It seemed more than a little unfair of Dom Joly to pursue Councillor Jean Fooks round Oxford Town Hall with a box of rotting fish on his television programme The Complainers last week. Mrs Fooks is the executant of a policy agreed in principle between all parties and which she inherited when the Lib Dems took control (in a manner of speaking) of the city. Having agreed to give an interview, she smelt a rat (as it were) and was filmed politely declining to go ahead with it.
The policy in question is the one to collect domestic rubbish once per fortnight, using the alternate week to collect glass, plastics, cardboard etc. My reservations about the attempted ambush, I suppose, conflict with my general view that every such decision is made by real people and that those people should be held to account for them. Mrs Fooks is Oxford’s Rubbish Supremo (Executive Member for a Cleaner City in the clunky lingo of bureaucracy) and if the outcome is unsatisfactory then the buck stops with the office-holder. The fact is, however, that the situation for which Jean Fooks is responsible was not of her making.
The problem originates with a 1999 EU directive requiring member states to cut the amount sent to landfill and imposing substantial fines for failure to meet the targets. In the case of the UK, the potential fine is £180 million. Responsibility for compliance falls on DEFRA, an organisation whose senior staff add a whole new depth to the meaning of the word “rubbish”. DEFRA would have known well before 1999 what the implications would be. The Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Edward Leigh had this to say in October 2007:
“Faced with the 1999 EU Directive limiting the amount of biodegradable waste sent to landfill, DEFRA issued no fewer than four vaguely worded consultation papers and strategies on waste management – but did little else. The Department must now take the tough decisions and practical steps needed to promote large-scale recycling. This will involve making it clear who is going to pay for the initiatives outlined in its latest strategy, in May 2007.
It will involve updating its systems for determining just how much progress is being made against targets. And it will involve giving members of the public – over half of whom are committed to recycling – clear guidance on what they can and cannot put into their recycling bins.
Waste treatment centres around the country will be a critical factor in reducing the UK’s reliance on landfill. The Department must start seriously engaging with the obstacles in the way of bringing them on stream.”
As Leigh said, apart from its woolly consultation papers, DEFR did nothing tangible to prepare for compliance with the Directive. The government simply passed the buck to local authorities very late in the day, making them responsible for compliance and for any fines resulting from their shares of the shortfall. Jean Fooks took responsibility in Oxford just as the resulting obligations were about to bite.
Had DEFRA done its bit in a timely fashion, we would by now have a national scheme to which each local authority could have subscribed. As it is, each one had to make its own arrangements. Food waste is one example of a problem for which the UK had no unified scheme, and this from a Government which imposes controlling, centrist schemes for almost every other aspect of our lives.
So much for the national situation. The local context made it unlikely that anyone could have done a better job than Mrs Fooks. The Lib Dems may have taken nominal power, but the reality was that no party had real control. Labour declined to continue its leadership, the Greens were not in a position to take it, and the Lib Dems filled the vacuum, losing seats by defections almost at once but stuck with the leadership. Both Labour and Greens, both constitutionally incapable of non-partisan politics, failed to back the implementation of the policy they had previously supported and contented themselves with sniping from the sidelines.
It might yet have been possible at least to bind Oxford’s citizens into this unpromising situation and make of them understanding allies. A high proportion of the populace supports recycling; just as many despise a government which imposes expenses and duties whilst abnegating responsibility and which lacks any management skills; the kiddies playground which is Oxford politics attracts similar contempt.
Enter stage left the last player in this entertainment – the local government officer here, as always, in the role of Dogberry, scratching his head in bewilderment at it all. The mechanical part of the new rubbish collection scheme was rolled out very efficiently, with large and hideous green bins dumped outside every house in no time at all. What’s to complain of then?
A parallel might be found in Rommel’s sweep through Northern France in May 1940. It was conducted with exemplary efficiency and achieved most of its objectives in a very short time. The populace had long been aware of the likelihood that this would happen but were nevertheless caught out when it happened. It found no popular support and caused much grief, but Rommel trampled on or ignored local opposition, feeling no need to advertise his coming or to explain the benefits of the new scheme of things.
That was the bit Oxford City Council missed out as well. We all knew that our rubbish collections were to be halved and that recyclables were to be collected on the alternate week. Three things were missing: one was any clear description as to what could or could not be put into which of the nasty plastic bins which had been dumped at our doors; another was a coherent explanation as to what circumstances made all this necessary; the third was any anticipation on the part of Oxford’s Dogberrys as to how to handle the circumstances which did not fit neatly into the plans.
A hail of criticism was aimed at Jean Fooks’ head. It came from or on behalf of the old or disabled, those with nowhere to store their rotting rubbish, houses with several occupants and so on. The bins themselves were eyesores in attractive streets, and that was before two weeks’ rubbish was stacked around them. Pavements were blocked, people dumped their rubbish for want of anywhere to put it, and rats scurried around the streets. Rats scurried around the Town Hall as well, as the frankly unpleasant political opponents who would have done exactly the same in Jean Fooks’ position, made all the political capital they could out of her difficulties.
So what could have been done differently? It really comes down to the lack of explanation on the part of the council. Officers diligently produced loads of words on the subject and all of them were published in one form of another – glossy leaflets, stickers on bins, letters, notices, web pages and so on. Every piece of the first phases of information said something different as to what went in bins. The bin sticker was barely literate and contained a further variant on the list of box contents. The first web pages were not only inaccurate but full of typos and mis-spellings. The standard form letter which went out to householders who got it wrong was a masterpiece of the bureaucratic pen – ploddingly patronising, offensive, and threatening in one.
Nowhere appeared a unified coherent explanation as to why all this was necessary or as to how exceptions and local difficulties would be handled. Fooks found herself permanently on the defensive, unable by convention to blame the officers, and compelled to defend piecemeal a position whose essentials had been fixed beyond her control. The government was most certainly to blame for the debacle, but local authorities blame the government for everything, and retrospective attempts to explain the role of Belgian civil servants and the incompetence of DEFRA cut little ice with those who had rats romping in their basements.
We are now told that there are further changes coming – food waste is to be collected, other recyclables will all be collected in one go, and weekly collections will return for the landfill waste. Or so I was told on the doorstep by a visiting politician, and I tend to discount what I am told in the run-up to an election. We shall see.
My starting-point was the feeling that it was unfair of a television presenter to chase Jean Fooks round the Town Hall with a box of fish-heads, despite the fact that I strongly believe that politicians should be pinned with their responsibilities, that I loathe the blot on our streets, and that I deeply resent the fact that I now have to drive to the tip whilst paying over £2,400 per year in local taxes.
How much power do local politicians really have under NuLabour? The primary problem – the lack of national preparation for recycling – can be laid firmly at DEFRA’s door. The passing of bucks to others without funding or support is New Labour’s norm. Local authorities have been made tax collectors for money they cannot control and their duties have increased beyond their means and their abilities. Councillors have to depend on officials, whose quality may be politely described as “variable”, and whose advice they must rely on – “must” because that is their duty and because they cannot do it all themselves.
It is pointless to “consult” on things which cannot be changed by the outcome of the consultation. The error here was to imply that there would be meaningful consultation and then to appear to ignore what was said.
A better set of officers would have identified the hard cases in advance and tackled them BEFORE the new scheme was rolled out, instead of leaving Jean Fooks to field the fish-heads. A decent lot of opposition politicians (“decent” in the proper sense of that term) would have worked with the newly-incumbent administration and shared the load of getting the message over instead of making cheap political points. There might then have been time to work on the literature to produce a single set of clear explanations and instructions for the public – the “clear guidance on what they can and cannot put into their recycling bins” which the Public Accounts Committee demanded.
What we have now is tolerated because it cannot for the moment be changed. None of the political parties standing for election next week has put forward a better and more credible solution than the one we have been dumped with. Not all the officers are thick or useless, and there is opportunity yet for the existing scheme to be fine-tuned to cope with specific difficulties whilst we wait for the next expensive plan.
Other articles on the subject of recycling in Oxford