The Communities Secretary is at it again with his politicised attempt to end alternate week rubbish collections
I can only assume that somewhere, locked in a drawer deep within the Department of Communities and Local Government (CLG), is a document so chilling that its public release would cause nationwide panic and riots in the streets.
This comprehensive and independent piece of research has to show that the threat posed to the nation's health and security by the horror that is alternate week recycling and bin collections is so grievous that urgent and costly action is required to bring an end to this appalling practice and its resulting increases in recycling rates and reductions in council costs.
My guess is that the only reason that this exposé has not been made public is that the results are so shocking that it presents a genuine national security threat. Perhaps it shows that rubbish-munching rodents are about to deliver a repeat of the bubonic plague, or maybe that recycling causes cancer. Who knows?
You may not have seen these threats and, like most people, you may have found adapting to alternate week bin collections pretty painless, but the looming risks must be out there. This document simply has to exist, because why else would a cash-strapped, supposedly green and localism espousing government go to the huge trouble of finding £100m in funding to try to bribe councils to drop a recycling and waste management strategy that appears to be working?
The only other logical explanation is that Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman are such craven populists that they are willing to dispense with anything as rational as evidence-based policy making and spend money that could be much better spent elsewhere on an entirely unnecessary initiative designed solely to impress the Daily Mail. That couldn't be the explanation, could it?
According to reports in The Telegraph this week (and bear in mind that The Telegraph is Pickles's Pravda, and as such there is a very good chance the article is accurate), the centrepiece of the government's imminent waste strategy will be a £100m, let's call it a slush fund, intended to help councils reinstate weekly bin collections.
Leaving aside the fact the new Defra waste strategy was meant to focus on reducing waste and packaging levels, bolstering recycling capacity, and generally ensuring that the rest of the UK does not fall too far behind Scotland with its 'zero waste' strategy, and will now inevitably be overshadowed by a row over bin collections ...
Leaving aside the fact Defra and CLG are two of the most cash-strapped departments in Whitehall, but have now apparently decided to find £100m to pay for an initiative that appears primarily designed to secure a day or two of positive headlines in the right-wing press ...
Leaving aside the fact an attempt to bribe councils into changing policy and spending decisions that are exclusively within their remit runs completely counter to the government's increasingly threadbare localism agenda ...
Will an increase in weekly collections actually work?
The answer, according to the available evidence and the testimony of the recyclers and waste management firms that actually work in this sector, is almost certainly not.
The steady increase in recycling rates over the past few years has been one of the quiet success stories of the UK's green economy, demonstrating that Britain can close the gap on its continental neighbours when it comes to more sustainable waste management.
However, speaking to recyclers yesterday, they are deeply concerned that any shift back to weekly collections will make it significantly harder to continue to improve recycling rates and could even result in backsliding.
Moreover, their concerns are based on pretty solid evidence. A recent study from consultancy WYG Group found that the vast majority of the top 30 recycling councils, and all of the top 10, use some form of alternate weekly waste and recycling collections, while repeated reports have shown that the more residual rubbish collection you provide, the more garbage people throw out.
There is also anecdotal evidence to suggest that those few Conservative councils that have moved back to weekly collections after trialling alternate collections have seen recycling rates stall or fall again.
A source close to the government's plan told The Telegraph that "there are other ways to improve recycling rates", hinting that the waste strategy would look to expand incentive schemes designed to encourage recycling.
But since when did national waste strategy become an either/or choice between sticks and carrots? Is it beyond the wit of Cabinet ministers to develop a balanced strategy containing both elements, or would that offend their laissez-faire ideology?
Of course, that mythical document detailing the harm done to the nation by fortnightly collections of black bag waste may well exist. The waste strategy may detail the untold damage being done by the current arrangement, and make a compelling case for tackling a public health hazard, although I very much doubt it.
From this distance, it looks very much like two ministers siding with a vocal minority and supporting a bizarre policy for purely political purposes in complete contradiction of the recommendations of civil servants and industry.
This decision poses a serious challenge to the recycling industry. In addition, it looks set to undermine investor confidence, and again raise the spectre of EU fines if the UK's recent improvements in recycling rates suffer. But from a wider perspective it also provides a handy snapshot of why Ernst & Young's survey of 600 executives today reveals a collapse in confidence in the clean tech sector.
There is an inherent and apparently irresolvable tension at the heart of this government's green policy. On one side the Department of Energy and Climate Change, ably supported by the Cabinet Office and to a lesser extent Number 10, is delivering a relatively impressive package of low carbon policies backed by ambitious targets and an understanding that green growth is the only option.
On the other side the Treasury, the CLG, the Department for Transport, and to some extent the Department for Business and even Defra, remain fully committed to short-term growth at all costs with a side order of Tory-pleasing anti-environmentalism to boot.
As such, every progressive green policy, such as the Green Investment Bank and feed-in tariffs, is delayed or watered down by the Treasury, before being undermined by contradictory policies that simply make it harder to cut emissions.
In the past few months alone we've had George Osborne somehow finding cash for a cut in fuel duty, Pickles pushing through a localism bill that appears destined to stifle the development of energy infrastructure, Phillip Hammond arguing for an increase in motorway speed limits (at the same time as Spain cuts theirs to tackle rising fuel prices), and now Pickles and Spellman attacking effective council recycling strategies.
All of which brings us to the man who is ultimately responsible for resolving departmental tensions and is supposed to be on the side of the coalition's eco-warriors: David Cameron.
The Prime Minister has been remarkably absent from this whole debate. I can't recall a single significant environmental speech or public statement from Cameron in the past 12 months and, barring his well publicised intervention to ensure that the fourth carbon budget was adopted, he has repeatedly failed to come to the aid of the coalition's green wing when needed.
A year ago commentators were lining up to hail Cameron's relatively hands-off approach to departmental matters as a breath of fresh air following the control freakery of the Brown administration and the constant targets and focus grouping of the Blair era.
But we are now seeing the flip side of the Prime Minister's relaxed approach: ministers who are blatantly flouting the coalition's green commitments and are being allowed to get away with it.
Cameron might be reluctant to take on ministers such as Pickles who are popular with the Tory faithful, but his own credibility and the success of the government's green agenda depends on him doing just that.
Pickles and Spellman should be summoned to Downing Street forthwith, and they should bring that as-yet-unseen evidence explaining precisely why they want to drive a coach and horses through the government's waste and localism strategies.
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