The battle of the bin tax

20 Jul 07
TONY TRAVERS | The communities and local government select committee’s report on refuse collection was a well-timed intervention into a sphere of public policy that continues to concern government.

The communities and local government select committee’s report on refuse collection was a well-timed intervention into a sphere of public policy that continues to concern government.

For years to come, politics will be dominated by the issue of how far the state can make the public behave in an environmentally responsible way.

The MPs sensibly pointed to the absurdity of leaving densely populated areas with unemptied bins for a fortnight. Public policy is attempting to make more of us live in cities and towns to take the strain off the countryside. It would be odd if the reward for living in compact urban areas was to find ourselves knee deep in ten-day-old potato peelings. The committee also questioned the scale of incentives needed to encourage people to throw away less rubbish.

This issue is serious. Economists have long favoured the use of financial carrots and sticks to change behaviour. But serious problems face any government or local authority seeking to stop us abandoning so much household waste.

These problems include, first, the need to make incentives sufficiently sharp to induce behaviour change and, second, the risk that the British will respond in an unpredictable way to apparently rational ‘carrot and stick’ type policies. Thus, if households were charged by weight for the rubbish they throw out, what would be the response?

The Daily Mail would, without doubt, see this as just another tax for the overburdened householder. Indeed, the council tax controversy will spill over into any debate about waste charging. Television and radio commentators would claim that people were paying ‘record levels of council tax’ and that waste charging would add to household bills.

The select committee, however, was clear that council tax bills should fall if waste charging were to be introduced. Thus, councils would find themselves having to cut council tax before they could introduce a waste-charging scheme.

There would then be a need to cope with equity issues: would poor families with large numbers of children be unduly penalised for throwing away a large amount of waste? Would pensioners pay? The disabled? Powerful lobbies would spring up to protect the vulnerable.

Then there would be the question of how to deal with anarchic Britain. Doubtless in nice, well-mannered countries such as Germany and Sweden households respond to official encouragement and/or incentives to reduce waste. But in many parts of the UK there would be a significant chance that people would increase fly-tipping, dumping junk in the street and an array of other forms of mildly anti-social behaviour. New ‘waste police’ and CCTV systems would probably be needed to see who was abandoning waste where.

The question of how to make people accept behaviour-changing charges will have to be faced again and again in the years ahead.

We have already lived through a long debate about road pricing, which raises all the same issues. National and local politicians have generally been unwilling to face the risk of a backlash against policies to reduce car use, waste and even to curb existing problems such as alcohol misuse.

Except, that is, with cigarettes. On this issue, politicians have been willing to push through a ban on smoking in public places. Perhaps MPs, MSPs and AMs were happy to act because only about a quarter of the population now smokes — the risk of a backlash was much reduced. Perhaps the public health case was easier to sell when millions of people could daily witness the impacts of smoking on their clothes, lungs and throats.

There may be lessons to be learned from the smoking ban. Politicians will have to make the case for behaviour-changing charges, taxes or bans. Ministers and councillors would have to make their case for change well in advance of simply slapping on a new charge or levy. In short, the public would have to be carried if incentives are to have a chance of being effective.

This week the long-awaited sub-national review of economic development and regeneration has been published. Local government and regional development agencies will be given more powers to work towards strengthening local and sub-national economies.

Stronger political leadership opens up the possibility of addressing complex issues, such as the need for incentives and behaviour-changing taxation.

However, there will have to be a genuine transfer of power to local, city region and regional levels if the case for incentive-driven policies is ever to be made.

Road pricing and waste charging may yet be introduced at the sub-national level. But to do so, there will need to be a debate at those levels of government.

Refuse collection is vastly more important than it looks.

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