Local government waste management is emerging as a test case of the government’s genuine commitment to localism. Over the weekend, plans by the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, to rein in local authorities who charge for waste, suggest a low level of tolerance for local action and little belief in the power of local people to hold those authorities to account for their actions.
The same can be said of the Communities and Local Government Secretary’s return to the charge on alternate weekly collection (aka emptying the bins every fortnight.) As such, they suggest a very weak commitment to real localism (and a very loose reading of the normal moratorium on new government announcements during the pre-election period.)
Down in the dumps
It is hard not to feel for local government over waste management. They are caught in a vice:
- the landfill tax escalator is raising the price they pay for waste
- they have to freeze council tax
- the UK still needs dramatically to cut waste sent to landfill – to meet the looming targets in the EU Landfill directive and avoid hefty infraction fines.
But the government seems determined, apparently because of high profile campaigns run by national newspapers, to impose the targets and the taxes on local government, but deny them means of managing the problem.
The last government, at the request of local government, included discretionary powers to charge for waste in the Climate Change Act. Pilots were set to go ahead with volunteer authorities – but abandoned before the election when the volunteer local authorities pulled out. Post-election, the first milestone on the Defra structural reform plan was to remove those powers from the statute book.
Can you trust them with the bins?
The rationale for these moves is that local authorities are "charging through the back door" – though they are hardly hidden charges given the amount of publicity they are generating.
But rather than clamp down on errant local authorities, surely a localist government that has included a general power of competence in its Localism Bill, should be encouraging experimentation and diversity – and local people to boot out councils that get the political judgement wrong (possibly even boosting the salience of local issues and local election turnout.)
It is difficult to square all this with Greg Clark's six steps of decentralisation that include lifting the burden of bureaucracy and strengthening local accountability.
Indeed to quote the minister himself, "Our public services have suffered because of bureaucratic micro-management by the centre... with people feeling they have little or no control. The Coalition government is determined to redress the balance through a radical shift of power from the centre to citizens and communities."
Fine words, but if you can’t trust local government with the bins then it begs the questions what exactly can you trust them with?
The role of Whitehall
The bigger story here is the role of Whitehall in a more devolved world. For the moment, the government appears to not have its story straight on this point and different departments are trying different approaches.
In 'System stewardship', part of our forthcoming report on policy making, we stress the importance of government being clear on the role central government as devolution is ramped up. One of the factors is the "appetite for divergence".
Government is currently demonstrating a very low appetite in what is a longstanding local service with clear local accountability mechanisms. It does not augur well for the more difficult devolutions of power to come.