Words: Richard Beecham, local democracy reporter
Senior members of Leeds City Council have criticised the authority’s response to waste disposal problems during the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to an overspend on bin crews of more than £5m.
It followed a report into the council’s household waste service, which LCC’s executive member for environment Coun Mohammed Rafique said showed Leeds had “one of the best refuse collection services in the country.”
But a senior opposition councillor called the claims “incredulous” and challenged Coun Rafique to visit his ward and repeat what he said to residents who have seen numerous missed bin collections during the pandemic.
Claims were also made that dozens of bin collection staff were allowed to take holiday at the same time, which led to a severe disruption in collections during August.
A report by council officers put the authority’s successful collection rate at 99.85 per cent during the pandemic, down slightly on a rate of 99.93 per cent before the pandemic.
The council said it had to pay for the equivalent of an extra six crews during the current financial year, due to an extra 37,000 tonnes of household waste produced by more people remaining at home during Covid-19.
Coun Rafique told a meeting of Leeds City Council’s executive board:
“This is an operational response to the challenges we face.
“We are the second larges provider of debris setvice anywhere in the UK. We have emptied 39 million bins during the pandemic.
“During the pandemic, we also emptied 2,500 tonnes of garden waste. Our performance is 99.85 per cent.
“This shows the monumental effort put in by staff. Despite the challenges, we still remain one of the best refuse collection services int he country.”
Cou Stewart Golton (Lib Dem) responded by calling Coun Rafique “slightly deluded”, adding that while individual crews performed well, the service had been bady managed.
“This is part of the problem,” he added. “You go on about how we’re the biggest authority on this, but we are also supposed to be the best city, so we should go for the best quality, not the best quantity, of service. The experience of your customers has not been the best.”
Coun Golton said the 99.85 per cent figure measured bins collected within 48 hours of their specified collection date, claiming: “It could hide a high initial failure rate – the recovery option is quite expensive. If you don’t do it first time round, it costs more to go back and sweep it up.
“We were expecting something a little more humble about how things could be done differently. Unfortunately, the paper is a bit too defensive for its own good.”
According to the report, an extra £2.2m will have been spent between April 2021 and March 2022 on the disposal of extra household waste.
On top of this, an extra £1m will have been spent hiring extra bin lorries, with a further £1.9m on cover for refuse collection staff who were self-isolating. This is thought to be the equivalent of an extra six crews over six days a week.
It went on to claim the service struggled to recruit extra drivers due to the national HGV driver shortage, but claims the service did not see staff leave for better offers, such as happened in the bus industry.
Coun Rafique responded to Coun Golton: “The report is self-explanatory. When you talk about £5m, the cost of disposal is in plain English.
“It’s not rocket science – the report can’t be any clearer.
“Compare with many public services outside the council and refuse services across the country that have experienced much more issues than we have. On one hand you say the crew is doing well, and on the other hand you criticise them.”
Deputy leader of Leeds City Council’s opposition Conservatives group Coun Alan Lamb told Coun Rafique: “I’m listening to this with increasing incredulity. We now hear the astonishing claim that a £5m overspend isn’t really an overspend at all.
“Nobody was criticising staff. Criticism is for you, and it is fully deserved. Come to my ward, or Pudsey or Armley and repeat what you said to residents who repeatedly don’t have their bins collected.”
He went on to claim that suggestions on improving waste services had been ignored by Coun Rafique.
“People want their bins to be collected on time, not within 48 hours,” he said. “There is a huge disconnect between your report and the realities.
“People in my ward, Pudsey and Armley would tell you a different story to what is in this report.”
Coun Rafique responded: “You could say a hundred things to me – I have a thick skin. You are having a go at the staff who go out in adverse weather conditions and do an excellent servie for people in this city.”
Coun Lamb asked: “Will you come to my ward and meet my residents and talk to them and make the same claims that you made to me?”
Coun Rafique said: “I am happy to come to your ward.”
A review is currently taking place into Leeds City Council’s refuse service, which is expected will include a redesign of all bin lorry routes, “more reliable collections” to hard-to-access streets and improvements to high-rise collections.
It is hoped this review will be completed by next summer, but in the meantime, the council says it is putting extra money into the service’s budget for the coming year to continue to cover extra costs.