Drop waste charging pilots, say MPs

A parliamentary committee has condemned the government’s plans to run pilot waste-charging schemes as a "wholehearted retreat" from its original proposals.

The government should abandon legislation that would enable waste charging schemes to be tried out by only a small number of councils in England, says a parliamentary committee.

Instead, government should legislate to allow any council to set up a charging scheme for households in its area if it wants to, says the House of Commons’ Communities and Local Government Select Committee in a report published in February.1 The Climate Change Bill - currently making its way through the Lords - would allow waste collection authorities in England to introduce variable charging schemes to encourage household waste recycling (ENDS Report 390, p 39 ). But the schemes must be pilots, running from 2009 to 2012, and will initially be limited to five councils. After they have finished, the Secretary of State will decide whether to allow schemes nationwide.

The pilots are a "wholehearted retreat" from the government’s original plans for waste charging, the report says. "The government appears to lack the courage of its previous convictions that local authorities are best placed to decide what will work in their own areas," it adds.

"Highly negative media coverage" is to blame for the retreat, the report says. This has been fuelled by opposition to charging from Conservative politicians, notably shadow local government secretary Eric Pickles MP (ENDS Report 389, p 36 ).

Pilots are unnecessary, the report adds, as charging schemes are already used across Europe. The UK is the only one of the EU-15 nations to not have given its local authorities the power to charge. "Given the range of experience that already exists… we question how much additional information can be gained by operating a mere five pilots," the report says.

Ministers told the committee the situation was "sufficiently" different in the UK to require the trials. However, the committee says that if this is the case, the number of pilots is not enough to test the four different charging methods used on the continent.

The report draws attention to evidence given by local government minister John Healey to the committee that appears to agree pilots are unnecessary. "I would just say that we are making a huge debate about these particular schemes when they have been running in many other member states for a considerable length of time with proven results," he said. "We should not be so afraid of being able to deliver a proper scheme in Britain."

The report points out the government’s plans also prevent councils from using variable charging to meet EU targets for the diversion of biodegradable waste from landfill in 2010 and 2013. They could only be used to meet the last target in 2020.

The committee "remains to be convinced" that variable charging schemes will "work well", or that any councils will want to introduce them - points it made in an earlier report on rubbish collection (ENDS Report 390, p 50 ). "We repeat what we said six months ago: it is hard to see why any council will want to set up a complicated charging scheme that earns it no money and risks widespread public disapproval."

The report has received support from the Local Government Association, among others. Paul Bettison, chairman of its environment board, said: "Although pilot schemes are a step in the right direction, the power should be there for all councils to reward families who do their bit for the environment." However, Councillor Bettison had earlier told the committee he did not think his own council, Bracknell Forest - which he leads, would introduce charging.

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