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‘New lorries and bins will add to councils’ financial woes’

Published: 15 February 2024

Government urged to listen to councils’ concerns about insufficient funding and unrealistic deadlines for waste reform

Two-thirds of councils expect not to hit the Government’s deadline to ‘simplify’ recycling services as the scale of the costs they face can be revealed for the first time.

Many already cash-strapped councils face a multi-million-pound bill to revamp recycling services and expect a significant shortfall in the funding they will receive to undertake the work, according to District Councils’ Network (DCN) research.

The Government’s ‘Simpler Recycling’ plan includes requirements for councils to collect food waste on a weekly basis and a consistent set of dry recyclables. This means many councils will need to invest in new infrastructure, including waste vehicles and bins.

A DCN survey completed by 99 of our 169 member councils reveals:

  • Councils have seen the costs of waste collections increase by 13% on average over the past year.
  • 98% of councils implementing new weekly food waste collections will need to buy new vehicles, or would upgrade existing vehicles. Councils expect to spend an average of £950,000 on these vehicles.
  • 76% of councils say they will need to expand their depot space to cope with the extra waste rounds required to implement weekly food waste collections. The median cost of depot expansion is £1.5 million, with one council expecting its bill to be £15 million.
  • Councils with outsourced services expect their annual costs to increase by £800,000 as a result of these changes – that is equivalent to 11% of councils’ council tax income.

In December, DEFRA published details of the capital allocations councils will receive to cover the cost of introducing weekly food waste collections. District councils – the waste collection authorities over much of England – anticipate an average shortfall of at least £210,000 to fund the new vehicles and containers required to introduce food waste collections. This shortfall excludes the capital cost of investing in new or expanded depots which the Government has indicated it will not fund at all.

The Government’s calculation of the capital funding required by councils was undertaken when the plans were first devised in 2018. It fails to take into account the high inflation seen in recent years, which has increased the average cost of buying a new waste lorry by £25,000.

The shortfall would breach the longstanding convention that when ‘new burdens’ are imposed on local government, any reasonable costs are paid for by central government. Unless this is rectified, some already financially stretched councils will be unable to afford to implement the reforms or will have to cut other valuable capital programmes or services to do so.

Examples of the funding difficulty include:

  • One rural district will receive less than 50% of the capital to cover the cost of vehicles it requires to deliver services.
  • Five district councils across a county area expect a collective shortfall of £2.1 million if buying diesel vehicles or almost £6 million if buying electric vehicles.
  • Three councils which operate a joint contract face a shortfall of £750,000 to procure equipment.

The continuing silence from central government about the new burdens funding to cover the ongoing revenue costs of operating the new food waste services puts districts at even further risk. Responses to our survey indicated that councils expect ongoing costs to increase by 21% on average to provide food waste services.

The suggestion that indicative funding allocations will not be made available until the 2025/26 financial year creates chronic uncertainty that undermines councils’ ability to plan and get approval to implement these changes.

In combination there is a real risk that the inadequate capital funding and continuing uncertainty about other funding will push well-managed district councils closer to financial distress – especially because waste collection accounts for a significant proportion of total district budgets. Districts have already absorbed a 13% in-year increase in the cost of providing waste collections.

Two-thirds of councils are not confident they will be able to bring in all the additional services required by the Government’s deadline of 1 April 2026. The reasons for this are:

  • 48% cited difficult procurement timelines.
  • 44% cited the complexity of arrangements with county councils to dispose of new material.
  • 41% cited contract renegotiations as barriers.

Only 46% councils are confident they would be able to provide these new services to flats or remote properties by April 2026. Many indicated that, until full Government guidance is released, they cannot plan how services to these properties will be delivered.

Cllr Sarah Nelmes, Environment Spokesperson of the District Councils’ Network, said: “District councils have some of the highest recycling rates in the country but we want to do even more to improve our services and deliver environmental benefits to our local places.

“The Government’s Simpler Recycling plan will mean significant service changes at many councils. New waste lorries, bins and, in some cases, larger depots will be required, all at great expense. The funding currently on offer is nowhere near enough. Unless the Government upholds the longstanding doctrine that it funds the full costs of any new burdens it imposes on councils, hard-pressed councils will have even fewer resources to support our communities.

“We are pleased the Government listened to councils and to our residents when we feared their previous proposals would lumber households with up to seven bins and would be unworkable. Now the Government needs to listen when we tell them that their new proposals – although an improvement – will be unrealistic unless council are funded for the full costs.

“We share the Government’s commitment to improving recycling and we want to work with them to make it happen.”

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