Nick Cook: A rubbish service that’s more than ripe for reform

Edinburgh residents have endured  a sharp decline in refuse collection service levels since Octobe. Picture: Jane Barlow
Edinburgh residents have endured a sharp decline in refuse collection service levels since Octobe. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Edinburgh’s bin crisis has gone on so long I can barely recall a week when our services haven’t lurched between late collection and outright failure. The sharp decline in service levels endured by residents since October seemed to have dipped to further unprecedented levels over the Christmas holidays.

This stems from the SNP/Labour administration’s decision to impose a Garden Tax and switch to a new collection rota all of which overwhelmed a service already under strain.

Cllr Nick Cook is the Conservative transport and tnvironment spokesman at Edinburgh City Council

Cllr Nick Cook is the Conservative transport and tnvironment spokesman at Edinburgh City Council

Like the best New Year’s resolutions, the environment convenor’s assurances in late October that teething problems would be sorted “in a couple of weeks” with a swift return of the “usual excellent service” rang hollow.

Waste officials’ claims that complaints have fallen by 49 per cent since October provide little comfort, given that missed collections increased 450 per cent that month. And these missed bin collections are only the visible symptom of deeper, underlying problems.

The Garden Tax wasn’t in the SNP or Labour manifestos prior to the council elections. One would have thought that they would have proceeded carefully and ensured a smooth introduction of their policy that nobody voted for. But not so. The implementation was shambolic.

An audit report recently presented to councillors admitted that the administration had failed to produce any detailed planning for the Garden Tax. Instead, the council relied on a vague policy outline and made it up as they went. Seat of the pants planning seems alive and well in Edinburgh Council.

Then there are the increasingly evident issues with the “Routesmart” IT system underpinning the council’s bin lorry routing. For years we have been told this technology would improve service reliability. But any software is only as good as its underpinning data.

During the change to Routesmart entire streets vanished from collection routes and elderly residents saw their assisted uplifts disappear. Because the data records aren’t good enough the council can’t harness this software properly.

Yet we Conservatives had to push hard to secure a review of the system. The administration’s tactic on waste performance is increasingly to embrace Trumpism. They claim the service is excellent in face of public outcry, sometimes using data that bears only a questionable resemblance to reality.

In truth, the current service model is failing and the primary blame sits with the SNP. In the 2007-11 council session, the authority spent £2 million exploring alternative delivery models for waste collections, working in partnership with the private sector. Tenders were sought, contracts drafted, guaranteeing high service levels and better value for taxpayers.

But then-SNP Group Leader and former Labour councillor, Steve Cardownie got cold feet and recklessly withdrew SNP support at the final hour. This was despite a strong recommendation from then chief executive Sue Bruce that the partnership contract was best value. The legacy? Millions of pounds wasted in preparatory works and years of higher cost and inferior service.

For years Edinburgh Council’s in-house approach has failed to provide an efficient, consistent waste collection service. It is expensive for an urban service compared to other councils and has the lowest resident satisfaction rate in Scotland. For these reasons it’s long past time the administration dropped its ideological dogma and revisited an alternative business model, based upon a close working with the private and charitable sectors.

Conservatives evaluate our services by quality and best value, regardless of whether they are provided by the public or private sector. It is now time for other parties to do the same.

Cllr Nick Cook is the Conservative transport and environment spokesman at Edinburgh City Council