Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mark Lancaster.)
I rise to speak about an issue that has divided local opinion in south Gloucestershire: the introduction of green bin charges. On one side of the divide, my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) and I, the local MP for Kingswood, along with local Conservative councillors, are determined to stand up for hard-working residents, who have had little say over the increase in the money they have to pay for services that used to be included in their council tax. On the other side of the divide are the local Labour and Lib Dem councillors, whose votes ushered in the £36 charge for green bins and who are determined to retain the charge in spite of overwhelming local opposition that has dubbed the charge the “green bin tax”.
Let us be clear: no resident locally voted for a party pledging the introduction of the green bin tax in south Gloucestershire. No party stood for the local elections in 2011 on a platform of introducing the charge, which takes even more money from local people’s pockets. The way in which the green bin tax has been introduced amounts to nothing less than a stealth tax for which nobody voted and which nobody wants.
The green bin tax came into being late last year, in September 2013, when the communities committee of South Gloucestershire council voted to introduce the £36 charge for green bins. The committee was split on its decision to introduce the charge, with six Conservative councillors opposing the policy. Despite this, the green bin tax was voted in by seven Labour and Lib Dem councillors, with a majority of one. 1 recognise that local councils have the freedom to introduce charges, but it cannot be right that just 10% of all councillors in South Gloucestershire—seven out of a total of 70—voted in the green bin tax.
After local Conservative councillors were outvoted in this way, I, as the local MP, set up a petition for local residents calling on South Gloucestershire council to reconsider its green bin charge. The petition was signed by over 4,200 local people in the Kingswood constituency alone. I presented the petition to South Gloucestershire council and to Parliament. This triggered a debate in the council. However, Lib Dem and Labour councillors teamed up to ensure that the debate took place not in full council, where local people would be able to see how their local councillor voted—for or against the green bin tax—but, again, within the small cabal of the communities committee.
The green bin tax was introduced in South Gloucestershire on 31 March this year. So far it has cost £650,000 to implement, while the most recent figures show that just 36,000 out of 109,000 households have paid for their green bins. On their website, Lib Dem councillors have dubbed this a “success”. Celebrating charging residents more by forcing them to pay for their green bin waste collection seems to me an odd way of defining success. On the doorstep, time and again, I meet local residents who are furious that Labour and Lib Dem councillors have introduced the green bin tax despite having no electoral mandate to do so. For these councillors to declare their forced policy a “success” simply adds insult to injury.
On 29 April this year, I formally submitted my petition of 4,200 local residents to Parliament. On 3 June, I received a welcome formal response from the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who stated:
“Ministers believe that councils should not be introducing stealth taxes by imposing new charges on local residents. Instead, councils should be making sensible savings by better procurement, more joint working and cutting fraud, in order to protect frontline services and keeping council tax and charges down”.
I was grateful that in his reply he stated on the record that he
“endorses the Petitioners’ suggestion that the council reconsider its actions in imposing these new charges.”—[Official Report, 4 June 2014; Vol. 582, c. 1P.]
During the debate in the communities committee of South Gloucestershire council triggered by the 4,200-signature petition of local residents, councillors voted to review the impact of the green bin tax on local residents. I hope that they will listen closely to the Secretary of State’s comments on the petition. I would welcome any comments that the Minister has for South Gloucestershire councillors on what they should be doing to focus on further efficiency savings rather than simply increasing and passing on the costs to local residents.
The introduction of the green bin tax in South Gloucestershire has important implications for whether councils can legitimately claim that they have frozen council tax. This Government have rightly urged councils to freeze council tax, and that has taken place in South Gloucestershire over the past three years, in marked contrast to what happened under the Labour Government, when band D council tax rose from £635 to £1,245. In fact, the Government have provided incentives for councils to freeze council tax, at the same time introducing a referendum trigger if they increase it by more than 2%. South Gloucestershire council claims to have frozen council tax this year, yet when the £36 green bin charge is added to the bill of a band D council tax payer, that results in a total increase of more than 2% being paid to the council—something that would have triggered a referendum if the bin charges had been included in council tax alone. The many residents who have pointed that out to me are surely right to claim that the bin tax is nothing but a stealth tax, imposed through the back door to avoid the scrutiny of local democracy or giving residents a say through local referendums.
Rather than confining the trigger for a referendum to council tax alone, I urge the Minister to consider whether the mechanism should be expanded to include any additional charges imposed by local councils, so that the overall cost of local government and the overall amount of money that councils are taking out of local people’s pockets can be more accurately reflected. In that way, rather than the green bin tax being introduced by just seven Labour and Lib Dem councillors, local people would have been able to vote for the waste services they want and the cost of delivering them.
On a similar point, although local authorities have the freedom to introduce charges, I believe that should be done only through a named vote at a meeting of full council, so that local residents can be fully aware of how their own local councillor voted on additional charges that will cost them personally. Surely this is a simple matter of openness and transparency, so local councillors should be able to vote individually on these matters on behalf of their residents. Local people in Kingswood deserve to know if their local councillor would vote for or against charging. Few people could argue that the vote of just seven Labour and Lib Dem councillors reflects the decision of an entire council on behalf of its residents.
Both I and local Conservatives will continue to campaign for the reversal of the green bin tax in south Gloucestershire. As a result of the combined determination of Labour and Lib Dem councillors to defend the bin tax for which they voted, we may have to wait until the next time local residents have a chance to voice their own opinion on the matter at the next local elections in May 2015.
The experience of the introduction of the green bin tax in south Gloucestershire points to a worrying decline in local accountability over exactly how local authorities can impose charging on residents. I hope the Minister will continue to monitor the situation regarding local authority charging policy on waste, both in south Gloucestershire and nationally, and consider taking appropriate action in due course.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) for securing this debate. I know that he has spoken to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government about the matter and, as he has said, that he has submitted a petition signed by more than 4,000 Kingswood residents opposing South Gloucestershire council’s charge of £36 for the collection of their garden waste. I fully endorse the petitioners’ suggestions.
My hon. Friend makes a very interesting point about the transparency of decision making. Councils that are considering introducing or raising charges might want to think about discussing it at full council, where there is full transparency of how councillors vote, especially given that we are talking about decisions about front-line services. South Gloucestershire residents can rightly ask why a council with about £43.5 million in reserves is looking to impose more charges on them.
I believe the council may be considering a report in September on how the tax can be scrapped. I strongly urge the council to listen to its residents and to do the right thing. Prevailing legislation allows for councils to charge for discretionary services such as the collection of garden waste. However, we have made clear our belief that councils should not introduce stealth taxes by imposing new charges on local residents. Instead, they should make sensible savings through better procurement, more joint working, and cutting fraud, while protecting their front-line services and, quite rightly, keeping down council tax and charges. That can be done in a range of ways. All councils should look at our practice guidance, “50 ways to save”, because taxpayers should not be treated as cash cows, which the residents under discussion would be right to argue is what is happening in their case.
It is disappointing that South Gloucestershire council is introducing a charge for garden waste collection. Such charges threaten to increase fly-tipping, increasing the clean-up costs for the council and harming the environment in the long run as well. Indeed, recent research by the university of Kent has found that the adequacy of garden waste collection is significantly related to fly-tipping behaviour. In areas where respondents reported that garden waste collection was not adequate, they admitted that they were more likely to fly-tip compared with respondents who reported that their service was adequate for their household needs.
It is particularly disappointing that charging has been introduced in an area where fortnightly collections of residual waste have recently been introduced. That means that there has been a significant reduction in services for the residents, as in South Gloucestershire, at the same time as charges have gone up. I hope the council will look at how it can reduce council tax to match the increase in charges.
We of course know where this all started. The previous Government had a policy of actively pushing fortnightly bin collections, and of hitting hard-working families with stealth taxes. Cutting weekly rubbish collections was not originally a locally-led initiative, but an explicit Whitehall mission pursued with zeal. What did the previous Government do? Their “Household Waste Prevention Policy Side Research Programme” report advocated
“collection limitations in terms of rubbish bin size or the interval between collections”,
“to nationalise this policy among local authorities”.
Legislation in 2005 allowed the introduction of bin fines for minor breaches of complex and confusing bin rules. Further legislation in 2008 watered down councils’ legal duties to collect rubbish. The previous Government funded the covert imposition of “Bin Brother” microchips in families’ bins. In 2009, the pre-Budget report made it clear that a further wave of bin cuts was planned. In short, the town hall Taliban doubled council tax and halved bin collections.
We do not agree with those measures; there are other ways of dealing with such things. This Government believe that households deserve a frequent and comprehensive rubbish and recycling service in return for the average of £122 a month paid in council tax by a typical band D household, especially given that the typical refuse collection service costs councils only £6 to £7 a month to provide. It is reasonable for householders to expect their waste to be collected every week. It is the most visible service people get for their council tax, and it is often the No. 1 item on their list of what they expect for it.
South Gloucestershire council has stated that if it does not charge for the green bin service, it will have to make cuts that might affect other services, such as libraries. It is a very tired old refrain to put front-line services on the line by saying that it is a question either of charging more for discretionary services or of making cuts. The statistics simply do not back up that story, which is why we are so against stealth charges, as is highlighted by this important debate. Instead of moaning, the council could start by collecting all the council tax it is owed: in 2012-13, £2.2 million of council tax went uncollected. The council should focus its energy on changing the way in which it does business, rather than on a back-door bin tax.
We are supporting local areas through a range of opportunities, and we are clear that there is more they can do. Great councils are finding ways of saving money and improving front-line services. Some 337 councils are involved in 383 shared service arrangements, saving about £357 million a year. Shared chief executive and senior management teams can save between £500,000 and £1 million a year for small district councils. We have brought in the transformation challenge award of £410 million to help councils to transform the way they run their local services to put users first. Other examples of good practice include shared services, such as between Babergh and Mid Suffolk councils, and cracking down on fraud, with Ealing council set to realise nearly £7 million of savings by taking action against fraudulent council tax claims.
Moving to a fortnightly collection of residual waste may appear an easy or lazy choice for a council that wishes to save some money, but such a decision can often be made without thinking creatively about how to make cost-effective changes to the service while retaining a five-star weekly refuse collection frequency. There is no need to introduce any more stealth taxes for refuse.
In fact, we are working with local councils to increase the frequency and quality of waste collections, to make it easier to recycle and to encourage reward schemes to increase recycling. If we want more recycling in our country, we need to encourage and motivate people, not penalise them for what seems to be the very normal way of putting out their rubbish.
In February 2012, we set up a £250 million fund to help local authorities to provide a weekly waste collection service. Since November 2012, 82 local authorities have been implementing their successful bids. We will see huge investment over the period of 2012 to 2015 to support the delivery of cost-effective, high-performing weekly collection services. The scheme will safeguard weekly collections for around 6 million households until 2017, with an extra 400,000 tonnes of material being recycled and a million fewer tonnes of waste-related carbon dioxide emitted.
Our recent guidance on weekly rubbish collections demonstrated how local authorities can improve recycling and make common-sense savings on waste collection while preserving the frequency of rubbish collection. It challenged myths we have heard before, such as the idea that people do not want their bins emptied every week. As my hon. Friend has outlined, talking to any resident on any street will prove that to be false. Research found that two thirds of people think frequent and regular rubbish collections are the most important feature of the waste service. Another survey found that two thirds of the public thought that the Government should mandate weekly collections, that weekly collections were better and that problems with flies and smells were much worse with fortnightly collections.
A number of successful bidders to the weekly collection support scheme passed on the views of their residents, which were similar to those my hon. Friend has outlined in Kingswood and South Gloucestershire. Cornwall council told us that its bid
“emphasises our commitment to the weekly black bag collection service that our residents said they wanted to keep.”
North Tyneside council said:
“Our weekly bin collections are one of the council services most valued by the residents of North Tyneside.”
Dartford held a referendum: 95.3% of respondents agreed with the borough council’s decision to keep weekly collections of residual waste.
We have taken a series of other steps to help households. We have supported over 40 innovative reward schemes to back recycling. Through the Localism Act 2011 we revoked the 2008 legislation that allowed for the imposition of new bin taxes. We have been changing building regulations to tackle bin blight. We have removed powers of entry and snooping powers from the “binquisition” inspectors and have scrapped guidance telling councils to rifle through people’s bins. We have issued guidance to stop the imposition of illegal back-door bin charging on household bins. We stopped Audit Commission inspections marking down councils that do not adopt fortnightly collections and abolished the local area agreements and national indicator 191, imposed by Whitehall, which created perverse incentives to downgrade waste collection services.
We scrapped the Whitehall requirement for municipal annual efficiency statements—I am sure many people read those on a quiet Friday night—that allowed a reduction in the frequency of household rubbish collection to qualify as a valid efficiency. We also scrapped the imposition of eco-towns, which would have had fortnightly bin collections or bin taxes as part of the eco-standards, and stopped funding the Waste Improvement Network, which told councils to adopt fortnightly collections.
We challenged the incorrect interpretation by some bodies that European Union directives require fortnightly collections, and resisted the imposition of bin taxes by the European Union. Through the Deregulation Bill we are changing the law to scrap unfair bin fines. In short, ours has been a fundamentally different approach from that of the Labour Government: we are working with families to help and encourage them to go green, but believe in regular and comprehensive collections for tax-paying households. They already pay enough in council tax and deserve a first-class waste service.
To conclude, this charge is unreasonable. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I applaud him for standing up for the residents of Kingswood and elsewhere in this debate. It is a stealth tax. I urge the council to stop treating its taxpayers with contempt and to start looking at reducing unnecessary costs—we have shown a number of ways to do that. Many authorities are radically reducing management and changing the way they deliver services to deliver substantial savings while keeping first-class front-line services, and even improving their services. South Gloucestershire needs to follow suit instead of using taxpayers as cash cows. In September the council has a chance to put things right; I hope it does the decent thing and scraps the bin tax.
Question put and agreed to.