Secrecy Surrounding Contract to Sort Cambridge’s Recycling in Peterborough

A third, blue, bin is due to be introduced to Cambridge shortly.

New blue bins for mixed recycling are to be distributed in Cambridge next month. Details of the city’s contract for dealing with the recycling have not been made public.

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.

I asked:

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.

See also

9 responses to “Secrecy Surrounding Contract to Sort Cambridge’s Recycling in Peterborough”

  1. A mention in the national news.

    The figures should be made public because the people who paid the money – that is, all of us — can then :

    1. See how much our council is spending when compared to other councils and compare that to the amounts recycled.
    2. Compare how much our council is spending when compared to previous years and see whether we’re doing better or worse
    3. See whether any other bidder stands up and complains that they bid lower/ provided more services etc. but didn’t get selected.

    Not being told how much money is being spent on our behalf is akin to going to a shop, picking an item off the shelves and just handing your wallet to the shopkeeper saying “Just take what you think is fine. Don’t bother telling me how much you took.”

  2. On the face of it, it seems very undesirable that waste is shipped from Waterbeach to Peterborough. Once separated the waste will have to be transported on, but I wonder what extra use of fossil fuels and CO2 emissions result from this extra journey. I had thought that Waterbeach was being built as a massive facility able to cope with the work. My present inclination is to refuse to have a blue bin, and continue with the black and blue tubs, although I assume even this separated waste will be mixed and shipped to Peterborough under this new scheme. I am therefore not at all surprised that Margaret Wright abstained. Boycott the blue bins!!

  3. Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky that we got the “free gift” in the first place. I heard that, in Cambourne, householders weren’t even given bins when they moved into their new properties, and had to purchase them from the Council. (I believe that a few refused, leaving their rubbish in the street, and were then threatened with prosecution for fly-tipping).

    But it’s certainly true that they’ve been making a profit out of this for a long time. This happened to me when I lived in a shared house in Romsey about 10 years ago after we forgot to bring the bin back in and it got stolen.

    I did wonder what happened to our bin, as it was presumably being used by one of our neighbours (rather than sold on the “black market”, as the CEN is suggesting may be happening in Chesterton). I’ve noticed several bins where one address has obviously been painted over and another has been added instead.

    Given the way that bins are left randomly strewn around the street after collection day, it’s not surprising if a few end up in the wrong back gardens. I guess this is why so many people feel the need to paint their house number on their bin.

    If my bins belong to me rather than the Council then it does raise some interesting questions about the City Council’s proposed enforcement action against people who put the wrong items in the wrong bins. Exactly what law would I be prosecuted under if I left too much food residue on a tin placed in my (own) new blue bin?

  4. I have received the below email:

    Dear Mr Taylor

    Further to your question at Environment Scrutiny Committee on 6 October, I confirm that the procurement for the Mixed Recycling Facility (MRF), transport and bulking for dry recyclables was undertaken with our partners at Huntingdonshire and Fenland District Councils using Eastern Shires Purchasing Organisation (ESPO) as the authorities procurement agent. The process was governed by the Public Contract Regulations 2006.

    I am arranging for a copy of the Invitation to Tender Document to be forwarded to you and expect that you will receive this next week.

    Yours sincerely

    Simon Payne
    Director of Environment and Planning
    Cambridge City Council

  5. At the full council meeting on the 22nd of October, Cllr Rosenstiel, who was to be the Executive Councillor for bins before the Liberal Democrats replaced him with Cllr Pitt, tabled an oral question stating:
    “To ask the Executive Councillor for Environmental and Waste Services if he can report to the Council the outcome of the joint Materials Recycling Facility contract tendering process and the benefits to be gained by the council from this example of partnership working”.

    Due to a time limit on oral questions this was not addressed during the meeting. I wrote to Cllr Rosensteil afterwards:

    Cllr Rosenstiel,

    I was disappointed that your oral question to Cllr Pitt did not get answered at the full council meeting yesterday.

    Your question covered some of the same ground as the public question I asked at the Environment Scrutiny Committee on the 6th of October:

    While I am aware the chair did not ask executive councillors to reply directly to those who asked questions which remained unanswered at last night’s meeting I am writing to ask if you would be prepared to send me a copy of any response you may get from Cllr Pitt.

    I also have written to Cllr McPherson asking him if he is able to ask for, and get published, the responses to the unanswered oral questions.


  6. Cllr Rosenstiel has replied in his own style:

    I talked to Cllr Pitt last night. The plan now is for the substance of
    the answer to be put out as a press release so you should get to see it
    one way or another.

    I have to say that your web site is as ill-informed on this subject as on

    Colin Rosenstiel

  7. That is absolutely hilarious. There can’t be anyone in Cambridge making more of an effort to become well-informed about what’s really going on in Cambridge than you are.

    Whose fault is it that we are still ill-informed about what the Council is up to?!

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