifted by other recycling (e.g. bottles papers etc)

At present, no-one seems to know what will happen to councils who fail to meet the EU recycling target of 50% by 2020

An appendix to the report notes "A 50% uptake rate [of paid green waste removal] will reduce the overall recycling rate to less than 25%, below the recycling rate achieved by Fylde residents in 2005."

And there is a potential double whammy for Fylde with their current plan.

Fylde will likely see a drop in green bin use. Its current green waste take-up (without a charge) - is about 90%. But Pendle Council's experience in June 2014 showed only a 65% take up from garden owning properties after charging was introduced, and in addition, Pendle's green waste tonnage dropped 18% on previous years).

Furthermore, if people use their grey bins for garden waste (as we expect many will), it will INCREASE the non-recyclable proportion of household waste, thus making the green bins a smaller part of the total anyway.

It might even go as far as requiring Fylde to put in additional resources to cope with the greater volume of grey bin use.

 FLY TIPPING

Fylde is (rightly) also seeing a potential increase in fly tipping to avoid charges. Interestingly it has a responsibility under S17 of the Crime and Disorder Act which requires that "Without prejudice to any other obligation imposed on it, it shall be the duty of each authority......to exercise its various functions with due regard to the likely effect of the exercise of those functions on, and the need to do all that it reasonably can to prevent, crime and disorder in its area."

We wonder if, by knowing that the probability of increasing crime or disorder from flytipping exists by imposing removal charges for wasre, Fylde might fall foul of the provisions of this Act.

 COSTINGS

But we suspect Fylde's third and probably main concern is the unpredictability around how the sums will work out.

As operated at present, the green bin service costs about 561,000 a year,

Depending how many people take it up, the 30 per bin charge could raise
  • around 406,000 at a 40% take-up rate, or
  • around 560,000 at a 55% take-up rate, or
  • around 711,000 at a 70% take-up rate

So it's possible that if things are better than expected, Fylde could make a profit out of the subscription service

If it shakes out to be the same take-up as "Pendle" (65% take-up), Fylde would get around 660,000, giving them a 100,000 cash operating surplus. (Or the prospect of knocking maybe 3 or so off the charge in future years)

At lower take-up predictions, (say 50%), the income will be 508,000, but Fylde's predictions suggest their costs for this reduced level of service can also be reduced - to around 397,000 - so that might give them just over 100,000 surplus (even on a 50% take-up)

So those are some of the issues that Fylde's Operational Management Committee will consider on 31st.

We hope to report further on them in the near future.

Dated:     22 March 2016


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