What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

February 19, 2007

Oxford Labour and Greens: muddle-headed or political opportunists?

Well, at least no-one can say that Oxford's rubbish is being swept under the carpet. The local press are reporting that councillors are in "major revolt" over the 'recycling revolution' - introduced last November by the new Lib Dem administration with all-party support - which is on-track to double the amount of recycling in the city.

"Major revolt" is, perhaps, an exaggeration. I say 'perhaps' because it's becoming increasingly hard to tell quite how committed are the Labour and Green groups to the City Council's recycling expansion. On the one hand, they pay lip-service to the obvious - that everyone wants to see an increase in recycling in the city; but on the other hand they seem intent on undermining at every possible opportunity the Council staff implementing the scheme.

A cynic might infer that both Labour and Greens are more than a little guilty of political opportunism - hoping to share the credit as the recycling rates improve, but to wash their hands of the difficult decisions being taken by the Lib Dems which are needed for this improvement to happen. But, as I'm not a cynic, I'll charitably assume they are simply muddle-headed.

The issue has reared its head again as a result of an odd Council motion passed last month by Labour and the Greens, which sought to undo a fundamental tenet of the new recycling scheme.

All party groups are agreed that weekly collections of recyclable materials, and fortnightly collections of residual (non-recyclable) household waste, are the best way to reduce landfill. It stands to reason that - if you are going to move to fortnightly collections of non-recyclable waste - you need to ensure it can be stored hygienically.

That is why all households are being offered a wheelie bin. No-one is being forced to have one, not least because we recognise some households (eg, flats, or terraced houses with no gardens) simply cannot cope with a wheelie bin - in such cases special sacks are being provided as an alternative. My experience, as both a resident and as a ward councillor, is that the Council's officers are being polite, diligent and understanding in their conversations with residents. The handful of problems which have occurred in my Headington ward as the scheme has been rolled-out have been amicably settled.

However, Labour and the Greens have joined together to demand that any householder can refuse to have a wheelie bin for any reason at all. Sounds pretty reasonable, you might say. However, it ignores the following facts:

(1) Neither Labour nor Greens are proposing to return to the old weekly collections. Instead, their policy would result in more bin bags being left out on the streets, almost certainly resulting in an increase in rats and other vermin. Wheelie bins are not rat-proof - is anything? - but they are certainly more secure than loose sacks. Why should any resident have to suffer a likely increase in vermin simply because their neighbour doesn't like the look of a wheelie bin?

(2) The sacks provided to households which cannot cope with a wheelie bins are over three times more expensive, yet neither Labour nor the Greens ear-marked extra cash in last week's budget for a switch away from wheelie bins to sacks.

(3) The Council has a duty of care to its staff, and it's clear that wheelie bins are more popular with the collections crews than loose sacks, which offer no protection from hazardous materials. A Council employee has taken the highly unusual step of e-mailing all councillors to point this out:
"How many people including members of the council are aware of the many hazards when picking up refuse sacks. Injuries are plentiful, such as broken glass slashing operatives legs, needle stick injuries from discarded hypodermic syringes and strains on back and other muscles and limbs from lifting overweight sacks. We are then put in the firing line for taking too many 'sicky' days off work. The operatives are also expected to scoop up waste when bags are ripped apart by scavenging animals. The introduction of the wheelie bin service has brought a breath of fresh air to the collection of waste and the operatives I have spoken to are 100% in favour."
It will be interesting to see if Labour and the Greens - often happy to pose as the champions of staff rights - will recognize the ill-effects of their motion on the Council's work-force.

Perhaps the least pleasant aspect of this "major revolt" is one Labour councillor's publicly-stated wish to make this a vote of no confidence in my colleague, Cllr Jean Fooks, the portfolio holder for a Cleaner City, who has the unenviable job of implementing the recycling revolution.

Such personal attacks reflect far worse on those levelling them than they do on Cllr Fooks, who has devoted huge amounts of her time to ensuring the scheme is implemented flexibly, fairly and efficiently. Where mistakes have been made - as they inevitably have been - she has apologized, and ensured they are swiftly corrected. But she at least has never lost sight of the reason we are doing all this: to double the recycling rate, and reduce this city's landfill.

I can safely say that Cllr Fooks has the complete confidence of the Lib Dem administration, and that she is acting in the name of us all. I hope the unfortunate views expressed by Labour's Cllr Colin Cook do not accurately reflect his group's line, and that we might once again see a return to cross-party working to ensure the whole Council unites behind what is proving to be a hugely successful scheme.

With only one-third of the city so far covered by the new scheme, Oxford's recycling rate has already increased from 19% this time last year to 27%. In most cities, this would be a cause for celebration, and an occasion to thank the Council staff and local residents who have helped achieve such a result. It's a real shame that there are some who, instead, view it as an opportunity to indulge in some petty, partisan grand-standing.

12 comments:

Liberal Neil said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, Councillor Tall, but weren't Labour intending to introduce a less flexible version of the scheme and promising to fine anyone who didn't comply?

If they really think proposing a motion of no-confidence in a councillor who has already boosted recycling by half will go down well they will get a nasty shock next time Oxford votes.

Matt Sellwood said...

Stephen,

Correct me if I'm wrong, but you weren't actually at the meeting at the time that we discussed this, were you?

If I'm right, then that would explain why you failed to mention my repeated attempts to get some facts and data to back up Cllr Fooks' position - as I was genuinely undecided about which way I was going to vote. I wanted someone to tell me that there was real evidence that providing choice to Oxford residents on the 'wheelie bin' issue would lead to chaos, mass rejection of wheelie bins as an option etc etc. Your colleagues refused to give me any proof of this, repeatedly. So, in the end, I went with what my gut tells me that - that, in fact, only a tiny minority of people will actually take up the choice offered by such a scheme, and that it will go an enormous way towards placating residents who are currently angry and upset at what they see as an inflexible Council.

It's also worth pointing out that I explicitly congratulated Jean and the officers on their success thus far, and that I also publicly stated (again) our support for fortnightly collections. Whether residents get the final say over their collection method is not an 'anti recycling' measure - but it *is* one in favour of democracy.

Matt

P.S. Antonia posts today over at her place about the 'unholy alliance of Liberals and Greens' while you complain about Labour and the Greens. This might be hard for you both to believe - but we do actually make our decisions on an issue by issue basis, according to what we think is right for the City. Doesn't seem to go down well with Labs or Libs, but I think its an honest way to hold the 'balance of power'.

Stephen Tall said...

Happy to confirm I was there for the debate and vote, Matt. IIRC, I spoke in it.

I'm not too sure how you offer proof of future events...?

Oxford has modelled its system on the most successful recycling councils, and then added a bit more flexibility to boot.

Kendrick said...

Did you actually do any analysis of which materials are worth recycling in terms of the energy and CO2 cost related to the recycling activity? IIRC one is far better sending paper to landfill (preferably to be burned in incinerators) than expending the energy and emissions necessary to recycle, but I'd like to know if councils are taking decisions based on the evidence, rather than on the basis that landfill is taxed highly.

donpaskini said...

Hi Stephen,

How rubbish is collected in Oxford is, happily, nothing to do with me, but it strikes me as entirely reasonable that opposition parties will try to hold you to account.

The principle of the scheme (which you opposed when Labour and the Greens combined to vote the money for) has been very popular and generally successful, the details are ones where the decisions that you and your colleagues have taken has caused some problems and public concern, not helped by the fact that you immediately broke promises to do more consultation on taking power. The administration response to this has been bluster and a presumption that the officers know best rather than being prepared to listen to the people.

Liberalneil's post just highlights the hypocrisy - last year your party fought an election campaign with spin and lies about plans to fine people, which served no purpose except to undermine support for the whole scheme and get you a few votes, and yet now when opposition parties pass motions which would genuinely improve the scheme, you call it petty and partisan. I know it is not nice sometimes having to be accountable for your decisions, but it sounds like things have been going downhill - at least last August you were prepared to listen when I said at EB that charging people for extra recycling boxes was a bad idea, now the siege mentality seems to be preventing you listening to the opposition at all.

Take care

Dan xxx

Stephen Tall said...

Good to hear from you, Dan.

As I'm sure you do remember really, the Lib Dems never voted against the principle of the scheme - simply against your budget. You can do better than that.

As for 'spin and lies' about fines, this from the Ox Mail of 7th April, 2006:

City councillor John Tanner, [Labour] executive member for the environment, said: "We will fine people. We will go softly, softly for six months and then slap on the fines. People will be penalised if they put their rubbish out on the wrong day, present a wheelie bin with its lid up or put out extra rubbish, all those things could attract a fine. If they don't play the game, we'll impose fines."

Sorry if we misrepresented any of that as a 'plan to fine people'.

Matt Sellwood said...

Ah but Stephen, you've made the first mistake in Oxford politics - not completely ignoring everything John Tanner says as coming from a bizarre parallel universe. It has improved my understanding of things no end....:)

Matt

Bishop Hill said...

I'm really interested to hear your response to Kendrick's question, which is one I've often wondered about myself.

donpaskini said...

You voted against the 2006 budget which made the scheme feasible, and didn't have an alternative which would have made it possible - isn't this what you are now criticising Labour and the Greens for?

I think every councillor has been misquoted by the Oxford Mail on one or more occasions - there were absolutely no plans to introduce fines. The Oxford Mail reported it because stories about barmy councils planning barmy things is a regular feature which helps them sell papers, and your lot repeated it because you wanted votes. There is no problem with any of that, but it doesn't exactly lay the ground to be sanctimonious when other parties disagree with you about how best to implement the recycling revolution.

I will say to be fair that wheelie bins are working well in Lib Dem Liverpool, although it did take me four months to get my recycling box - I am sure Jean Fooks would have made sure I would have got one quicker had I still been living in Oxford :)

Take care

Dan xxx

Stephen Tall said...

On the off-chance you're not being mischievously misleading, Dan, but have genuinely forgotten this is the link to our 2006 budget - which very clearly spelled out how the Lib Dems would pay for the new recycling scheme, both in capital and revenue funding terms.

To suggest John Tanner was merely misquoted is, I think, stretching things. His statement (of which the above is just one example) was hardly enigmatic.

Kendrick/Bishop Hill - at the moment most councils are responding directly to the landfill taxes. I take the point about incineration, and agree these things have to be weighed up to ensure the best environmental method is selected. On the evidence I've seen so far, recycling - especially as it increases - is the most sustainable long-term method.

donpaskini said...

Sorry for the delay in getting back. Your link shows that you were planning to delay the start of the scheme until 2007 and that you weren't even going to buy the equipment until you had identified corresponding savings (which still hasn't been done). So your group opposed the scheme which started in 2006, and under your proposals would still not have bought the wheelie bins, and your colleague publicly suggested that introducing wheelie bins wouldn't achieve the improvements that they have done. I think it is fair comment to doubt your group's commitment to the recycling revolution.

Quick quiz, whose election leaflets said 'every household should have the choice between a wheelie bin and sacks?'

Take care

Dan xxx

Stephen Tall said...

Dan - always a pleasure to see you here, even a week after the original post.

So we'd have introduced the recycling revolution in a different way - your point is...?

Answer to your quiz (as you know, but there may be others still following this exchange beyond ourselves... though I doubt it) - a leaflet in my ward. Of course at the time Labour was saying every household would get a wheelie bin, regardless of whether or not they could cope with it. Didn't seem sensible to us, and we said so. 100% happy to stand by that.

It's a policy, I'm glad to say, you eventually reversed - so that no householder would be forced to have a wheelie bin who couldn't cope with it. This is a policy the Lib Dems have continued, and which Labour is now (some might say cynically) attempting to reverse.

I'm sure if you were still here on the Council, Dan, your colleagues would be behaving far less tribally, and much more responsibly.

cheers, stephen