Anti-Terror Law Mission Creep in the U.K.

First terrorists, then trash cans:

More than half of town halls admit using anti-terror laws to spy on families suspected of putting their rubbish out on the wrong day.

Their tactics include putting secret cameras in tin cans, on lamp posts and even in the homes of ‘friendly’ residents.

The local authorities admitted that one of their main aims was to catch householders who put their bins out early.

EDITED TO ADD (11/13): A better article on the subject.

Posted on November 7, 2008 at 8:18 AM51 Comments


bob November 7, 2008 8:50 AM

There is a cultural difference here I’m missing. I’ve been to England several times (liked it; sorry I didn’t get to see Bletchley Park) but I am afraid I don’t get the gist of what they are trying to gain with the (stipulated) abuse of powers mentioned.

People are putting out trash early? And that happens often enough to affect good order and public health? Cant they just drive around on (for example) Tuesday and see that the trash which wont be picked up til Wednesday is already out? Why would people put out trash before it will be picked up anyway? I would think a bigger problem would be people who don’t want to pay for having their trash picked up and just let it build, drawing vermin and promoting disease.

Jonadab the Unsightly One November 7, 2008 8:57 AM

I don’t know about England, but where I live everyone puts out the trash the day before, and this is considered normal, because the trash pickup guys have their workday set up to finish about the time the rest of the population wakes up.

Also, like the previous comment, I don’t understand why any significant surveillance would be necessary to determine whose trash is out early and whose isn’t. You put it out by the road, so it’s in clear view of the public and everyone.

Can someone from England explain what’s going on here?

Anonymous November 7, 2008 9:01 AM

Fer starters, IANAL…

There is a concept in Canada (and in other jurisdictions, of course) – well-supported by case law:
Long-delayed trials, dodgy police investigations, biased judges/police/legal_staff, and misapplication of the law have resulted in offenders walking free in order to avoid “bringing the system of justice into disrepute”.

I thought it was the same in the UK – Quoting from the UK Hansard for 2003/06/19, Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield):
“We must always have it in mind, however, that miscarriages of justice happen, have happened, and, I am afraid, will continue to happen. We should be careful about bending traditional rules that have served us well in this country to achieve a result when the side effects may be as, if not more, reprehensible in terms of bringing the system of justice into disrepute.”

Isn’t this misuse/abuse of anti-terror laws a blatant example of this? Shouldn’t the person(s) who thought this was a ‘good idea’ spend a weekend or two in the hoosegow to smarten them up a little?

Calum November 7, 2008 9:03 AM

You don’t pay directly for garbage collection in the UK – it’s done through municipal taxes. And it’s more to do with people breaching things like recycling regulations, putting paper (shock, horror) in with their regular garbage.

And the RIP Act ostensibly had nothing to do with terrorism – it’s purpose was to give various branches of government the powers to be able to investigate on their own account – for example, for the agency that deals with alimony to be able to investigate someone’s income. In practice, it’s become a snooper’s charter (oooh, cliche) for every two-bit council to stick their nose in un-necessarily.

Lastly, don’t read or believe anything you read in the Daily Mail; it’s full of jingoistic bollocks.

Tom November 7, 2008 9:26 AM

“Lastly, don’t read or believe anything you read in the Daily Mail”

Wouldn’t have even clicked my RSS feed if i had realised Bruce had started to link the Daily Mail. Shame.

John November 7, 2008 9:28 AM

This is a fairly typical story for this newspaper. They have rounded up the usual suspects to comment on it.

It’s not news its business as normal for this particular paper.

papa zita November 7, 2008 9:37 AM

Not all of us are well acquainted with UK media, so how are we to know? The only thing I remember about newspapers in the UK is the joke in Yes, Prime Minister about them (and even that’s hazy except the punch line).

AlanS November 7, 2008 9:38 AM

Hmm. This is the Daily Mail. It’s a tabloid. It’s slightly better that those trashy papers that feature Elvis sightings and alien abductions that you so at supermarket checkouts in America but not by much.

Anyway, they have an nice article on what happens when you spy on people putting out their trash cans:
Pensioner’s life of grime: Workmen clear 100 TONS of rubbish from OAP’s home

Editor’s highlights of the current online edition:
* The moment a 2lb rabbit came face to face with a 2-ton rhino
* Pictured: Theme park’s ‘cage of death’ that drops tourists into a crocodile’s lair
* It’s not rocket science – the modern buzz-phrases that drive us mad
* Pictured: The astonishing moment a python tried to swallow a whole wallaby

Tim November 7, 2008 10:01 AM

It’s bad enough that the daily mail gets on Digg so often, but here? Maybe it was just a slip-up… 🙂

AlanS November 7, 2008 10:08 AM

Given his name, I’m astonished Bruce didn’t go for the wallaby story himself and the astonishing dangers posed by Aussie wildlife.

Iain Coleman November 7, 2008 10:13 AM

I used to be the (Liberal Democrat) councillor in charge of waste and recycling collections in Cambridge (the original one, in England). And it was opposition to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) that got me involved in politics in the first place. I hope I can shed some light on this issue for non-UK residents.

People putting out waste on the wrong day is indeed a problem. Policies vary from council to council, but typically householders will be supplied with large plastic wheeled bins for waste disposal, which should be presented on the street by a particular time on the morning of collection day. Rather than wheel the bin out at 7 a.m. or whenever, many householders will put it out late on the night before. This is strictly a breach of the regulations, but in practice nobody cares.

The problems arise when householders put their rubbish out much earlier than this – or miss the collection and leave the rubbish on the street for many days, or just put it out completely randomly. This is effectively fly-tipping, and councils can fine or prosecute offenders.

You see, an awful lot of housing in the UK is over 100 years old, and is not designed to cope with modern volumes of waste and road traffic. Wheeled bins left out in the street can obstruct narrow pavements, blocking access by wheelchair users or forcing parents with prams out into the road. Also, some houses lack any storage area for a wheeled bin, and so they simply put plastic refuse sacks out on the street. If these are left uncollected for some time, foxes, seagulls and other pests can tear them open and the rubbish can be strewn all over the street.

So there is a need for some regulation, and for enforcement of those regulations. The approach I developed in Cambridge was to have environment officers identify the streets that had the most serious problems, and to engage with local residents to persuade them to behave more responsibly before having an enforcement officer begin proceedings (official warnings, leading to potential fines or prosecution) against individuals who insisted on creating an environmental nuisance.

Using RIPA provisions to spy on people was never entertained for one minute. No doubt such surveillance would make enforcement action a little more straightforward, but it is so massively disproportionate to the offense as to be ludicrous. Such surveillance is appropriate when investigating some serious crimes, such as repeat arson attempts, but not for getting people to put their bins out properly.

Unfortunately, some less liberal councils in the UK have become all too enamoured of RIPA powers, which enable a wide variety of public bodies to carry out extensive surveillance on the thinnest of justification. It’s not just bins. One family was put under surveillance because a council wanted to see if they had lied about their address in order to get a child into a particular school.

I fear the corrosive effect that this legislation has upon our freedoms, and I welcome all opposition to it. Even if it is in the Daily Mail.

Andy Dingley November 7, 2008 10:21 AM

This isn’t about rubbish, it’s about lack of control in RIPA about what it may be used for. It’s some (possibly justifiable) legislation that grants huge investigative powers to “The War On Terror”, grants access to them to almost every arm of government, then fails to impose any control on what these departments use them for, and whether it’s proportionate between the specific problem and the weight of the power they’ve chosen to exercise.

If you give any piece of bureaucracy the power to do something, it will use it. It will use it for whatever that bureaucracy wishes to, no matter what the basis on which it was first granted.

As well as refuse collection, we’ve also seen RIPA used to justify local councils using video surveillance of 4 year olds to check where they lived, and whether they were truly within the catchment area for the desirable school to which they’d applied.

Clive Robinson November 7, 2008 10:21 AM

Just to point a few things out.

1, RIPA was not brought into being to give authority to “Investigate”, it supposadly put in place a legal framework by which Investigation was regulated (and in theory) put in place limitations of what could and could not be done and by whom.

2, The current central UK government has no money to bribe people for the next election. And having already raided pension funds etc cannot raise more by direct taxation or indirect taxation for that matter. Their solution give less to local governments and give them the ability to raise extra funding by fines etc. However they are not supposed to profit by the fines…

The result is that RIPA told local government what is permissable so where as before they did not do it due to the “fear of unknown consiquences” some now do.

Having gone to the lengths of aquiring the equipment and people they now have to justify them etc.

Now although they are only supposed to use the fines as punishment not for profit it realy does not work that way.

The fines for putting out to early or not putting it in exactly the right place are around 150USD per offence.

However the local government can do all sorts of shady fund shifting to apparently not show a profit…

Actual reported cases are people being fined for putting the wheelie bin the wrong way around, having a tea bag in a recycling box (not in landfill box), using the wrong colour bag for the refuse it contains, having wet paper (not dry) in a recycling box, using a plastic shopping bag to seperate glass from plastic in a recycling box, to name but a few.

Yes it appears to be madness unless you realise it’s true purpose which is to alow backdoor “taxation”.

Other areas are having to get planning permission to replace a broken window, to install or change an electricity socket in a kitchen or other fitting in a bathroom.

Soon to come to a home in Northan Ireland is property tax based on the view from your window, if you have central heating or have painted your house recently. The local government people who’s job it is to assess your property have draconian powers backed up by criminal prosecution for not complying with their whims and whishes…

Yes the world is going mad and it’s started in parts of the UK near you and is comming to the rest of the world soon.

Chaz November 7, 2008 10:23 AM

In some ways it doesn’t matter that the link is to a tabloid, or that the content is questionable.

What’s interesting here is that backlash against terrorism laws being misused is considered newsworthy (at least by some) whether it is true or not. The question is whether people believe it.

Clive Robinson November 7, 2008 10:43 AM

Oh I forgot to mention the best one of them all,

A man was fined for putting rubish in a street litter bin…

Now I don’t know about you folks but I thought the purpose of a litter bin was to put rubish in.

Apparently the rubish he put in “two items of junk mail” should not be put in a street litter bin but in a house hold bin…

Now I don’t know about you folks but I have to ask myself either what medication or what incentive scheam the council worker was on. Or how it was ever alowed to be processed through the system, the council concerned mut have realised just how embarising it was going to be for them.

SteveJ November 7, 2008 10:53 AM

RIPA always intended to allow councils to “spy on” (investigate) people suspected of crimes. Checking on someone suspected of lying about their address in a school application falls well within its remit. The clue is in the name of the Act – it grants Investigatory Powers.

Those of us who paid attention to RIPA at the time disliked it on all sorts of grounds (the legal obligation to surrender encryption passwords to the police, the gagging of those server orders to do so, and compulsory central registration of all “security workers” being major talking-points).

There is an urban myth that RIPA was introduced “to fight terrorism”. This is put about by people who didn’t bother reading it back in 2000, and now they’ve seen what it actually does wish it hadn’t been passed.

RIPA does have provisions related to national security, but that is not the bulk of the Act. It wasn’t even how it was publicised at the time (which was as much or more to do with organised crime as I recall).

If the tabloids don’t like the way RIPA is used, they should lobby for it to be repealed or amended. But they don’t, because they also profess to be “tough on crime”, and to agree with the law. So they pretend that councils are misinterpreting the law itself.

It’s just cheap grandstanding: they support intrusive investigatory powers if and only if they’re used against immigrants and other undesirables. “Ordinary folks” should be left alone to defraud the education system, dump rubbish and dog crap as they please, drive as fast as they like, and whatever other crimes the editorial policy of the paper deems noble.

Their position proves what a terrible job those same papers did when they failed to oppose the legislation back in 2000, assuming it was only intended for use against the most serious criminals, when what they should have done was assign someone to read the actual Bill before Parliament.

That said, there have been some reported cases where councils have appeared very petty about enforcing minor regulations to do with refuse collection. Complaining about those, I understand and agree. Complaining that councils shouldn’t be permitted to use surveillance powers for those crimes, sure. Alleging that RIPA was not intended to give them those powers, though, is just ignorant.

Clive Robinson November 7, 2008 11:00 AM

@ papa zita,

“The only thing I remember about newspapers in the UK is the joke in Yes, Prime Minister about them (and even that’s hazy except the punch line).”

You mean,

Sir Hump : Minister, the Times is read by those that rule the country, the Telegraph by those that think they run the country,

PPS : and the Sun is read by those who don’t care about who runs the country as long as they have big t1t5.

Mike November 7, 2008 11:05 AM

Note that the UK anti-terror legislation was also used to seize the assets of that well-known member of the access of evil, Iceland (see ).

Unfortunately governments can’t be trusted to only use legislation for the purpose for which it was intended.

Or perhaps they can, but the problem is that what was intended isn’t what they told us when the legislation was proposed.

Davi Ottenheimer November 7, 2008 11:18 AM

What a waste of time and surveillance (pun not intended).

The solution to these problems has nothing to do with monitoring. The same investment or perhaps even less could be directed towards:

1) machinery that automatically sorts waste at the collection centers

2) a weekly or more frequent pickup schedule

Problems solved.

Another solution is to help educate residents on reducing the amount of waste and programs to regulate manufacturers who still use excessive and non-compostable packaging.

Has anyone considered mischievous neighbors who would pull bins into the street early or mix waste to get others in trouble with the council?

Clive Robinson November 7, 2008 11:44 AM

@ Davi Ottenheimer,

“Has anyone considered mischievous neighbors who would pull bins into the street early or mix waste to get others in trouble with the council?”

Yes and one journo actually asked a concil official who was extolling the virtues of a 2000USD fine, the response was to pt it mildly deogatory of those that pay his wages. And summed up was basicaly “that’s not our problem, and you will be fined”.

It is unfortunatly the little “tin pot dictator” attitude the current encumbrents in Downing St encorage as it takes the heat off of them and their gross mismanagment of just about every part of the UK they have responsability for.

SteveJ November 7, 2008 12:38 PM

@Davi: “The same investment or perhaps even less could be directed towards…”

Um. It’s not true that all things cost the same amount of money. I’m pretty confident that the things you propose would cost more than councils have in point of fact spent on rubbish-related surveillance, but that’s just my instinct, so I am of course open to any research you have available on the subject.

Automatically sorting waste is a really big problem in recycling – there are only certain special cases where it can be done automatically. That’s why mixed household refuse is worth less than nothing. Even mixed plastics usually cannot be economically separated, what with current technology and landfill prices.

Weekly bin collections require significantly more labour than fortnightly (although of course not twice as much labour).

As against that, I’d estimate that sticking a handful of people with unreasonable fines is pretty cheap.

bob November 7, 2008 1:41 PM

I’d rather seem them mis-use this law against vandals. Ooh! and tailgaters, too! And people whose car alarms keep going off!

papa zita November 7, 2008 1:43 PM

Right joke, but the bulk of it was delivered by PM Hacker. I think Bernard’s punch line when asked about Sun readers, “Sun readers don’t care who runs the country as long as she’s got big t1t5.

papa zita November 7, 2008 1:48 PM

Au contraire, Steve J. We have a large recycling bin (as big as our garbage bin) where all recyclables are put in. It’s not worth less than nothing. as they do make enough to keep the program going in our city. I’ve read about the separation done at the recycling facility, but it was too long ago to remember in detail. We used to have separate bins, but they weren’t being used enough, and encouraged scavengers to take the most valuable recyclables.

Clive Robinson November 7, 2008 2:15 PM

The sad fact in the UK is the only plastic that gets any real attention for recycling is milk bottles.

Most card stiff/ paper etc gets contaminated by TetraPaks or waxed cardboard cartons so is of very low grade for recycling. And as for newspapers it’s worth more as a fuel than recycling as paper (due to modern “safe” print inks etc). The same problem exists for glossy papers and inks used in magazines hand outs and flyers etc.

The realy stupid thing is that most of the UK Governments requirments on recycling are based on weight nothing else. So wet newspaper is King when it comes to paying lip service to being “eco friendly” as it weighs more than crushed cans etc…

It’s the system that needs changing, East Germany used to recycle 80% of it’s packaging etc prior to the wall comming down.

bob November 7, 2008 3:25 PM

East Germany was a toxic nightmare (which the W Germans inherited). They probably recycled packaging because they HAD to.

Nate November 7, 2008 5:44 PM

Lesson 1:

Power corrupts

Lesson 2:

Give people power and they will misuse it. For whatever reason.

Lesson 3:

By giving the governments unlimited power to observe and control they will do their best to make sure that we are safe.

Wait…. which one doesn’t belong?

Iain Coleman November 7, 2008 8:16 PM

Increasing the frequency of waste collections is very expensive, and contrary to waste reduction strategies designed to meet the requirements of the EU Landfill Directive.

Waste sorting at collection centres is an attractive proposition, and some authorities do it. However, it is common in England for local government to be split between a larger County Council and a number of smaller District or City Councils. The former body is responsible for waste disposal, whie the former are responsible for waste collection. So trying to solve a waste collection problem by changing the waste disposal system is a pretty tricky proposition.

It is easy to see why the use of RIPA powers in these cases is attaractive to a particular kind of bureaucrat. That is why the law should never have been written the way it was. Happily, not all councils are alike, either in political leadership or in the character of the officers, and this kind of nonsense is far from universal.

Clive Robinson November 8, 2008 3:36 AM

@ Jef Poskanzer,

“Now I’m thinking about deploying a garbagecam to figure out which of my neighbors is adding their trash to my bin.”

If you are in the UK make sure you comply with all the Data Protection Regs.

It is noticable that Authorities are increasingly hiding behind RIPA to get away with installing (potentialy) intrusive survalence technology in areas that significantly overlook private property (and in some cases right through bedroom windows). A number use non visable light technology (ie IR and heat) which can see through curtains and blinds considerably more effectivly than visable light cameras…

If however (as I found out) you install equipment on your private property to record the comings and goings (or lack there of) of council refuse men you get some serious threats from both the council neardowells and from representatives of the company that the council has outsourced to…

It’s one law for them (blanket immunity) and it’s another (do it and be fined) for the rest of us…

On another note it is interesting to see where some of these council neardowells come from. Some councils (Chelse and Westminster) are employing retired police constables, who are getting effectivly paid twice.

A number of these ex-police constables time served their way through the police and where never promoted or advanced in any way but took early / medical retirment on a final salary pension as soon as they could.

They then sort and found relativly well paid employment with local councils where they draw full pay and get back into another final salary pension, whilst drawing their full benifit from their police pension…

Not that this behaviour is restricted to the lower ranks, the press reported a case of a deputy commissioner retiring from one police force and then reappearing in another police force whilst still drawing their full pension and other benifits from their previous force.

And it is unfortunatly the hard pressed council tax payer that is directly funding these peoples double pensions as well as their new salary…

Peter November 8, 2008 2:11 PM

@AlanS:”As Bruce documents, it’s bad enough in the US, but the UK really is the nanny society.”

Currently living in the UK (Scotland), I certainly agree with your sentiments, although I don’t think I’d use the word “nanny” as it implies some sort of benevolence – its more of a light touch “Stasi” (ok, maybe a bit of an exageration, but you get the picture).

Interestingly enough, what isn’t reported in the media is the state’s extensive proxied use of its own citizens as spies (curiously in a similar manner to “Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter”). It is endemic enough that songs in popular culture reference it, but just unsettling enough that it isn’t (generally) talked about in “polite conversation”. There is a tacit acceptance that both official and non-official intrusions of your privacy have to be accepted. As far as I can see, the use of cameras, wire-tapping and bugs is just the icing on top of a very spoilt and rancid cake.

Having said that, the government is meant to be there to protect the people through enactment of appropriate laws and proper governance of its people through the state, which in my view does actually work to a large extent. There are a lot of rights enjoyed in the UK which simply do not exist elsewhere.

I suppose that brings things back a full circle to the article citing councils abusing RIPA to spy on people putting their bins out early. If my memory serves me right, there’s at least one council in the UK that has cameras on its main street with two-way audio capability so the operators can shout at people to pick up their rubbish (I’ve read other examples of councils spying on people who don’t pick up their dog’s poo, and similar intensely stupid notions).

Councils don’t need these powers, nor really does the HMRC (UK tax system), or most public authorities for that matter – there’s always a better way of dealing with the issue. However the Police do, as do the security services. The somewhat antiquated idea of requiring a warrant from a magistrate or sherrif to carry out wire-tapping, organised spying and such like should always be enforced, as its the only and last protection of individual rights in these situations…. and seems to have worked (fairly) well for al ong time.

Hmm…. reading that back I guess I’m not going to be working at MI5 anytime soon 😉

Wim L November 8, 2008 6:01 PM

Iain Coleman, I don’t see why your first sentence is logical— surely more frequent waste collection won’t increase the amount of waste generated?

Iain Coleman November 8, 2008 7:18 PM

Reducing the frequency of general waste collections, thus reducing the quantity of waste that a houseold can send to landfill, encourages households to increase their recycling rate and reduce unnecessary waste. Empirically, it’s very effective: when I switched Cambridge from weekly to fortnightly general waste collections, the recycling rate rose dramatically, from around 26% to over 42%, if I recall correctly.

Clive Robinson November 9, 2008 8:51 AM

@ Iain Coleman,

I’m calling you a liar, your argument,

“Reducing the frequency of general waste collections, thus reducing the quantity of waste that a houseold can send to landfill”

Is a very very silly argument that is without logic.

What you are actually saying is,

“We will charge you as much as we can get awaywith to take as little as possible away as infrequently as posible. Therefor any surpluss is for you to worry about and us to fine you over to make more money to waste on other stupid ideas”.

Sorry it that gets your blood up but when you try to pressent a rarional for greed as an environmental good you realy should expect people to rain on your political clap trap.

I’m old enough to remember the problems when bin men went on strike. The fly tipping the stench the pests and the health risks that followed.

Saying we are only going to pick up once every two weeks is plainly and unarguably a cost saving excersise nothing more and is seriously engendering public health.

If you want to try the environmental argument keep the weekly collections but halve the size of the wheelie bins.

Your false arguments are way to easy to see and point out.

And I as a council tax payer am very very sick of being held to ransom by a bunch of lackluster out moded neardowells who waste not only my money but my time as well.

Further, unfortunatly due to the failings of the representational democracy model we cannot get rid of the lot of you and replace it with something more appropriate to the modern age.

Iain Coleman November 9, 2008 9:56 AM


You are being very, very silly.

Firstly, the savings obtained in Cambridge by moving to fortnightly general waste collections were used to provide a new plastics recycling service, something local residents had been demanding for some years and that proved popular when it was introduced. The word “greed” is rather a daft one to use: neither councillors nor council officers benefit financially from this kind of change.

Secondly, I can absolutely assure you that my motivation for doing this was entirely environmental: increasing the recycling rate and reducing the quantity of waste going to landfill. I know this, because I know what was in my mind when I made the decision.

Thirdly, anyone with two brain cells to scratch together should realise that making this change for any reason other than its direct environmental benefits would be insane. Doing this involved a great deal of work by myself and my officers in order to overcome formidable political difficulties. If it had just been about saving revenue, we would never have gone down that route. There are far easier ways to save money.

Fouthly, there was no public health hazard. Wheeled bins contain waste perfectly well. Furthermore, prior to introducing this change in Cambridge we had introduced a green bin collection for organic waste, that could take all kitchen waste including meat and bones. Under the fortnightly system, this collection alternated with the general waste collection, so residents could put their kitchen and other organic waste out to be collected every week if they so wished.

Fifth: we never made a profit on environmental enforcement, far from it. Enforcement officers are relatively expensive, and fines were always a last resort at the end of a series of warnings.

Sixth: halving the size of the bins was considered, but it was a more expensive solution (the best part of a million pounds in capital just to change all the bins) that delivered no significant benefits and would have precluded introducing the new plastics recycling system.

Seventh: the voters had the opportunity to vote out the ruling group following the introduction of the new system. In fact, we increased our representation on the council (and have maintained this ever since) and won the Wesminster seat that year on a 19% swing from the incumbent party. Part of the reason for this is that the new system was a success: the inevitable teething troubles were dealt with quickly, the environmental benefits were soon realised, and residents now seem broadly happy with the service.

I should point out that I am no longer actively involved in politics, and have no reason to be anything other than candid with you. I regret taking up so much space on Bruce’s blog with this side discussion, but the tone of your criticism invited a full response.

I hope you find this information useful.

None November 9, 2008 1:37 PM

Talking about anti-Terror law, wasn’t that used to seize Icland’s Bank Assets in UK?

Now, talking about these 300,000 blue eyed, blond terrorists stealing money out of UK savers.

Once they steal savings, and launder money, the next thing they will do is to terrorize the UK people by fishing in British streams illegally.

Get them now.

Clive Robinson November 9, 2008 4:21 PM

@ Iain Coleman,

You asked at the bottom of your post,

“I hope you find this information useful.”

Yes I did, and I will take your points one at a time,

” Firstly, the savings obtained in Cambridge by moving to fortnightly general waste collections”

Thank you for confirming my basic point switching from weekly to fortnightly collections was a cost reduction excercise.

The fact that the savings,

“were used to provide a new plastics recycling service”

Does not change the fact that it was a cost savings excersice, as far as refuse collection was concerned.

“The word “greed” is rather a daft one to use: neither councillors nor council officers benefit financially from this kind of change.”

I will not argue the point for the borough you were a councilor for, however for berevity I will suggest you have a gander at Private Eye’s “Rotten Boroughs” for you to assess just how many elected and unelected council officials are receving excessive renumeration via expenses, accociated work, and down right fraud and deception. The simple fact is that the fortnightly artical mentions on average five different serious fiddles that it is aware of from across the UK. So your statment is at best one of “the way it should be” as opposed to an actuality in many boroughs.

“Secondly, I can absolutely assure you that my motivation for doing this was entirely environmental: increasing the recycling rate and reducing the quantity of waste going to landfill. I know this, because I know what was in my mind when I made the decision.”

I cannot answer for what was or was not in your mind at the time so it is a mute point. However being quit famillier with a number of Lib Dems both at council and commons level I have little reason to question your statment. However you have to also ask if you were doing the right thing environmentaly (see my comments further down about shopping bags).

“Thirdly, anyone with two brain cells to scratch together should realise that making this change for any reason other than its direct environmental benefits would be insane.”

Actually no there are quite a few councils around (mainly inner city) where I have seen information that actually shows that they regard it as being for costing purposes and their figures do to a limited extent make sense (also see my comments further down about expenditure justification).

“Doing this involved a great deal of work by myself and my officers in order to overcome formidable political difficulties.”

This is a matter of changing opinions in those with possibly vested interests the cost of your and your officers time was probably negligable in comparison to the cost of your plastics recycling facility.

“If it had just been about saving revenue, we would never have gone down that route. There are far easier ways to save money.”

In your council this may well have been true at the time, in others maybe not.

You have to ask the question of why the current commons incumbrants through the office of the Dept PM thought it was worth while allowing the changes to be made if the could not meet the primary requirment of “All expenditure has to be justified by an associated cost savings” which has been the primary mantra since before Maggie Thatcher was PM and is thoroughly engrained in civil servant thinking.

“Fouthly, there was no public health hazard. Wheeled bins contain waste perfectly well.”

Yes and in Several London boroughs a simple visual inspection will show rodent teeth marks where they have chewed their way into the bins. Likewise there is considerable eye wittness reports often supported by CCTV footage of foxes cats and other quadrapeds draging food and other waste out. Then ther is the issue of over fill lifting the lid and allowing blow flies etc to lay eggs and have them reach maturity (it avarages between 6 and 12 days in the UK… hence the benifit of 7 day collection over 14day).

You confirm my point with,

“Under the fortnightly system, this collection alternated with the general waste collection, so residents could put their kitchen and other organic waste out to be collected every week if they so wished.”

Why would this be of concern and the associated expenditure if there was no percieved or actual health hazzard?

Oh and what about human waste such as nappies, sanitry products and surgical dressings etc?

“Fifth: we never made a profit on environmental enforcement, far from it. Enforcement officers are relatively expensive, and fines were always a last resort at the end of a series of warnings.”

This is as it should be well done, however it appears not to be the case with other boroughs. I could go on at length about some of the tricks that have been deployed by some councils but unfortunatly there are reasons that I’m sure you will realise as to why I will not.

“Sixth: halving the size of the bins was considered, but it was a more expensive solution (the best part of a million pounds in capital just to change all the bins) that delivered no significant benefits and would have precluded introducing the new plastics recycling system.”

This is actually a reasonable view point when a system of council supplied wheelie bins is already in place.

However there are quite a few councils that I and others (speak to a few of your Lib Dem colleagues) are aware of that are only just getting around to supplying wheelie bins and most are doing it conjunction with a change from weekly to fortnightly collections. These bins appear to actually be bigger in many cases than those issued as little as five years ago, so the logic for them appears to be as I indicated.

“Seventh: the voters had the opportunity to vote out the ruling group following the introduction of the new system.”

Oh dear this is the age old problem with a representational democracy. When you vote for a “monkey in a suit” you have to make a decission on many many many areas of policy they espouse. Claiming to be voted back in after the system was introduced with an increased majority is not indicative of people agreing or disagreing with any particular policy. Firstly only a vote on the issue it’s self (real democracy) would determine if that, and if you have such proof I would be very interested to see it. Secondly and importantly the time period between full implementation of the policy and voting may have been (and probably was) sufficiently short that the disadvantages where not generaly apparent to the electorate, time as they say will tell…

“Part of the reason for this is that the new system was a success: the inevitable teething troubles were dealt with quickly”

This is as it should be with reasonable project goals and managment.

“the environmental benefits were soon realised”

Which where?

“and residents now seem broadly happy with the service.”

Your point 5 of favoring carrot -v- stick (which is most definatly not the case for other councils) may well account for this. Also as well as the fact that quite a large part of Cambridge is urban or rural not pre 1930’s high density inner city housing.

Again though one has to ask how has this “broadly happy” has actually been measured and at what point in time? there is amongst other things the well known “Honeymoon effect”. And other effects as seen with crime and the introduction of CCTV.

I could go on at considerable length about this however you need to ask yourself how were your “environmental success criteria” selected and calculated. Few if any councils get the environmental impact assessment correct (this is mainly due to over simplistic regulatory compliance issues).

A simple example of this problem is “plastic shopping bags” all we usually hear is they are either non biodegradable or will take X (fill in your own guestimate) hundred years to break down in land fill.

However two things rarely make it into the calculations, firstly what do the bags (possibly) degrade to, and importantly what raw material are they made from.

The latter is of serious interest, as the bags are usually made from an oil industry waste product that has no other use than to be flared off at the well head. So actually sticking the bags in a hole in the ground is very possibly more environmentaly friendly…

Jon Sowden November 9, 2008 4:42 PM

IIRC, there is a LOT of evidence, from around the world, that the introduction of large wheelie bins was generally a disaster from a generation-of-waste and recycling point-of-view. People suddenly had a large capacity recepticle into which they could throw pretty much anything and everything. So they did.

In some respects I agree with you – the size of your garbage bin shouldn’t make any difference to the amount of rubbish a household produces.

However, the evidence all points the other way.


bob November 10, 2008 6:40 AM

Why did trash compactors die out? They were a rage about 20 years ago.

For those who dont remember, it was a device, typically installed in the kitchen, which accumulated garbage and when you pressed a button, would compress it with some silly-large amount of force into a solid lump, then spray it with a disinfect/desmell substance so that you didn’t have to take out the trash but once a week or so. I have not seen one for sale in a long time. If people had these they could cut back to monthly pickup, and the city would no longer need a truck with (expensive) hydraulics (since the trash would already be basically incompressible at that point). Essentially transferring the cost of compression to the citizen.

Colossal Squid November 10, 2008 6:56 AM

Icelandic banking assets were seized under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, specifically Part 2, Article 4.
Assets can be frozen in the UK if the Treasury “reasonably believe” that “action to the detriment of the United Kingdom’s economy (or part of it) has been or is likely to be taken by a person or persons, or action constituting a threat to the life or property of one or more nationals of the United Kingdom…”

No scope for mission creep there.

More details here or you could google for the act itself:

Clive Robinson November 10, 2008 11:53 AM

@ Jon Sowden,

“However, the evidence all points the other way.”

You are correct but only up to a point. It is another case of “plastic shopping bag” syndrome.

Whilst household waste has gone up considerably in the past few years the size of the wheelie bin is “in response to” not “as a cause of” this.

If you look a little further at the increase in packaging materials on goods, the pre-wrapping of food, and the needless shortening of expire by dates, all have occured before an associated increase in household waste.

The solution to cutting house hold waste and improving it’s environmental effects both of food and other items is to start from the point at which it is supplied (ie where it originates from).

Unfortunatly the persons responsable (the marketing and manufacturing concernces) are also some of the most powerfull lobbying interests on the planet.

If the politicians where to actually stand back from the issue and stop taking paid for junkets and other freebies off of the lobbying groups then rest of us would be better off.

To some extent the EU has started to wake up to this with RoHS / WEEE and other directives but a lot more needs to be done.

Unfortunatly it has to be done by the EU as the UK Gov pays at best lip service to EU waste directives when it comes to busniess and manufacturing intrests (look at UK SI’s on WEEE and on things like batteries…) and makes little or no usefull legislation it’s self.

However when the directives can be used to extract more money from the happless and defensless individual then bang you get some of the most draconian implementaitons of EU directives and legislation anywhere in Europe.

But hey that’s all part and parcel of “New xxx” (select Labour or Conservative at your own choice as in this world of Purple Politics it makes little or no difference).

There appears to be a fundemental difference to the view of the environment between “us” in the UK and our nearest European neighbours, perhaps we should stop and think exactly why it is they call us “the dirty man of Europe” and blaim us for acid rain, Mad Cow and a whole host of other things?

Iain Coleman November 11, 2008 10:25 AM


I’m glad you appreciate some of my points. However, there are still a few things I want to clear up.

  1. Switching to fortnightly collections obviously saves revenue in the waste collection service. That does not, however, mean it was done as a “cost-cutting exercise”. The saving was a happy extra feature, not the object of the exercise. It was always, first and last, an effort to increase the recycling rate and reduce the landfill rate.
  2. I wasn’t quite clear earlier. The reason why no sane council would do this as a cost-cutting exercise is that it is very politically risky. Ruling parties have been swiftly voted out of power in other councils where the introduction of fortnightly collections proved unpopular. At the time I introduced the scheme in Cambridge, we had just managed to overcome a political firestorm in the part of the city where I was a councillor. This is an area that would have been particularly badly hit if the change to fortnightly collections had gone badly, and it was an area where we held several marginal seats – including my own. Be in no doubt, if this change had proved unpopular I would have lost my seat, and we would very probably have lost control of the council. Furthermore, we were gearing up for a massive target seat campaign in the 2005 general election, and the last thing we needed was the electorate getting pissed off with us because we had made a mess of their bins.
  3. There are local elections every year in Cambridge, and the waste and recycling system was a high profile issue for all the time that I was there (it may still be – I moved away a couple of years ago). We hold many marginal seats. If the electorate had been upset about their bins, we would certainly have had our majority reduced at the very least.
  4. There was no “honeymoon period”. The first couple of months were the hardest, as people got used to the new system and all sorts of teething troubles were sorted out. As it happens, the senior officers were quite amazed at how few problems we had. I had recruited extra temporary staff and put everyone on battle stations, but in the end it all went relatively smoothly.
  5. There are lots of ways to find out if residents are upset with the servce, besides election results. The council does an annual residents’ survey, our party also does its own street surveys, and councillors are very much aware of what issues are being raised with them individually or in residents’ meetings. When I left Cambridge in March 2006, there was no sign that residents were dissatisfied with the service (which had been running since October 2004). Since then, I’ve had occasional contact with my former colleagues and looked at the local press – it’s a non-issue.

  6. The environmental benefits were a substantially increased recycling rate and a decreased landfill rate. If you really want to understand the bureaucratic dynamic behind all this, it isn’t cost-cutting: it’s the EU Landfill Directive. This sets out targets for each member state to reduce the mass of waste it sends to landfill each year. Any member state that fails to meet these targets is subject to very, very large fines. As a result of this, all UK councils are given tough recycling targets to meet each year. I introduced fortnightly collections because a study I had requested showed that this was the only practical way to reach those targets. As it happens, we had set recycling targets for ourselves in Cambridge that were somewhat more ambitious than those imposed by Whitehall, as part of our environmental improvement policy. That may go some way to explain why we seem to have managed to do a better job of making this change than some other authorities: we were fundamentally enthusiastic about achieving the results, even if the method was risky, while some other authorities may have been sullenly going along with the government targets and just doing the bare minimum to achieve them.

  7. The ability to dispose of food waste weekly rater than fortnightly helped address a perceived, rather than an actual, problem. It also reduced landfill and increased our recycling figures, so it was a win-win.

  8. Right, this is really getting into the kinds of nitty-gritty details that you need to start reading comittee reports on the Cambridge City Council website for, but we already had a dedicated clinical waste collection service. When planning this change, we worried a lot about nappies, and made provision for extra nappy collections, but in the event these proved unnecessary.

I think I’ve certainly said more than enough about recycling in Cambridge. I hope the broader point comes through, though: sometimes these changes have driving forces that are not obvious, and sometimes they really are being implemented by councillors and council officers who care about their city and want to do their best for it.

Iain Coleman November 11, 2008 10:35 AM


Trying to get every household to compact their trash would be a nightmare. The key point is that, as you say, it transfers the cost of compression to the citizen. Some househlds can’t afford a trash compactor: many others would resent being forced to pay for one. So the local authority would have to provide this equipment free to every household (though it could probably get away with charging for replacing damaged compactors). It’s easier and cheaper to do the compression on the collection vehicles, where you can control the process.

Also, this would be no good in the UK: all our waste reduction targets are based on mass, not volume, so reducing the volume but not the mass doesn’t do you much good.

John David Galt November 15, 2008 6:12 PM

Bob: the best solution to car alarms is to legislate that anyone woken by them has the right to go disable the alarm with a sledge hammer.

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