OPINION: Councils walk into electoral rat trap

Bubonic plague is not a reputational threat that's often a problem in modern Britain, but it is an element in the current 'bin wars' debate.

The claim that the rat population has surged by 70 per cent has been cited as part of the evidence of the danger to health created by the change to ‘alternate’ rubbish collections, whereby general rubbish is collected one week and recycled waste the other. A number of councils using this approach have increased recycling rates threefold by making people think more about what they throw away.

This debate has an added dimension as it may have influenced the outcome of this week’s local elections. Councils of all political persuasions have moved to alternate collections and the majority of these faced the ballot on Thursday. Seventy authorities required only a switch of three seats or less to change political control.

The debate over the past fortnight has put local government in the national spotlight. The Local Government Association’s defence of councils has been robust. But this is the same body that has rightly demanded that authorities get certain key environmental services right in order to more effectively promote other parts of their agenda. But the vehemence of the public’s response to the fortnightly collections debate suggests that the sector has not convinced people that it is delivering.

It is right to encourage people to recycle but the link between the provision of the core service and recycling may be a mistake. Local government could end up winning the recycling battle while losing the reputational war.

Councils may meet the new targets – saving households from footing the bill for the provision of extra landfill – but be seen to be reducing collections as a cynical ploy to reduce service and save money.

The size of this challenge means that the execution of policy has to be brilliant. There is an arsenal of PR weapons that could have been used to fight the ‘bin wars’. But they require effective preparation – pre-emptive strikes – through successful pilot schemes, green consumer advocacy, building allies and proactive briefing.

Failure to do this has led to the current crop of scare stories, where only the rats are winning.

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