Keeping pace

Councillor Ken Manton, chair of the LGA's waste and environmental management executive, sets out the Association's policy on waste funding

Biodegradability, incineration, anaerobic digestion, landfill allowances… the technicalities of what happens to the contents of our kitchen bins is baffling to most people. But the results of the UK’s rising tide of waste – the discarded drinks cans and food wrappers which litter today’s urban streets, the increased fear of crime and loss of pride caused by their run-down appearance – are all too familiar. Public concern over the state of our streets, estates and open spaces is at an all-time high, with the quality of the local environment consistently topping resident polls.

And the problem is getting worse. The amount of waste per head of the UK population is growing by 3%/year. Fast food litter blights our town centres in ever increasing and alarming volumes. But with waste disposal and street cleaning budgets often swallowed up by central government spending priorities in education and social services, local councils face a huge challenge to keep ahead of the game.

More funding needed

The Local Government Association believes more funding is urgently needed to meet national and EU waste targets. With the volume of waste continuing to rise year on year, soaring collection and disposal costs, and a host of upcoming European directives which place new obligations on councils to improve standards. The association is warning that without more funding to invest in new infrastructure and waste management methods – and to keep pace with higher day-to-day costs – local aspirations and national targets will simply not be met.

The LGA estimates that an additional £1.44bn will be needed for waste management during the period 2005/06 to 2007/08. Put another way, councils will need an extra £0.5bn each year for the next three years over and above the amount they receive now.

Councils are working hard to recycle more – not just to meet statutory government targets, but because the cost of landfill is rising and the recycling or composting of biodegradable rubbish, which accounts for more than two thirds of household waste, helps disposal authorities meet government landfill targets. Recycling is now a commercial imperative, not just an environmental ideal.

A difficult choice

Yet recycling targets are by no means the only squeeze on council waste budgets. The government’s Landfill Allowance Trading Scheme, set to be introduced next year, could drain millions of pounds from council funds – leaving town and county halls responsible for waste disposal with a difficult choice between slashing services or passing costs on to council tax payers. All services could suffer if councils fall behind in implementing the new system.

Under LATS, local authorities which fail to meet Whitehall targets for diverting biodegradable municipal waste from landfill sites will be forced to buy permits from councils which have exceeded their goals, effectively transferring cash from councils that need money to deliver waste services to those which are already on course to meet the targets.

Authorities facing fines

Although LATS is set to begin next year, up to ten years are needed to build new facilities to divert biodegradable waste from landfill, leaving even local authorities who have planned in good faith facing fines which could run into millions of pounds.

Local authorities are committed to reducing the amount of rubbish sent to landfill sites and boosting recycling rates. But ironically, LATS means that scarce resources will be spent buying landfill permits rather than delivering the targets. The association is calling on ministers to provide substantial extra funding, flexibility and support to help councils meet the new targets rather than stripping them of valuable resources.

The poor relation

LATS is symptomatic of a wider trend in the funding of waste services, which consistently play the poor relation in comparison to hungry government priority areas such as education and social services. But the landscape is changing.

Reducing waste and upping recycling are no longer the preserve of greenies and do-gooders, but a commercial imperative for councils and business. The LGA is leading the way by encouraging councils to view waste as a resource that can feed local industry and create jobs.

Ministers must play their part with a radical reappraisal of the priority, funding and support given to waste. Processing rubbish may not be a vote-winner with the appeal of better education or increased care home places, but the consequences of leaving the problem until it is too late on the health, environment and economic welfare of our local communities will ultimately echo at the ballot box.

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