The Places Scrutiny chairman launched Agenda Item 6, the snappily entitled ‘Transition From The Combined Food And Garden Waste Service To The Separate Food Recycling And Opt-in Chargeable Garden Waste Collection’ with the refreshingly honest admission that there appeared to have been a spike in fly tipping since waste collection became chargeable.
Deputy Director for Public Realm and other things, David Bryce-Smith said that an increase had been the trend for the past two years but admitted to a further upward trend since the bin tax was introduced.
Councillor Seán Newman (Labour, Belvedere) didn’t let him get away with being rather vague about the actual numbers which had more than doubled over the past couple of months. His party had forecast it would when the council first discussed the new bin regime while the Conservatives ridiculed the thought. It seemed a very stupid stance at the time and it seems no less stupid now. Nevertheless the Conservatives broke into giggles while Seán was speaking about “the borough being visibly less clean”.
Under further questioning from Labour councillors the Deputy Director agreed that there was no explanation for the worsening situation other than the new bin rearrangements.
On the subject of fly tipping he said that the council prefers to levy fixed penalty notices on small scale offenders rather than prosecute, the implication being that Bexley council pockets the proceeds rather than the court service.
Mr. Bryce-Smith had a formal report on the subject ready for presentation. In my estimation Bryce-Smith is one of the better council officers. I suspect that if he was directed to bend the truth he would be caught out by stumbling over his words even more than he tends to already. He is probably as honest as one is likely to find in a top level post at Bexley council and certainly his report didn’t flinch from the stark realities. Here's some of his key points…
• The residual waste collected (green bin) may be going down since the new scheme became operational but the scheme overall “didn’t go to plan’.
• More people are expected to sign up for garden waste collection in the Spring.
• No other authority had delivered a scheme involving the swapping of bins so there was no experience to draw on.
• There were “significant problems with bookings growth”. The number is currently over 32,000 which was the number expected for June next year.
• The delivery contractors were much slower than promised and agency staff were unreliable.
• Because the contractors wrongly said distribution could be completed in five weeks they moved on to another contract leaving the Bexley contract unfulfilled.
• Three different IT systems proved to be inadequate. The one in the council’s Contact Centre failed under load and lost some 800 orders while transmitting them to Serco.
• Serco’s in cab IT system was not working properly and still isn’t. All the IT services were overwhelmed. Five servers were increased to 100.
• Additional Contact Centre staff was recruited but some left “because the work was too much for them”. At one time the call level was at 21,000 a month but it's now under half that.
• The bin manufacturer closed down for the summer holidays and if more had been ordered earlier the port authorities would have charged for storage.
• New bin orders are now being processed to delivery within a week.
• Food waste volumes “are looking good” but reductions are anticipated as people realise how much they are throwing away.
• Budget savings will be delivered earlier than expected. Sign ups may be encouraged towards Direct Debit maybe with a discount.
In response to Labour questions we learned that ‘orphaned bins’ (uncollected 140 litre brown bins) were said to be few which is not something that anyone who peers over front garden walls will be agreeing with. Councillor Craske’s assertion that only ten food bins had been reported broken was disowned.
Councillor Stefano Borella (Labour, North End) thanked the two council officers for their report and asked if a pilot scheme had been considered. It had been ruled out on equality grounds. Can’t charge in one ward and not another. It was accepted that some early orders for bins were delivered towards the back of the queue and distribution was inefficient “going to the same road three or four times”.
Councillor Borella enquired as to how much the cabinet member (Peter Craske) was involved while the problems were on going. He reminded the meeting that back in February “32,000 bins was an achievable target but there has been back tracking since then”. Stefano quoted from David Bryce-Smith’s written report which said “New garden waste bins about 32,110 delivered. Tranche 1, 2nd June to 19th July 2015”. Council officer Steve Didsbury said that was a mistake, the report should have made it clear they were order dates, not “delivered” as it stated.
Councillor Gareth Bacon (Conservative, Longlands) said that Stefano quoting from the council’s report amounted to “an aggressive insult to councillor Craske” which was a very strange response given that Peter Craske’s name had only been mentioned as part of the question, was cabinet member Craske “hands on” or was he not.
Gareth Bacon invited the chairman to request that councillor Borella apologise for quoting from a misleading council report.
Councillor Borella declined the request so councillor Bacon said he would “object again. It was unpleasant of him not to apologise for his mistake in this public forum. He has had a go at a cabinet member completely unjustified, he should retract and apologise.”
The chairman backed Bacon’s request but councillor Borella stood firm. All he had done was ask if councillor Craske was closely involved in bin distribution and quote dates from a council report that was not as carefully worded as it should have been. There was no actual criticism of councillor Craske although perhaps councillor Borella was planning some. Bacon was making a mountain out of a molehill.
Bacon ranted on that Stefano Borella should not have referred to dates which were wrong and he should have realised they were wrong. Councillor Craske said he “didn’t care about personal insults”. With his record that is not surprising. At least he is not a hypocrite.
Councillor Cheryl Bacon queried the readiness of the on-board IT systems of Serco’s vehicles, Steve Didsbury said he had six months to get it right. The system will be essential once some residents do not renew their subscriptions. Councilor Bacon said she was “disappointed” with the situation. She didn’t want people “to be given too many chances to renew. The system should be tightened up somewhat”. She has her reputation as a tyrant to uphold.
Mr. Didsbury offered to bring a Serco vehicle to Watling Street so that councillors could see the IT system at first hand.
Councillor Davey (Conservative, Crayford) wished to justify his existence by saying that the new waste service was “good”. His wife didn’t think so but she was coming round.
Councillor Howard Marriner (Conservative, Barnehurst) wanted to be assured that when residents inevitably decided to give up their garden waste bin or realise it would be better shared with neighbours, there would be a system in place to deal with the situation.
I thought it was a very worthwhile question and something I had been thinking about myself, but Howard was given no answer at all. The chairman moved on to the next Agenda item.