Update from Chris Watts, Councillor, Old Town Ward, Cabinet Member for The Environment and Transport

I am the cabinet member for waste and recycling. I was elected in May 2023 and started in the post proper June 2023. The new recycling system was researched and signed off in 2021, procured in the summer of 2022, with initial rollout projected for October 2023 that slipped to November 2023 due to a delay in wagon delivery. Indeed when I took up the role, blue weighted bags and bin caddies were already in the delivery stage.

Recycling issues
Whilst the normal refuse collection has moved through initial teething issues and is on track, the recycling system has struggled to deliver the requirements of the service on a number of levels since rollout. These include a lack of dedicated project management from its  inception in December 2021 that would have focused on vital back-office software systems, assumptions in design pertaining to the volumes of recycling being different to what was seen in reality, and a linear (Queueing) depot design that often introduce operational delays and prevent timely collections.

I have in good faith committed to supporting officers in the roll-out of the new system as designed and yesterday; 23 Jan 2024, I met with the chief executive and senior officers to review the current roll-out, to put in backstops to allow the service to run with additional, albeit unsustainable, temporary support that will come on line this month, whilst we seek to address the considerable systemic issues through a redesign program of the areas of deficiency listed above.

I suspect that the redesign programme of the recycling system will take time but I will be producing updates as to the progress of the project plan.

The system design proposed back in 2021 aimed to be cost neutral with the addition of revenue from food waste and increased recycling. This will be a challenge to achieve considering the additional resources expected but needs to be a primary consideration taking into account the current financial position of SBC that we have inherited, and indeed is the case with many local authorities up and down the country.

I do not seek overtly to make political capital from the situation we find ourselves in, preferring to concentrate and address the considerable issues. Indeed, I appreciate, as a new councillor and cabinet member, that I have the benefit of live rollout experience and hindsight that my predecessor was not afforded. The outcome for me is that the project management on many levels was not sufficiently resourced in the early stages to effectively deliver such a substantial project and we are now having to pay for the lack of upfront resources that should have been assigned. It could be an example of penny wise, pound stupid, but reflects many decisions that have been driven within the Borough by austerity and the withdrawal of £60M a year in real terms of central government revenue support grant.

Blue Weighted Bags
With reference the blue weighted bags, I was not part of the initial design and procurement process. The rationale as I understand it is from an end-to-end process position, these allow the plastic / metal mix to be loaded onto the wagon loose in order to be transferred to plant machinery at the depot that can automatically separate the recycle streams. This is why plastic bags of plastics/metals cannot be accepted.

Roll-out date
The rollout date of October was scheduled into the project in 2021 and baked into the subsequent budget for 2023/24. The understanding from officers was to meet legislation for food waste to be collected by 2024. As stated above there was a delay in the arrival of recycling wagons that pushed the roll-out to November. If the project had been suspended and pushed into the new year, we would have either had to continue paying 40 new employees, specifically taken on for the new system, or stand them down for a period of time and then have to restart the recruitment process pushing the date out further. We estimate that a delay to the new year would have cost the council in excess of £500,000, money that the council does not have. It should also be noted that the old fleet was end of life and obsolete and the service was struggling to get enough of these vehicles out of the depot.

Current Situation
The current situation is that recycling is largely running 24 to 48h behind even with considerable additional resource and overtime. It has stabilised at this position, and we will be seeking further resources to bring this back in line. As stated above this is an unsustainable position, certainly in the medium term, and we will seek to redesign the service for deployment as soon as possible.

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