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Local Authorities (Prohibition of Charging Residents to Deposit Household Waste) Order 2015

Volume 760: debated on Monday 23 March 2015

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Local Authorities (Prohibition of Charging Residents to Deposit Household Waste) Order 2015.

Relevant documents: 25th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 29th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, the draft order was laid before this House on 25 February. It prohibits local authorities in England charging their residents to enter into or exit from household waste recycling centres or deposit household waste or recycling at such centres. The order reinforces the principle that such centres—also known as civic amenity sites or tips—should be provided free to use by the general public or local residents in the area.

From provisions previously contained in the Civic Amenities Act 1967 to the current provisions in the Environmental Protection Act 1990, Parliament has required local authorities to provide free-to-use household waste recycling centres for their residents to dispose of household waste. The Government’s 2011 waste review supported that principle and the order reaffirms the status quo.

The order has been brought before this House because the Government know that some councils have introduced, or plan to introduce, such charges and we are seriously concerned that they will inconvenience residents, make recycling harder and increase fly-tipping and backyard burning.

The Government understand that in the Republic of Ireland, which has a series of charges on household waste disposal, the domestic burning of household rubbish is the biggest single source of toxic dioxin emissions into the air. Such pollution crosses local authority boundaries, creating a wider harm to the public good.

The councils in England introducing this “tip tax” appear to consider the household waste recycling centres in question as additional to those required to be provided without charge under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and offer them as a discretionary service—one that councils have power but not a duty to provide.

The Localism Act 2011 gave councils in England the general power of competence. This enables them to do anything an individual might do, other than that which is specifically prohibited by law. As such, in the absence of specific limitations, councils can set up discretionary services and charge for their use.

The Localism Act also gave the Secretary of State the power to make an order restricting what a council may do under the general power of competence, recognising that there were occasions where that would be appropriate. The provisions in the Localism Act operate side-by-side with those in the Local Government Act 2003, which also enable councils to charge for discretionary services, and the Government have adopted a belt and braces approach. A separate order made under the negative resolution procedure prohibiting councils from using the 2003 Act to introduce similar charges will come into force on 6 April. Drafts of both orders were provided as part of the public consultation that the Government ran for four weeks earlier this year.

I now turn to the concerns of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee regarding the length of time given for responses to the consultation and the argument that the order will lead to centres closing. Although acknowledging that a four-week consultation could result in a limited response, I do not consider that that occurred. Thirteen respondents felt that four weeks was insufficient, but the quality of responses demonstrates that providing detailed input was possible in the time available.

I reject the committee’s assertion that the judgment of the Government on the timing of the consultation was self-serving. The Government carefully considered all responses in taking their decision on whether to introduce the order. They have also been mindful of the views of affected residents. Norfolk County Council plans to introduce charges at nine of its 20 centres. Respondents opposed that when the county council consulted on its proposal, citing concerns about fly-tipping and the unfairness of charging for a service that they believe is paid for through council tax.

The Government do not want centres to close as a result of the order. Sites already making such charges will have until April 2020 to make alternative arrangements. The Government invited views on how centres at risk of closure can stay open without councils resorting to charging. Respondents provided a number of useful, sensible ideas. It will be for councils to determine the necessary blend of these and other effective measures to make such centres more cost-effective. Hampshire County Council argues that many sites are not viable for its area and that if this order is implemented it will have no option but to consider site closures, resulting in increased fly-tipping and thus imperfectly achieving the policy objective of environmental protection. However, I cannot agree that the “charge or close” scenario is inevitable. For example, Northamptonshire County Council has asked residents for views on how its household waste recycling centres could be run more efficiently. Options included entry charges and site closures, but residents were opposed. Using feedback, the council refined its plans and alternative measures are being put in place to significantly reduce costs.

The Government encourage councils to innovate and confidently use their general power of competence to act for their communities, and in their own financial interest to generate efficiencies and savings. However, having regard to the Government’s clearly expressed policy of free-to-use centres for residents, householders deserving a comprehensive waste and recycling service paid for by council tax, concerns that charges will not benefit local communities and the consultation responses, the Government consider it appropriate to prevent councils using the general power of competence in these particular circumstances. I therefore commend the order to the Committee.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his introduction of this order. More particularly, I thank the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, whose diligence in this case has been particularly helpful in getting a better understanding of what is going on here.

We are supportive of the principle that household waste recycling centres should be free to use, as charging could lead to an increase in fly-tipping and damage to the environment, but I am bound to say that this order seems to be central government micro-managing gone mad. Just a few years ago we legislated to give local authorities freedom because we believed that they have the competence and desire to do the right thing for their communities; but here we are now, snatching that freedom away. Can the Minister confirm that so far only one authority, the Somerset Waste Partnership, has actually introduced a charge? A few others are thinking about doing so, but as things stand, only one authority would be eligible to take advantage of the grandfathering provisions through to 2020. If it is not just that one authority, can the Minister tell us which other authorities are involved?

The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has criticised the consultation process as being too short, at only four weeks. Although it stated that the period should be six weeks minimum, it argues that in this case, given the intervention in local authority powers, it should be longer. Despite what the Minister said, it points out that one in five respondents criticised the period allowed for responses. Why do the Government consider it so vital to press on with this order in these circumstances and not take a pause? It is hardly a matter of national security.

There is further criticism, which we endorse, about the consideration of the responses. Just over half opposed the change. Not only was the opposition anti-localist, but there was a clear consensus about the measure being counterproductive—that is, that it would lead to closures of household waste recycling centres, with consequent increases in fly-tipping.

Consultation has elicited certain suggestions, as we have heard, for ways of avoiding site closures, but considerable doubt has been cast on the effectiveness of those, including by Hampshire County Council, which has been referred to. What detailed work have the Government undertaken to assess the viability of these alternatives? What specific models have they developed to assist authorities to avoid closure in the short to medium-term, and what assurance can the Minister give that actual closures of sites will be avoided? Why are the Government so dismissive of the points made by Hampshire County Council?

Perhaps I may refer in some detail to those points, which are in the appendix of the scrutiny committee’s report. On a number of key points, we have had no satisfactory answers or rebuttals. Hampshire County Council says that it,

“like many other local authorities, has already taken steps to reduce opening hours”,

as a means of making economies,

“and to enforce trade waste controls as a way of reducing costs. Although there is scope to go further with these approaches this is unlikely to meet the Government’s policy objectives and will still result in a much reduced service for residents”.

Presumably it will reduce services just as much as the charges for services and be an inhibitor in the use of these facilities, given increased fly-tipping. The council says that:

“Charging businesses to access”,

these centres,

“is another option which many local authorities have already implemented or are planning to implement, including Hampshire County Council”.

As for voluntary and community-sector running, it says that,

“whilst the voluntary and community sector has an important part to play in the reuse and recycling of materials, it does not consider the running of HWRC sites by the sector to be a viable option, given the economic realities. The reduced value of recyclable materials and the cost of disposing waste materials that are not reusable or recyclable make the business model unsustainable without considerable additional funding or having to significantly restrict the service”.

It refers to issues around a more transparent packaging recovering note and says that, even if that were to be effective, it simply could not be introduced overnight. It says that,

“the option to encourage greater producer responsibility could help to reduce the cost”,

but,

“the outcome may be even less desirable for local residents”.

The council has raised a number of detailed points in its representation to the Government but the Government have brushed those aside. It seems to me that the Government have a duty to evaluate them properly. If they evaluate them and still reject them, that is fine, but they have to do the work first. There is a rush to get this thing through. I know where we are in the parliamentary timetable, but why is this so fundamental and important that they have to ignore decent practice, decent consultation and a proper analysis of the risks that could involve the very thing that the Government say they are seeking to avoid actually coming to fruition?

My Lords, I warmly endorse my noble friend’s critique of this—what I can only describe as—peculiar order. I spent some time on Friday with children in a primary school in my ward who were engaged on a litter-pick on the adjoining council estate. That was quite interesting, and quite a worthwhile project from the point of view of encouraging children to take an interest in their environment and, we hope, for their parents to avoid depositing the litter there in the first place. It was also striking that, at the same time, the council in Newcastle—I declare my interest as a member of the local authority—which is meant to charge for the collection of bulky refuse from properties, had arranged a day on which it would pick up items from that estate without such a charge. I saw a full lorry-load being carted away, and more to come besides. So there is clearly an issue around these matters. However, for the Government to assume the power to dictate to local authorities on an issue like this, given the amounts of money involved, seems ludicrous.

There are some questions that I would like to raise. In the first place, what is meant by a “resident” for the purpose of the order? Would that include not merely householders or individuals but also, for example, businesses or organisations, to which my noble friend has referred? How is the council supposed to validate the provenance of those coming to take advantage of this free disposal? They might not even, for example, be a resident of the immediate local authority. Would a resident of Kent be empowered to cross the border into Hampshire and deposit something there, or does it have to be a resident of the individual local authority and, if so, as I say, would that be confined to individuals or could they be corporate?

The second question is: where does this process stop? As I have indicated, my local authority charges, I think, £15 for taking away bulky refuse. That is not a vast figure, perhaps, to most of us, but it is quite a burden on a family household on a very low income. I am in fact going to look into the efficacy of the charge, because there is certainly a good deal of refuse being disposed of otherwise than by paying for it to be taken away. Is the next step for the Government to say that there should not be a charge for bulky refuse collection? In principle, if they are going to take this sort of measure, there would appear to be no logical reason why they should not do that.

Then, of course, there are other enormous contrasts. Now, every resident in many areas will pay effectively 20% council tax because of the way that the Government have changed the council tax support system. People who have been paying nothing now have to pay—or are supposed to pay; certainly not all of them are paying—council tax at that level. Although they can deposit their refuse for nothing, assuming they can get it to the disposal area, they are required to make a significant contribution to their council tax, whereas previously they were exempt from so doing. Is this not a complete inconsistency in the Government’s approach? It is lamentable that the Government—particularly the Secretary of State, who proclaims his belief in localism—should descend to the detailed management of services such as this.

The noble Lord is, of course, not to blame for the Secretary of State’s curious ventures into these areas, and I am not expecting the noble Lord to give too full a defence of what has happened. I am sure that, privately, he would share my view—although I am not for a moment expecting him to confirm it—that this is a ludicrous contrast to all the protestations about localism and democracy which we constantly hear and to which we will return in respect of some other orders this afternoon. They are what I trust will be a final flourish on the Secretary of State’s part. Hopefully he, if not the whole of the rest of the Government, will move on to pastures new in a few weeks’ time. Then we might restore some sense in what local democracy is actually supposed to be about—that is, local decision-making, responsible to the local electorate and not to Whitehall.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord McKenzie and Lord Beecham, for their contributions. Various questions have been raised, which I will seek to answer in turn.

The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked how many local authorities had introduced, or planned to introduce, these charges. He is right to mention Somerset Waste Partnership. This team, as noble Lords may know, manages waste and recycling services for Mendip, Sedgemoor, South Somerset and West Somerset District Councils, Taunton Deane Borough Council and Somerset County Council, which has a £2 entry charge at two of its sites, at least. Norfolk County Council has plans to introduce such a £2 charge at nine of its 20 household waste recycling centres from April 2016. Dorset Waste Partnership—which manages the waste and recycling services for all of Dorset’s district councils and Dorset County Council—is currently consulting on introducing such charging for entry to one or more of its household waste recycling centres. As to whether the Government’s response was excessive, given that there is just one such charge currently and others are planned, three counties are involved, and I have listed some of the areas covered by those counties. That means that a sizeable number of council tax-paying residents will be affected. It is our view that other county councils will consult on introducing charges in due course. Hampshire County Council is clearly of the view that the opportunity to charge remains in place.

The specific focus on numbers was to do with the number of authorities, partnership arrangements or whatever which would be protected by the grandfathering provisions—that is, those which have got a charge at the moment and which they can keep until 2020. Does that apply only to those which have it as of today? What about those which are in the process of thinking about it—or might be encouraged to think about it depending on the Minister’s answer?

It will be only the one which is currently in place, which is Somerset. Grandfathering, as I remember from my life in financial services, was often applicable only to those in situ, much to the annoyance of those who had to sit exams. That is a well founded principle.

The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, asked about local authorities being able to charge for non-household waste or to charge users who are not residents within the local authority area where the site is located. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, asked, in his own charming way, what is a resident. I am sure that he knows the answer already. As he knows from his own experience, a resident of a local authority is one who lives within the council’s boundary in which the centre is sited. I can give him a practical example of how this was measured from my time in a local authority. After much hard campaigning in my ward I had managed to open a recycling centre, but this was quickly closed by the then Labour council when the authority changed hands. People from my borough tried to go into neighbouring Wandsworth sites but they had to show a local council tax bill at the entrance before gaining entry. Of course, as a Merton resident, I was unable to avail myself of the excellent facilities in the Conservative council next door. However, on a more general point, there are means available to local authorities to ensure that only residents use the sites and not non-residents.

The noble Lord also asked about business waste. The Government recognise that many local authorities charge household waste recycling centres for the deposit of non-household waste, such as car tyres, and/or for users who are not resident in the local area.

Perhaps I may go back to the point the noble Lord made about residents. To take the example I gave, if a good citizen of Kent crossed the border into Hampshire, or a good citizen or otherwise of Merton went to Wandsworth, would it be in order for the receiving centre to make a charge to that person?

That would be for the local authority. If it is not charging its own residents, that applies through this order. However, if someone who is not a resident of that locality and within the remit of that council, it is up to the local authority whether it exercises a charge. This is akin to business charges. Different local authorities have different ways of charging business users.

I was delighted to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Beecham, took part in community clear-up day. He referred to my right honourable friend Eric Pickles and his initiatives. I am sure Mr Pickles will be delighted to know that the noble Lord took part in the community clear-up day in his area. Of course, last Saturday, 21 March, was the first time we have had a national clear-up day. I was delighted that schoolchildren, residents, community groups and charity groups up and down the country played their part in ensuring that we had a good national clear-up day.

The noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, also asked whether charging could lead to the closure of costly household waste recycling sites. We take the view that it should not. The Government have asked respondents to the consultation paper about how household waste recycling centres at risk of closure can stay open without local authorities resorting to charging their residents. There are other ways to consider rather than charging local residents and we do not agree that the scenario of charge or close is inevitable. It is for individual authorities to determine the necessary blend of other measures to make centres at risk of closure more cost effective.

There are two reports from the sector. Local Partnerships’ report on Yorkshire and Humber Local authorities in 2015 demonstrated savings of up to £300,000 per authority through, for example, more effective charging for commercial waste, which I have already mentioned, and a sensible and flexible opening hours regime.

A 2015 report by the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management highlights many opportunities for further savings to be made; for example, centres diverting reusable and repairable materials from landfill. As I said, the consultation asked for alternatives to charges for centres at risk of closure.

One can understand that there may well be alternatives in some authorities to introducing charging other than closure, but the Government seem to be saying that local authorities can do pretty much anything other than closure. We know that some authorities are already restricting hours, which makes the facility less accessible and it more likely that fly-tipping will take place. Why do the Government say that local authorities can do what they want in all those areas but not simply introduce a charge if that were the one effective way to keep a facility open? That is not logical in any way, shape or form.

Again, I know from my experience that when you look at the usage of such amenity sites from local residents, it often falls on weekends rather than during the week, so there is a sensible and practical way of managing hours. Contrary to what the noble Lords, Lord McKenzie and Lord Beecham, said, the Government believe in localism. That is why we introduced the Localism Act.

The noble Lord laughs. The point is that this Government have done a great deal for localism in empowering local people in community rights debates, and so on and so forth. Unless there are other specific questions, I believe that I have answered the questions raised and I once again commend the order—

Before the noble Lord sits down, I should make clear that we want to reflect further on this. I do not say that we will, but we may well want to move a Motion of Regret or other sort when the Motion is reported to the House. It is right to put the Government on notice that that is a possibility given where we are in the timetable. We cannot conclude that here.

Hansard will have recorded the noble Lord’s comments. I cannot let the final comment pass. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, talked about whoever it is in power post 7 May. I of course look forward to standing where I am and addressing further concerns that he may have post 7 May. I commend the Motion.

Motion agreed.