By now most of you will have seen the debacle I have started referring to as Sackgate. This is the decision taken by WBC to replace the black box recycling system with polypropylene sacks. The decision has caused a huge amount of controversy and in this blog I will attempt to decipher what has been going on, outlining the facts and dealing with the mistruths.
In October 2019, the European end markets (where WBC’s recycling is sent) introduced higher quality standards in response to the widespread global economic changes happening at that time. This resulted in significant proportions of WBC’s paper and card being rejected, due to the high moisture content which lowered the quality of the material. Anything above 10% moisture was and continues to be rejected because we have open black boxes that don’t keep the rain out.
This means that what is rejected is not recycled, reducing how much we recycle and increasing costs for alternative disposal. Financially and environmentally something needed to be done.
The problem is more of an issue in the Autumn and Winter months due to weather patterns and WBC were rightly keen to have a solution in place for the start of Autumn 2020. They have had a year to do this.
In early 2020, WBC planned to trial lids for the existing boxes in 2 wards to see if this was a solution that could work. This was due to happen long before lock down was even on the horizon. Nothing happened though. When enquiring as to why it didn’t happen, we were told it would be a waste of time to trial in case it went wrong. I wish I was joking but I’m not. There’s me thinking that a trial is to test a solution to see if it does or doesn’t work before committing lots of money, but clearly not a view shared by WBC.
The next step was to hire consultants to do the leg work and write a report with a recommendation for a solution. We (my Lib Dem colleagues Paul, Clive and myself), who have regular meetings with the officers who are responsible for the borough’s waste, were waiting on news that the report had been done, and a business case put together to progress a solution. Instead, we found out that a solution had been found when the Executive Agenda (a public meeting of the Conservative Executive members) for the 30th July was published a week before the meeting. Under the item Capital Monitoring 2020/21 there was an item that stated
to approve borrowing of £288k for the purchase of hessian sacks which will have the effect of increasing recycling levels and generating a beneficial financial impact far in excess of the cost of borrowing, as set out in paragraph 8 of the Executive Summary
Paragraph 8 stated
Changing global paper markets have created an increasingly restrictive approach towards wet waste. This emerging issue together with the Council’s commitment towards higher recycling targets (consistent with its Climate Emergency declaration) makes it is necessary to replace the current open black plastic boxes with sealable hessian sacks. The annual costs of the new sacks and an extra vehicle and crew to maintain existing collection standards with a sealable sack receptacle is estimated at £295k p.a. The financial benefit arising from increased recycling and reduced disposal costs, as a result of this initiative, is estimated at £698k p.a. There would therefore be a net saving of £403k p.a.
This was it. No further information was provided. We had a meeting with the officers 2 days before the Executive meeting to ascertain what was going on. We were informed that a solution had been recommended by the consultants. We asked for the options appraisal with the recommendation which was not included in the Executive papers, and told that whilst officers had the options appraisal, we couldn’t see a copy. The reason why is because the Executive Member for Environment who was making the request for the finances to implement this solution had not seen the report. Once again, no I’m not joking. He was asking to spend money for a solution when he’d not seen any information to know whether this was the right solution or not. Not only that, he was asking the Executive to approve the money without them seeing not just the options appraisal, but a business case. This is a breach of the Council’s constitution as a formal business case is required for any procurement with a total value above £50k.
In fact, there were a lot of issues with what had happened and as such, several of my colleagues decided to call-in the decision. A call-in is a process to decide whether a decision should be looked at again. The Constitution states that all decisions of the Council will be made in accordance with the following principles:
a) proportionality (i.e. the action must be proportionate to the desired outcome);
b) due consultation and the taking of professional advice from Officers;
c) human rights will be respected and considered at an early stage in the decision making process;
d) a presumption in favour of openness;
e) clarity of aims and desired outcomes; and
f) when decisions are taken by the Executive, details of the options which were taken into account and the reasons for the decision will be recorded.
The call-in was requested based on the sack decision not meeting principles b, d, e & f.
The call-in is dealt with by the Overview & Scrutiny Management committee, a committee that is politically balanced, and which I am a member of. It was our role to assess the evidence and decide whether the Executive had followed the correct governance procedure, or to send it back to them to reconsider. In theory, the committee should be independent.
The call-in meeting was held on Wednesday 26th August. As part of the agenda pack, we finally got to lay eyes on the options appraisal, and sadly it wasn’t a pretty site. The best way I can describe it is that the decision to have sacks was made, and a report was written around it to make that the outcome. Not only this, it was just an options appraisal. There was no procurement plan, no timeframes, incomplete costings etc. Below are some examples of what’s wrong with the options appraisal:
- The sacks according to the report have a life span of approx. 5 years. However, under the annual revenue results for which 30% weighting is applied, it states that the replacement rate for sacks is 7.5%. 100 divided by 7.5 is 13.3. They’d worked out the replacement rate when working out the costings to be 13.3 years. This error could have a material impact on the outcome of the appraisal.
- Under public acceptability which has a 10% weighting, the report uses 90 litre sacks for it’s modelling stating that “option 3 (sacks) performed the best with a score of 6.7 owing to increased capacity at the kerbside.” The sacks being purchased though are 60 litres. What’s more, whilst 2 sacks will be distributed to every household, just like the black boxes, households can request more, meaning there is infinite capacity of any solution.
- The finances are incomplete. One example is that they haven’t demonstrated how they’ve factored in collection and disposal costs of the black boxes (let alone the environmental impact)
- There are lists of other authorities who use sacks, but some of the information is misleading. Cheltenham Borough Council for example don’t use sacks but boxes for their paper.
- No consideration is given to co-mingling, i,e, whether we should separate out various kinds of recycling as many other authorities do.
- Monmouthshire County Council are being held up as the authority that WBC are looking to. However, the report fails to mention that Monmouthshire are only trialling the solution at the moment so there’s no concrete evidence to base anything on. Since this meeting, we have also asked a number of questions of the Monmouthshire trial and WBC don’t know the answers so haven’t fully assessed this.
Then there’s the long list of assumptions that have not been tested:
- They state it will be quicker for the refuse collectors to open the Velcro, shake out the sacks and replace the Velcro than it will to take a lid or shower cap off, empty a box and put the lid/shower cap inside. This in turn impacts the finances because they state that the sacks will need one extra vehicle and the other options, two extra vehicles due to the length of additional time to empty them.
- They state that the lids and shower cap options scored badly when it comes to messaging because the messaging “will need to be instructive to enforce the importance of utilising the coverings. Option 3 (sacks) scored the highest, reflecting the positive messaging related to increased capacity at kerbside and the ease of use in covering due to the Velcro fastening at the top.”
- The report states that recycling rates will be lower with lids and shower caps as it is residents discretion whether to use the lids or shower caps and many won’t, but they can be trusted more to use the Velcro fastening.
This is just some of the points in the report that are questionable. The assumptions in particular warrant testing as many of them are far-fetched. What we also pointed out however is what is missing. As I mentioned, the finances are incomplete, but there was no mention of how procurement would be undertaken, we didn’t have sight of the equality impact assessment that was cited in the report, there were no timeframes. Honestly, with the information in front of me, I could not make an informed decision as to which was the best decision. No one could.
We asked many, many questions and sadly we did not receive satisfactory answers. The main answer was that the 30th July meeting was just to ring-fence funding and a full report would go to the next Executive meeting on 24th September. This doesn’t add up though either. Firstly, you do not ring-fence money for something in your control. They very clearly voted to approve the borrowing for a large amount of money for a specific solution. If it was to ring-fence money, it should have been for a solution to the wet waste issue, not for a specific solution.
What’s more, we were attacked in the press before the call-in for holding up the purchase of these sacks. A call-in process stops actions of an Executive decision until the outcome of the call-in is reached. However, if they genuinely were waiting for the business case in September, they wouldn’t be purchasing the sacks until after the call-in, so it wasn’t holding anything up. If they were going to purchase them after the 30th July meeting though, this demonstrates there was every reason to call-in the decision because it was made without the necessary information. And if that was the case, then it was their inability to produce a business case at the time of requesting the funding that would have held up the purchase.
At the end of the call-in meeting I made a proposal that the decision be referred back to the Executive for further consideration, to include a fully costed business case (as set out in the Constitution) and trialling of potential solutions. This went to the vote, and sadly all the Conservative members voted against this proposal so it fell. The committee therefore decided to uphold the Executives decision – i.e. approve the spending of public money without a fully costed business plan which is unconstitutional as I pointed our earlier.
Following the call-in, the Executive brought their meeting forward to 11th September. They produced more information for this meeting in order to make a decision, but there was still lots of information missing. The same options appraisal was being used, holes, untested assumptions and all. It also transpired that the equality impact assessment had been completed without consulting anyone, meaning those with disabilities hadn’t been properly considered. A member of the public asked a public question and made the point that those with arthritis in their hands hadn’t been mentioned at all in the report as they will find it difficult to open the Velcro sacks. We still don’t know what the disposal plans are for these sacks. The material they’re made of is technically recyclable, but requires specialist methods meaning only 1% is recycled. I’ve repeatedly asked what the plan is here and never had a response. I should point out that they are not hessian sacks as was initially suggested.
The reason we are told that a trial was not done is because WBC are basing the evidence from other authorities to make their decision. My colleague Paul asked the question “could you tell me how these authorities collect paper and card, when they introduced this system and what impact it has had on recycling rates?” referring to the authorities listed in the options appraisal. In the public meeting at which he asked this, the leader of the council said he couldn’t answer the question as they didn’t have all the information, blaming Paul for a late submission of question (which was submitted well in advance of the meeting).
I could go on as there’s still so much more to say, but I think you get the gist of it.
This debate has not been about the sacks themselves but about process (or lack of). Many people may think this isn’t a big issue. When you are responsible for the finances for a public authority at any time, let alone when things are tight such as at the moment, it’s imperative to be fiscally responsible. Approving hundreds of thousands of pounds for something without the necessary information to make an informed choice is irresponsible.
The question you’re probably wanting to ask me now is, do I believe the sacks are the right solution. I still can’t answer that question, as I still don’t have the information to make that informed decision. One way or another though, if I was running things, I would trial the options before spending money on something that may or may not work.