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

by Stephen Tall on February 19, 2007

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.