Friday, September 30, 2011

Bin Localism, or Eric Pickles and bin collections

The Conservative Party MP, Eric Pickles, has been arguing for a long time for "localism": this is the idea that local communities should be free to make their own decisions about council services in how they are provided and paid for. Pickles should have anticipated better the simply counterargument: so what if city councils don't do what the government wants them to do?

A problem has been that many councils have decided to scrap weekly bin collections (translation: garbage collections) in favour of fortnightly (translation: y'know, every other week) collections. This move has saved councils money and they have had to do this thanks to Pickles's government slashing funding to councils. Councils receiving much less funding had to make cuts and many councils took the decision to cut bin collections to direct limited funding for local services elsewhere. Perhaps we would have made such a decision in the same situation, but this seems a natural -- and entirely predictable -- move for any council to make following this model of endorsing so-called localism. To be clear: the problem is that this move has been deeply unpopular with local residents. The response from councils is often (to paraphrase) "don't blame us: blame the government for cutting our funding!"

The problem with localism is that it sounds good on the election trail (and perhaps the lecture theatre), but it can make for political headaches once in government.

What to do? Well, Pickles is now offering this sweet deal to councils. They cannot fund weekly bin collections at present. So he's set up a pot of money -- for which councils may bid for funding -- and this money will (allegedly) fund weekly bin collections. The problem is that there is a catch. The funding (allegedly) is enough to cover two years, but councils will only receive funding if they promise to keep weekly bin collections for five years. That's right: if I pay you for two years of a service, then I'll expect you to offer three additional years in return.

One problem with this policy is that it is an admission of at least partial defeat of this brand of localism. Of course, no one would argue that local conditions should not matter and that local councils should be able to exercise discretion within boundaries. But this is now evidence that boundaries are no bad thing -- or at least regarding the safety of government opinion poll numbers.

A second problem with this policy is that it may mean that some councils will receive more money than others for providing this service. Thus, the council that chose to retain weekly bin collections (but cut other services) receives no extra financial assistance. However, the council that chose to use their cash different (but cut weekly bin collections) gets to have their cake and eat it, too.

Sound unfair? It is.

If councils should provide a weekly bin collection service, then the government should ensure there is satisfactory funding for all councils. This may roll back this programme of "localism" -- a programme that is noted alongside the "Big Society" in the Arts and Humanities Research Council's delivery plan for strategic research funding priorities -- but poor ideas are only a problem for the politicians who espouse them and they should be jettisoned where shown not to work.

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