Pundits and politicians have been seeking to interpret the results of last week’s local elections. This has increasingly involved contorted meta-analyses whereby the challenge is not so much to look at the electoral outcomes themselves, but to compare the tallies with the degree of optimism or pessimism expressed by each party before polling day.
“Expectations management” has therefore become a necessary tool in the armoury of every spin doctor. If your party’s result is mediocre, but you persuaded people it would be pathetic, this is notched up as an electoral triumph. The consequence is that no one seems to agree objectively on who did well and who did badly or what Thursday’s poll means for the national political picture.
In one area, however, there has been an unbreakable consensus. The central explanatory force for many of the results was, apparently, the quality of local refuse collection. “Bin collection is fundamental,” Tom Brake, a Lib Dem MP, asserted in a television interview to knowing nods from his fellow panellists. “This was about bins not Brexit,” insisted Anna Soubry, a Tory MP, without challenge from the BBC’s interviewer. If the English electorate really did cast their ballots in an attempt to optimise the efficiency of the emptying of dustbins, they have acted in a rational, albeit rather narrow, fashion. Our local councils do not have any direct influence on whether we stay in a customs union with the EU, but they are responsible for picking up our rubbish.
What we should be asking is whether we really need refuse collection to continue to be a competence of municipal government at all or whether we can rely on the open market providing a better service. We don’t troop down to a church or school hall every four years to vote on how our council should provide us with an electricity supply or a telephone connection, so why should we entrust them with picking up our bins?
Perhaps this core responsibility of local government has been with us so long that we have become inured against questioning it. The Public Health Act 1875 first made it a legal obligation for councils to empty bins. In 1936, this statutory duty was strengthened to insist collections must be weekly. That specific requirement was relaxed in 1974 and the frequency with which our bins are emptied has continued to be a highly charged campaigning issue. Latest figures show that about 1 million households, and over 2.5 million residents, are forced to accept rubbish collections only every three or four weeks. The proportion of homes receiving weekly collections has fallen by more than a third since the turn of the decade. Many will point to the squeeze on local government financing, but surely improved technologies should be enabling councils to achieve more with less?
On the face of it, there are some credible reasons for refuse collection to be run by the public sector. First, it has the standard features of a natural monopoly. If a dumpster is travelling around a particular district anyway, then the associated costs of picking up all of the rubbish, rather than just from a proportion of residences, is fairly minimal. Second, there are obvious negative externality effects in play. Typically, I don’t much care how my neighbours arrange their household budgets, but if they do start to save money by allowing stinking refuse to pile up in their front garden, then my quality of life is impacted. The key question is whether new technologies and more imaginative public policy can overcome these inbuilt problems and allow a competitive market to solve the problem of collecting and disposing of household waste. The evidence is that they can.
About ten years ago, before the explosion of the gig economy, a research report by the neoliberal Adam Smith Institute concluded that moving to a privatised “pay as you throw” approach would have widespread benefits. Rather than relying on their council tax to pay for local government bin collections, households would pay privately in broad proportion to the waste they generate and the frequency with which it is collected. The report concluded that the impact on incentives would lead to an increase in recycling by 50 per cent, a reduction in the need for landfill of about 16 per cent, a cut in carbon emissions of millions of tonnes a year and a reduction in average bills. With the enhanced ability to transmit and collect data that we now have in 2018, these improvements would be likely to be even greater today.
New technologies could also help overcome fears that some people might be tempted to save money by fly tipping or allowing enormous amounts of refuse to build up before arranging a collection. Households could be charged with a specific minimal legal duty akin to the requirement for drivers to have basic motor insurance. It would be far easier to spot which homes had gone for many weeks without their rubbish being picked up than it would have been a decade or two ago. Councils might still be charged with carrying out appropriate enforcement processes, but this doesn’t mean they should be in control of the practicalities of collecting waste.
In a world in which we can book a taxi or order a takeaway meal and expect delivery within a matter of minutes, we can surely find a way to unleash the forces of the market to find cheaper and smarter ways to handle waste collection and disposal.
Politicians of all stripes have been insisting that a key driver of last Thursday’s vote was the electorate’s approach to “bread and butter issues”. The catchphrase is, of course, a misnomer. Fortunately, our bread and butter are provided through market mechanisms and not by local government bureaucracies. In a more rational world, we would be treating bin collections in the same way.
Mark Littlewood is director-general of the Institute of Economic Affairs. Twitter: @MarkJLittlewood