On the morning of the 6th of October 2009 I attended Cambridge City Council’s Environment Scrutiny Committee. I used the opportunity for members of the public to speak at the meeting to ask the executive councillor for bins, Mike Pitt, about the new recycling contract which had been agreed a couple of weeks earlier.
Why is the city’s waste to be sorted in Peterborough? When the proposal for co-mingled recycling was approved by this committee in January 2009 it was on the basis of sorting being carried out in a highly automated process at Waterbeach yet now it has been announced sorting is to take place in a manual labour intensive process in Peterborough.
Why are the details of how decision on which tender to choose not being reported to this scrutiny committee? Someone has made a decision based on weighing up pros and cons of the various options but the basis of that decision has not been made public or put to councillors to review.
Why is the new contract for waste recycling itsself not being brought to this meeting and not being made public? What is the value of the contract; what penalties are there in the contract to deal with situations such as if the city’s waste is not as clean as the contract requires? [The existence of such a penalty clause was revealed in an email from Cllr Mike Pitt to me. ]
Cllr Ward, the Environment Scrutiny Committee chair, replied first. He said that the council was not going to make the percentage of food waste which the contract allows to be present in the co-mingled collections public. He said that this might encourage people to put such waste in the new bins whereas what is wanted is recyclables to be as clean as possible.
Cllr Pitt replied to say that the decision to use the Peterborough facility came about as a result of a joint tender process which took into account a range of factors including cost and the variety of materials which could be recycled. Cllr Pitt said that material will still be “collected to Waterbeach” and then transported to Peterborough from there. He said that the Peterborough process was also highly automated but did contain a manual step. Turning to the contract, Cllr Pitt justified the lack of proactive openness citing “Commercial Sensitivity” and said that it was “not normal for a tender process to report to a scrutiny committee”. He said that he believed the tender process had been carried out properly. Cllr Pitt committed to “check what can be made public”.
I was astonished to see the City Council’s scrutiny committee receive a report on the new blue bins which completely failed to mention the new contract for dealing with the co-mingled recycling waste.
Councils Cannot Keep How They Spend Our Money Secret
Cambridge City Council’s scrutiny committee came just a few days after waste management firm Veolia lost a case in the High Court where it was trying to prevent Nottinghamshire County Council from releasing details of its contract with them to the public. Hopefully Cllr Pitt will keep this judgement in mind when he decides what to make public.
This is not the first contract I have been asking the City Council to be more open over. During the open period under the audit commission act when local electors are supposed to be allowed to view contracts and other documents backing up the accounts I asked for the value and details of the city’s contract with SLM – the company who run the swimming pools and other leisure facilities. In that case the council refused; in my view this refusal was is only contrary to the sprit of freedom of information but also contrary to the provisions of the audit commission act. I hope that the recent judgement in the Nottinghamshire case may change the city council’s attitude to secrecy there too.
New Recycling Procedures
Councillors discussed a document describing the council’s rubbish and recycling policies. The report was introduced by the council’s “waste minimisation officer”. Cllr Herbert led the questioning by asking if residents were being given a real choice over if they wanted a new blue bin or not or if the council was putting pressure on people to take them. He asked: “How real is the choice?”. Cllr Pitt replied confirming that all residents have a choice as to if they want a new bin, or if they want to continue with boxes. He said that this would remain the case unless those using the boxes resulted in the collection rounds taking too long, in which case some people may have to have a blue bin if they wish to continue to recycle.
Cllr Herbert also asked about the £50 charge for replacing a black bin. He suggested this would encourage thefts of bins. The council’s “Head of Waste and Fleet” responded to say that the council pays only £22 for a bin (depending on market fluctuations at the time of ordering!). It was reported that “this generates a profit which helps support recycling”. Cllr Pitt said the council also offers reconditioned bins for £25, subject to availability. Cllr Herbert proposed amending the council’s policy to include this latter piece of information which had not been included in it. I think that was an excellent change as information like that needs to be available to everyone and not known only to a select group of individuals.
Cllr Wright spoke to say her main concern with the new recycling procedures was the “gap” in provision which resulted in people using their cars to take items to the skip.
Cllr Wright also asked about collection points for those with blue and black boxes which they no longer want. She was concerned about those unable to travel to the collection points. The city council officer responding said that the City Rangers would be able to collect unwanted boxes from those unable to take them to the collection points.
Labour councillors and Cllr Wright (Green Party) abstained from voting to accept the new recycling policy; it was passed by the Liberal Democrats on the committee voting to adopt it.