London Mayor accuses councils of LATS abuse

London boroughs are illegally pricing themselves out of commercial waste collections to meet their landfill diversion targets, according to Mayor Ken Livingstone. The Environment Agency has started auditing local authority returns for the scheme, but will not examine charging.

Under the landfill allowance trading scheme (LATS), local authorities have annual targets to divert biodegradable municipal waste (BMW) from landfill (ENDS Report 355, pp 17-18 ). The term ‘municipal’ includes trade waste collected by the authority or on its behalf.

When the scheme was proposed, several councils said they might sell their trade waste collections or price themselves out of the market to reduce the amount of waste collected and make meeting their BMW targets easier (ENDS Report 354, pp 20-21 ).

Subsequent guidance from the Environment Department (DEFRA) ruled this out, making it clear that local authorities have a duty to collect commercial waste if requested under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, and that they may only make a "reasonable" charge for doing so.

But in May, John Duffy, the mayor’s environmental policy director, and Peter Daw, his principal waste officer, alleged some local authorities were "charging unreasonable rates" for commercial waste collection. Their comments came in evidence to the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee’s inquiry into rubbish collection (ENDS Report 388, p 49 ).

They also said the government is not monitoring charging rates and so has no way of assessing whether charges are reasonable. As a result, more waste is being collected by the private sector and going to landfill - undermining the aim of LATS.

Four London boroughs were mentioned as having significantly reduced the amount of commercial waste they collected between 2000/01 and 2005/06: the City of London, Kingston, Wandsworth and Westminster. The latter’s arisings fell by almost 38,000 tonnes to 110,699, while Kingston’s fell from 15,045 tonnes to zero. They did not mention the other 28 London boroughs.

An accompanying memorandum claimed the government "appears to have no handle on whether these reductions are genuine or represent the selling off of commercial waste portfolios".

It also included data showing that waste from London accepted at landfill sites increased by over 1.4 million tonnes between 2003 and 2005, even though reported municipal waste going to landfill from London fell by 164,000 tonnes.

But the mayor’s claims against the councils appear to hold little weight. Wandsworth, for example, stopped co-collecting household and commercial waste in 2004 because it felt it was being overcharged for commercial waste disposal by the Western Riverside Waste Authority. Its revised charges for separate commercial waste collection could not compete with the private sector. The High Court ruled they had not been fixed in bad faith or so unreasonably as to be illegal (ENDS Report 364, p 51 ).

The other three authorities told ENDS that commercial waste volumes had dropped because of private sector competition. Westminster said it had to compete with some 30 firms.

Although the mayor’s allegations could be dismissed as his latest attempt to garner support for a single waste disposal authority for London (ENDS Report 383, p 52 ), he does have grounds for claiming DEFRA is not monitoring charging rates.

Giving evidence before the committee in June, Environment Minister Ben Bradshaw said DEFRA was "not aware of any London authorities that are knowingly pricing themselves out of commercial waste collections". The Environment Agency was conducting audits of local authorities’ LATS returns across England and Wales, he added, and DEFRA would "take action" against any found to be doing so.

However, the Agency’s audits do not include an assessment of charges for commercial waste collection, and are only concerned with whether returns are accurate.

DEFRA also has no plans to look at the issue as part of its operational review of LATS later this year, according to Martin Meadows, head of local authority waste performance.

The first set of Agency audits involves 24 local authorities - including the East London Waste Authority, West London Waste Authority and four other London boroughs - and results are expected in July. The Agency prioritised these councils based on their compliance with LATS reporting requirements and year-on-year variations in reported municipal waste quantities. The remaining authorities will be audited over the next three years.

The Agency is concerned that authorities are not reporting tonnages of commercial waste correctly and has asked DEFRA to "remind" local authorities of their LATS responsibilities. But again, this reminder does not stretch to reporting on charging.

  • DEFRA has announced the creation of a statutory London Waste and Recycling Board to manage a waste and recycling fund with a budget of £25 million per annum from 2008/09.

    The government announced the creation of the board last year (ENDS Report 378, p 39 ), but it was not given statutory footing. The board will also provide advice on strategic waste issues to London boroughs and the mayor.