Hands up who wants to pay more council tax?
What, none of you?
Well, what a miserly bunch you are. And something else – it’ not going to go down at all well with our masters down at Barry Docks – and particularly not the Cabinet Member with responsibility for Finance. Why? Because in the name of cost-cutting, they’ve just front-loaded a substantial financial burden on taxpayers in the Vale for about 2 years’ time.
Remember the much-vaunted (here, here, here, and here) change to Penarth’s recycling system from our household-sorted collection of recyclate to the ‘chuck it all in one bag’ system? Well it turns out that it may not have been such a good idea after all.
It’s not just a bad idea because it produces a resource that is pretty much useless (the £14.50/tonne for the mess that comes out just about covers the fee of the centre dealing with it – some local authorities in Wales are getting nearly ten times that for separate collections). In particular, anyone involved in the recycling industry will tell you that paper should never be mixed with crushed glass.
It’s also a bad idea because it’s probably illegal.
There’s a document you might not be familiar with called the Waste Framework Directive, which establishes the legislative framework for dealing with waste in the European Union. This document is not some sort of esoteric junk from a far-off bureaucracy. It’s the law. And ‘separate collection’ of waste is specifically defined as waste streams ‘kept separate by type and nature’. The Directive also requires countries to “set up separate collections of waste where technically, environmentally and economically practicable and appropriate to meet the necessary quality standards for the relevant recycling sectors”.
Just how Defra and the Welsh Government decided that co-mingled collections the likes of which we are now blessed with in Penarth met the definition of waste streams ‘kept separate by type and nature’ escapes me. It’s not an approach that has found favour anywhere else in Europe, including our friends in Scotland.
The Directive also refers to meeting necessary quality standards. And this is where the story gets really interesting.
There’s a group called the Campaign for Real Recycling (not to be confused with the other Real Campaign) which is made up of businesses dealing with the stuff that councils collect. They like high quality recycling because they can do lots of things with it. And with co-mingling, they get anything but.
So last February they launched a Judicial Review of the inclusion of co-mingling in waste legislation. In September – that’s the same September as our separate collection was scrapped in favour of co-mingling – the Judicial Review was given permission for a hearing in Cardiff Crown Court. And then in December, the High Court judge allowed the case to be put on hold because Defra and the Welsh Government decided that the regulations needed amendment after all. If you need an indication of who won, the fact that Defra agreed to pay the full legal costs of the CRR gives you a clue.
So it looks like co-mingled collections are about to be placed on the scrap-heap. And that brings us back to our council tax.
The report on which this change was based (authors: Clifford Parish and Rob Quick) noted all sorts of ways in which the move to co-mingling would save lots of money (£284k) for the cash-strapped Vale. Presumably, the reverse move in a year or two will mean an awful lot of incurred costs. Not to mention an erosion in goodwill of Vale residents towards the recycling service.
Incidentally, it does seem a little odd that Clifford Parish in his role as Chair of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management Wales didn’t think that a legal challenge to the definition of co-mingling might be reason to approach this plan with caution. I’m not sure that an institution that “demands the highest levels of professionalism and excellence” would be overly pleased that one of its most august members had failed to take into account such an obvious risk to a major project. (And talking of major projects, a certain Cliff Parish is found hiding on the list of project executives of Prosiect Gwyrdd). But I’m sure the officers did what they thought was best using the information available.
What is really inexcusable is the apparent collapse in insight and scrutiny of this awful decision by our elected representatives.
So let’s look at the list of Penarth councillors who have backed this spectacularly poor decision – soon to be expensively reversed – time and again: Paul Church (St Augustine’s, Conservative), Anthony Ernest (Sully, Conservative), John Fraser (Cornerswell, Conservative), Maureen Kelly-Owen (Plymouth, Conservative), Sarah Sharpe (Sully, Conservative), Dorothy Turner (Cornerswell, Conservative) and Mark Wilson (Stanwell, Labour).
It would be remiss of me to exclude Councillor Sophie Williams from this list. Cllr Williams didn’t get the opportunity to demonstrate her support for the matter by being present at the Committees that voted for it. But she (and Cllr Church) has demonstrated not just tacit support, but language so strongly in favour that some might describe it as ‘fighting talk’.
The sad footnote to this story is that the standard-bearer for inquisitive, challenging journalism, the Penarth Times, apparently swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker by faithfully reproducing the Vale Council’s press release, as did the Barry and District News. Is it any surprise that local newspapers are shutting down apace if all they do is regurgitate views that are in the interest of the local elites to promote (in this case, councillors and officers)?
My thanks go to blog reader TR for digging up much of this information (any reader with information that could be of interest can contact penartharbyd[a]gmail.com)
This post has been updated to include reference to Councillor Sophie Williams and Fight Club.