Lib Dem hints at U-turn on bin collection privatisation

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SENIOR councillors within the Liberal Democrat group leading the council coalition today hinted that their position on keeping bin collection and street cleaning services “in house” is now softening.

The Evening News revealed on Friday that bin staff have agreed to end a work-to-rule that has lasted for two-and-a-half years. And they pledged to accept £45 million of savings that form part of the public sector alternative to outsourcing the “environmental services” contract to Enterprise.

The news has resulted in a cooling of the previous position of the Lib Dem group, which has supported the Enterprise bid as a means of bringing about up to £72m of savings.

Councillor Phil Wheeler, the city’s finance leader, said he does “remain to be convinced” about the workforce’s willingness to accept the £45m of savings. But he said he is “persuadable” if the unions and staff would give further assurances.

The comments indicate that there remains a chance that the Lib Dems could support their SNP coalition partners in calling for the services to remain within the council.

Cllr Wheeler said: “I am glad to hear they are being more constructive than they have been in the past and it is a step in the right direction but I want to see what assurances there are before I pass judgement.

“I have still to be convinced [on the in-house alternative], from all I have seen and the documents I have looked at. The big difference if you go with Enterprise is there would be formal contract documentation and you could hold them to account. If they don’t come up to scratch we can penalise or, as a last resort, sack them. Delivery of the in-house bid is a different legal arrangement.”

He admitted that he previously had reservations about whether the staff would co-operate with the council to allow for the £45m of savings but that the latest pledge from the unions may change that.

He said: “The degree of certainty about what change can be affected has been my doubt all the way through, so I remain to be convinced but I am persuadable if we got assurances.”

Steve Burgess, leader of the Green group, said that the in-house bid could deliver more than the £45m of savings if more work is done to reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfill and the resultant landfill tax.

Ian McDonald, regional officer for the Unite union, which represents most of the city’s bin men said: “It is a matter of trust and the workers have made their decision on the basis that they will help secure the in-house bid.

“They are signed up to the savings; it is still going to be a challenge but it is do-able.”

Councillors will make a final decision later this month.