In case anyone missed it Mr Pickles has established a £250 million fund which he will use to assist local authorities to reinstate weekly bin collections. Mr Pickles apparently ‘raided every biscuit tin’ in the DCLG to find the money for his number 1 priority and stated that having your bin collected weekly is a ‘basic right’.
The reasons that Mr Pickles is wrong are almost too many to mention but as a quick top seven, in no particular order, here goes:
- Having your bin collected every week is not a basic right, genuinely.
- Having your bin collected every week is a high priority in a lot of areas but is not in others.
- A true localist would let the local community, and their council, decide whether or not to have a weekly collection
- Many councils are contemplating severe cuts to many other services (such as social care). Surely, if there was a biscuit tin to raid he could have found something better to spend it on.
- Weekly bin collections usually lead to less recycling and more landfill which is both bad for the environment and expensive (due to the landfill tax). Councils are likely to be placed in a very awkward position but this policy.
- Some councils still have a weekly bin collection and are probably the councils who most need a weekly collection and yet they are the least likely to be eligible for the money. Those that don’t ‘need’ such a collection will get money to reinstate it.
- The pot will only be available for a council who ‘bids’ for the money. I spy a very bureaucratic procedure with scoring criteria and lots of forms; surely this is in very real contrast to what the Government stands for?
So, if the announcement and the allocation of a quarter of a billion pounds was so obviously wrongheaded we need to ask; why exactly did he do it?
I have a theory. It’s not much of a theory but here goes. Eric Pickles genuinely believed that what he was doing was a) the right thing to do and b) that it would be popular. Let me explain:
My experience of local elections and local politicians is that in general elections are not won on the 50-60% of the budget spent on adults or children’s social care. It certainly isn’t won on the 10% spent on central council services.
Local elections are won and lost based on a very limited amount of services that affect the day to day lives of the majority of the population; parks, libraries, leisure services (sometimes), street cleaning, streetlights and crucially waste collection in all its various forms.
Eric Pickles is a former local government leader so he knows that. Added to this he would have seen that weekly bin collections had been a major election issue in many council areas in the last few rounds of local elections. Put the two together, and the political operator in Mr Pickles thinks that the £250 million is money well spent; not just for the cynical reason that it would be popular but for the very real reason that politicians are elected to do things for the people who voted for them.
Despite this, Mr Pickles was still wrong.
I believe he made the classic mistake of over interpreting the evidence. Whilst some local authorities did face vocal opposition to the weekly bin collections other councils have been through the opposition and have actually bedded alternative models in well. Others have simply ruled it out in the face of local opposition and upon looking at the evidence have decided that a weekly collection (or maybe more regular) is appropriate.
In other words, in many areas the model now used is 100% appropriate and doesn’t require Government interference.
The other mistake that Mr Pickles made was a mis-calculation about the impact of the local government cuts. The cuts faced by councils up and down the country are huge. Consequently, local politicians, and increasingly local residents, are realising that the big issues facing them are far beyond the normal ‘classics’ mentioned above.
If that hadn’t been the case then the £250 million would probably have been really welcomed.
In a way I think Mr Pickles was fighting the battles of two or three years ago and because he still hasn’t got to grips with the impact of the cuts that he has inflicted on local authorities his policy announcements are wide of what those of us who work and care about local government would have hoped for.
This week at conference is the opportunity for him to prove us wrong.
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