For the first time in 30 years, South Ribble Borough Council will take direct control of the operation after the authority opted not to renew its contract with the private firm that currently collects residents’ rubbish, recycling and garden waste.
Labour council leader Paul Foster said that the move to end the outsourcing deal will mean the service's 54 staff are soon paid the real living wage - presently £9.90 an hour - like all of the local authority's own employees.
A meeting of the full council heard that some of the waste collection operatives currently receive the minimum wage - which is £8.36 an hour for the under-23s and £9.50 for everyone else - and also receive the minimum in pension contributions.
Conservative opposition councillors said that the answer to that problem was for the council to stipulate the wage it wanted outsourced bin collectors and bin lorry drivers to be paid - not to take on a duty which it no longer has any experience of discharging.
However, Cllr Foster said that he had “never understood” the waste contract - which for the last seven years has been in the hands of Northampton-based FCC Environment - because the council still owns the collection vehicles and the depot where they are stored and maintained, but does not employ the staff delivering the service on the doorstep.
“The waste collection team do a brilliant job for this borough and I recall through the pandemic, they never missed one bin…and I never heard one complaint. They do an exceptionally important job...[and] some of them are paid the minimum wage.
“When people do a hard day’s work, they deserve the rewards that go with it.
“The private sector…is always driven by one thing - profit. This isn't about profit, this is about doing the right thing [for] the people we ask to work for us,” said Cllr Foster, who added that FCC should nevertheless be “commended” for the service it had provided.
However, Conservative former council leader Margaret Smith expressed doubts about taking the service back in-house, telling members that someone had recently warned her that the council would “mess with the bin collections at [its] peril”.
She added that the waste staff were “highly valued by the community” - and that FCC had only taken advantage ten times in seven years of a clause in its contract allowing the firm to miss 25 bins out of 100,000 collections per month.
Fellow Tory councillor Michael Green said that there was an argument for adopting the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” principle - and instead simply to make payment of the real living wage a condition of renewing the contract with FCC.
“The service is excellent, they've got a tremendous record…why do we want to take the risk?
“FCC have got significant experience and expertise in the waste services industry - we simply don't have that experience at South Ribble Borough Council.”
But Cllr Foster said that the existing staff would be bringing their knowledge and expertise with them - and so it would be “retained” in the district.
The Post understands that there are no changes planned to collection days and that the intention is for residents to notice no difference to the current service.
A report presented to councillors revealed that the current value of the waste collection contract with FCC is £1.8m per year. The overall South Ribble waste budget for 2022/23 is £2.1m, which is a £293,000 increase over the previous year, to factor in rising inflation and fuel prices.
Members were told that by choosing to insource the bins service the council would save £178,000 in the current financial year, after the cost of seeking “specialist advice” to support the changes had been factored in.
Cabinet member for finance Matthew Tomlinson said that taking direct control of the operation made sense, because even under the current arrangements, the buck ultimately stopped with the borough authority if bin collections came under threat.
“When this contract started to go wrong because of the fuel [price] increases, it didn't come out of the contract - we had to find the money.
“When the HGV driver shortage happened 12 months or so ago, it wasn’t FCC who had to go and find drivers, they came to us and said, ‘We’re not going to collect your brown bins next week, because we can’t get the drivers’ - and then we had to sort it out.
“If we hadn’t collected [the] brown bins, our residents wouldn’t have been saying, ‘Aren’t FCC terrible’...they’d have been blaming us...this council,” said Cllr Tomlinson, who added that the bin collectors had been “heroes with smiles on their faces” throughout the pandemic, waving to children through windows during lockdown.
Labour councillor Chris Lomax said that had he known the waste staff were on the minimum wage, he would have told his daughter - who left chocolates for them at the height of the Covid crisis - to include “a note [about] how to contact a food bank”.
Meanwhile, cabinet member for health and wellbeing Mick Titherington said that by paying “a proper wage…you will get a stronger and more efficient workforce”.
Unison representative Dale Ollier said that staff would welcome the benefits that come with membership of the local government pension scheme, over and above any increase in employer contributions, which Cllr Foster had suggested would be around 12.5 percent under the new set-up.
Mr. Ollier said that many of the workers he represents within the brough’s waste collection service had “explicitly” said that the decision of the council over whether to employ them directly would influence their own decision about whether to stay on or quit, as they considered their place within a competitive labour market.
The council voted by a majority to insource the operation, rejecting the alternative option of renewing the FCC contract for seven years with a break clause after three. The company had presented its “best and final offer” for continuing to provide the service, having previously submitted a revised pricing proposal in December last year which councillors were told reflected “significant annual cost increases”.
From 11th June, the council will be in direct charge of collections of: household waste and recycling, garden waste, commercial waste, bulky waste and clinical waste.
FCC will continue to deliver the waste collection service in neighbouring Chorley, where its contract with that authority still has several years left to run.
A spokesperson for the company said that it was “very disappointed” by South Ribble’s decision.
They added: “As was acknowledged by council members during the meeting, the company has been very successfully providing waste services to the council for the last seven years. It will continue to provide these services whilst working with its council partner on a seamless handover this summer.
"We would like to take this opportunity to first and foremost thank our people on the contract for their commitment, support and sterling work across the years. We would also like to wish residents and council officers and members well as they embark upon their future recycling and waste management journey.”
‘WHERE ARE ALL THE WOMEN’?
A Liberal Democrat councillor said that the move to take full control of the waste collection in South Ribble - which was backed by her group under its confidence and supply deal with the Labour administration - should be seen as an opportunity to diversify the workforce.
Angela Turner said: “I would like the cabinet member to take the opportunity to look at the recruitment of staff in the waste disposal services, because I…personally, have never seen any female operatives.”