Are the Conservatives losing the argument on ‘bin taxes’?

The Guardian reports that Conservative shadow Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, has threatened to expose Conservative councillors who get involved in variable charging schemes as ‘collaborators’.

I’m not quite sure what conclusions I draw from this.  Obviously domestic rubbish collection and recycling is seen as an area where the Opposition can garner significant public support; the persistent trickle of ‘bugs in bins’ stories in the press seems determined to keep this at the top of the political agenda.  But the tactic of threatening your own party members with a vote-losing public ‘outing’ seems rather odd.  Does Eric Pickles not have confidence in his colleagues in local government to represent the people who elect them and to make local decisions?

What I would really like to see is a clear statement from the Conservative party on what they would do in power to tackle this country’s dependence on landfill and incineration.  If there is an as-yet undisclosed ‘third way’ in which we can stop filling the ground with rubbish and the air with methane without having to put chips in bins and expensive equipment on the back of every bin truck then I’m sure it would be a great vote winner.

Mr Pickles – feel free to click Comment below and fill in the details….

Variable waste charges cause cancer! You couldn’t make it up…

Well, I rather suspect that someone has!

I’ve long suspected that certain newspapers and other media outlets have simply decided that waste collection is one of their ‘old faithful’ subjects that they can simply reheat every time they have a slow news day, alongside ‘who killed Princess Diana’ and ‘chocolate is good for you’ (or bad for you, depending on whatever they wrote last time).

Even so, I had to chuckle at the link between ‘pay as you throw’ and cancer! There are many reasons why people burn things in their garden (barbecues quite possibly chief amongst them for middle-class Daily Mail readers), many sources of dioxins in the atmosphere and many causes for many variants of cancers. The article doesn’t consider the negative effects of our landfill culture on the local environment and the wider carbon emissions problem. I don’t have any idea whether one outweighs the other but unfortunately this rather unbalanced article doesn’t leave me or anyone else any the wiser.

What is undeniable is that there is a common concern, particularly from the Irish experience with variable charging, that ‘pay as you throw’ will lead to environmental side-effects such as fly-tipping and waste burning. Local authorities implementing schemes must ensure that they include clear communication (supported by local by-laws if necessary) to prevent diversion of waste to illegal burning and dumping.

I’m sure the Daily Mail will be very supportive of councils who clamp down on people having illegal, cancer-causing bonfires in their back gardens!

Original article here

Open Letter from the LGA regarding Landfill Tax revenues

It is a popular argument against ‘pay as you throw’ that this is simply another stealth tax designed to swell Whitehall coffers at the expense of Council Tax payers.  The Government has often claimed in its ‘marketing’ of variable charging schemes for waste that ‘revenue neutrality’ will be transparent and will reduce costs for effective recyclers at the cost of those who persist in sending recyclables to landfill.

DEFRA themselves are insisting that any proposals put forward for their 5 pilot ‘waste incentive schemes’ must demonstrate that they are revenue neutral and don’t raise any additional income for the council.  It is therefore worrying that the Local Government Association should be concerned that the Government is already using Landfill Taxes (a supposedly ‘green’ tax) as a general revenue raiser and not returning the funds to local government as promised.

Below is the letter Paul Bettison wrote to the Local Government Chronicle in May of this year…

Your article ‘Waste reduction insufficient’ states that in the last financial year, councils paid net £407m in landfill tax, following a rebate of £291m. In fact, Government has never clarified how much landfill tax revenue has been returned to councils, despite repeated requests by the LGA. It has simply said that the cost of landfill tax is taken into account in its assessment of local government spending pressures. We therefore cannot say that £291m was returned in 2007-08.

This position is becoming even more serious. The Government is substantially increasing landfill tax rates, but it appears there is no longer a commitment to return the extra money. John Healey said to the CLG Committee Enquiry on Refuse Collection in December: “we have changed our approach in this spending review period from the way we … had the full and automatic offset for local government in the previous period.”

The outcome is that despite increasing recycling rates, we estimate that councils will still pay more in landfill tax (in fact £1.5 billion over 3 years). This money will be swallowed up in government coffers, at the expense of helping councils to take further action to develop sustainable waste solutions.

This is not an acceptable outcome, puts increasing strain on council tax and does nothing to support the investment the country needs in more effective waste management. We need transparency about what Government is prepared to invest from burgeoning landfill tax revenues.

Yours truly,

Paul Bettison
Chair, LGA Environment Board

original article link here

Bin tags – revenue raiser or tools for reducing Council Tax?

I’m not a tax inspector or a traffic warden. It’s worse than that – I work in the waste collection industry. Admit that, even in polite circles, and you might as well add “I’ll get my coat”. It seems that everyone has an opinion on the role of technology in waste collection, usually underpinned by the suspicion that a new tax is just around the corner.

RFID (the ‘chip in the bin’) seems in danger of being blighted by its association with ‘pay by weight’. With householders now on the lookout for any signs of a technology which might be a Trojan horse for variable charging it would perhaps be a brave local authority who publicly announced that not only were they putting chips in bins, but were also going to read the tags and weigh the bins at point of collection.

This is a shame because bin tags are an established technology which can empower local authorities and their contractors to improve services and reduce costs. Cutting out recalls for missed bins (and the enormous administrative effort that it causes) is one quantifiable benefit, but precise household-level data and automated auditing functions are all part of a picture of increased efficiency and faster response. The waste industry has historically been slow to adopt technology solutions, but smart adoption of RFID could make a big contribution to improving the relationship between householder and Council and ease the way for future changes such as variable charging.

Consumers are accustomed to suppliers keeping them up to date with service information via email and the web. My water, electricity and gas suppliers all send me information about my service electronically – why shouldn’t waste collectors do the same? “Thank you Mrs Smith, this month you recycled 44% of your waste and as a result the end of the world has been postponed by 28 seconds.” OK, that still needs a bit of work, but it demonstrates the level of information that can be made available, both internally within the local authority and more widely to consumers of the service.

The technology and equipment required to do this already exists, and much of it is already in place in a number of Councils. The challenge is for local authorities to openly embrace RFID and weighing and prove to householders that it can be about much more than pay by weight. The technology can be used to identify households recycling successfully and deliver targeted assistance to those who are not. The result can be a much stronger relationship with householders; a win-win where householders get improved service, councils reduce operating costs and recycling rates increase.

Then again, perhaps they’ll just be used to charge us more for waste collection.

Pay as you throw – it’s already here and appears to be working!

Blaby District Council introduced the UK’s first variable charging scheme for household waste in 2000.  The scheme was designed to restrict householders to 140 litres of non recyclable waste per week, and gave householders the option to purchase additional capacity and waste services as and when required.


The intention was that by restricting the capacity of the residual waste bin, residents would realise how much waste they produce and therefore encourage householders to make full use of the opportunities available to reduce and recycle their waste. The philosophy behind the scheme was communicated to residents by distributing a DVD with a special edition council newspaper to all 37,500 households in the District.  In addition to this a number of roadshows and promotional events were held to reinforce the message.

Blaby clearly believe that the scheme has been successful, as the amount of waste to landfill reduced by 3% within its first year of operation and the overall recycling rate has increased from 29.3% in 2004/05 to 37% in 2005/06.

This methodology is pretty much an exact fit with the ‘bin size scheme’ described in the draft ‘Guidance to Councils’ issued by DEFRA.  What is most interesting is that Blaby have managed to implement a scheme some 8 years ahead of the Climate Change Bill which DEFRA have heralded as being a necessary piece of legislation to enable waste incentive schemes to be piloted.

Couple fund honeymoon with recycled litter

A couple from Hampshire have hit the news by collecting enough AirMiles from recycling litter they picked up from the streets at the local Tesco store. It’s one of those ‘and finally’ stories that run at the end of the news, but it does raise a few interesting questions (not all of them entirely serious)…

  • how does the cost of the flights compare to the costs the Council would have incurred collecting the litter? Does this point the way to cost savings where Councils close their street cleaning departments and award holidays and consumer white goods to people who bring in litter?
  • are Tesco aware of the irony of rewarding the green activities of people with Clubcard points which are subsequently converted to AirMiles, these in turn being converted into huge amounts of carbon dioxide?
  • did Ann Till collect all the litter herself, or did she have a mob of small cartoon characters driving around in a car to help her? If you don’t get that joke then please Google ‘Penelope Pitstop’.

However, this does point the way to capturing the public’s imagination and boosting recycling. Could such incentives to recycle point the way to a positive ‘pay by weight’ scenario? Certainly if glass and other dry recyclables were taken to supermarkets and other ‘community locations’ then the collection becomes much more financially and environmentally efficient than sending a vehicle to every house every fortnight.

Sony Xperia X1

I wrote recently about my dream smartphone, wondering if it would every really exist. A friend just sent me info on this gorgeous wee beast. I’m a self-confessed Sony fan and I reckon this would just about fit the bill perfectly. It will no doubt be priced for its target market (i.e. pretty high).

In my view, Apple have really missed a trick by locking the iPhone into a single-network contract. This effectively closes a large section of the corporate market, where the execs want a stylish and powerful tool for email and web – exactly what the iPhone is good at. If Sony deliver a device that works they will be on a real winner with this. Putting a stylish user interface on the front of Windows Mobile 6 could be an inspired move that lets big corporates run their own software without making the X1 a dull business-only tool.

I want one….

I Don’t Want a German Car

As a rule, I dislike making the obvious choice. It’s much more interesting to do something a bit unexpected, particularly when buying stuff. At home I run Windows on a Mac, I bought a PS3 at a time when all rational folk were buying Wiis and X-Boxes and my company car (mostly used for long-haul motorway driving) is a pick-up truck.

With the exception of the latter, these choices have all come good. The Mac is stable, fast and switches easily between Vista and OS X. It serves all the media throughout the house without complaint. Sony have finally won a format war after 30 years of glorious failures and have continuously updated the PS3 to the point where it does absolutely everything I could want (OK, a proper music library and slightly less fussy MP4 playback would be nice).

Even the truck, a stinking pile of unreliable Japanese tat that will be subject of a future article, has done what I asked it to – that is, get me from where I am to where I’m going (and usually, but not always) back again for £500 tax including fuel in Year 1 and £1400 in Year 2. But the 2 years are up and it’s time to change. So I’ve been looking for an interesting car – something that can quietly match the undoubted quality of the BMW 5 and Audi A6 without being the default choice.

The bad news is, there is only choice for any sane company car driver. It is cheaper to run as a company car than any competitor (and by a country mile), is faster, handles better and rides comfortably. If it had the seats from a Volvo V70 and the leather didn’t look so plasticky (so much so that I’ve chosen cloth) then it would probably be utterly faultless.

So if you want a exec company car but don’t want a BMW 5 Series I’ve got bad news. Whatever you do choose is going to be more expensive, slower and handle worse than the car you should have bought. And unless you buy the V70, it will be less comfortable too.

How many devices does one man need?

…and how many can he realistically carry?

For years I worked as a laptop-only worker.  Office, home, train, hotel – the trusty laptop did the job with a variety of accessories such as data cards, USB sticks (which I invariably lose within 2 weeks) and external drives.  It worked – I always had the files I needed and didn’t have to worry about synching favourites, address books and source code.

Over time, the forces of progress conspired to break this policy.  As my computing needs grew (working with ever larger databases, processing high-resolution photographs and manipulating complex project plans) I was drawn to bigger, faster laptops.  At the same time I was spending less time in the car and more time in airports and railway stations, drawing me to the lightweight and low power ultra-portable notebooks.  So, I succumbed to a meaty desktop with 24″ monitor and a Sony Vaio so small I sometimes look in my bag and think I’ve forgotten it.

The laptop is fantastic.  Sure, an 11 inch screen is useless for photo editing and the 100Gb drive and slow processor stuffs up serious database work, but it’s a great tool for mobile work.  Such is the portability that it’s always with me and no hassle at all to pull out for a quick email check or MSN session.  That is when the big Achilles heel becomes apparent.

Vista.  Or, more precisely, Windows.  In the 9 months or so I’ve had it the boot-up time has stretched from a fairly poor couple of minutes to nearer 10 to get a useable system.  This utterly defeats the object of a super-portable device.

I get around this by having a smartphone.  My Nokia synchs faultlessly with Exchange so I can quickly check emails and put together brief replies.  It’s good, but I can’t reliably read HTML content, web links are a pain to access on a tiny screen and data costs are piling up (to which T-Mobile may now have the answer with their fixed data plan).

So as well as the desktop PC I now have

  • Sony TZ-11
  • Nokia E61
  • iPod Touch (for music and video)

Despite carrying 3 devices all the time, I still can’t read emails, view websites or run MSN without either waiting for Vista to boot up (and connect to my phone or BT Openzone should it be available) or go cross-eyed squinting at half-formed pages on the Nokia.

So, please, can someone design a device which

  • is the size of a chunky smartphone
  • has a VGA or half-VGA screen (QVGA is just too small)
  • boots in 20 seconds and suspends / wakes near instantly
  • seamlessly chooses between wireless LAN, bluetooth modem and inbuilt 3G as available
  • is capable of running an RDP / ICA client
  • accepts external storage devices – USB memory sticks via a separate adaptor cable would be fine
  • can be charged via a standard mini-USB lead
  • has a QWERTY keyboard

I can then leave the laptop in the bag more often whilst travelling and still have a single device to replace my Nokia and the iPod.

Someday soon…