‘Nappies stinking in the heat’: Cardiff’s missed waste collections fiasco heats up
Alex Seabrook, local democracy reporter
Uncollected bags of nappies are left “stinking in the heat” in several parts of Cardiff as the fiasco of missed waste collections heats up.
The delays to bin collections are made worse due to the current extreme heat and staff shortages from sickness and self-isolation.
Cardiff council’s cabinet faced a vote of no confidence on Thursday, as opposition councillors said residents are complaining about missed collections “every single hour”.
While surviving the no confidence vote, the cabinet faced stern criticism for widespread long-running problems with bin collections. Cabinet members said the service has improved since collection days changed, and current challenges are national and not just in Cardiff.
Depending on who you ask, the problems either date back to 2017 when the current cabinet took control of the council, February when collections days were changed for thousands of homes across Cardiff, or limited to the recent onset of the ‘pingdemic’ and self-isolating staff.
Council statistics show overtime spending for refuse collectors cost £120,000 during March, April and May, although Labour said this was less than previous years; and more than 9,000 missed collections were reported since February, although they are likely underreported.
This week, the council said current problems are due to self-isolating staff, the heatwave meaning workers need more breaks, staff being on holiday, and a national shortage of heavy goods vehicle drivers. But opposition councillors said problems were more widespread.
Tory Councillor Jayne Cowan, who tabled the no confidence vote, slammed the cabinet’s “miserable record of failure” in collecting bins. As well as missed collections, she said the council has failed to meet government recycling targets, to address health and safety issues, and to replace the Wedal Road tip in north Cardiff which shut down in 2018.
She said: “This administration is failing at waste management. They cannot even manage to collect people’s bins on the right day without having to resort to using Vale of Glamorgan council crews and throwing hundreds of thousands of pounds in overtime payments.
“In Rhiwbina we have had the worst week ever. We are on day eight of missed collections. The yellow bag debacle has been shameful. Some bags had been out for seven days in this weather — the smell was obviously horrendous and it clearly draws attention to the property. And the problem is not limited to Rhiwbina.
“Many of these problems existed prior to the pandemic. All of the issues I have spoken about have emerged since 2017. All of the failures to address those issues are the responsibility of the current leadership. It falls to the leader: he selects his cabinet, he allocates cabinet portfolios. The entire cabinet has collective responsibility for these failures.
“It’s time for a change — it’s time they went.”
But the no-confidence motion was slammed as “politically and constitutionally illiterate”, by Labour Cllr Russel Goodway, cabinet member for investment and development, who said the service operates successfully at least 95 per cent of the time.
He said: “Nothing persuades me they understand how the system is operating. Nothing convinces anyone that in the circumstances they could do better.
“We live in challenging times for everyone, council services and particularly frontline services have not escaped the worst consequences of the pandemic. Covid has caused people on the frontline to self-isolate, individuals have caught the virus requiring hospitalisations, and others have suffered significant illness resulting in sickness absence or worse.
“These are people who cannot work from home. The distorted views of those working from home, or reclining on their sun loungers in the suburbs of north Cardiff, are lightyears away from what is really happening on the ground across the city. Nobody claims our services are perfect, but I know they have much improved since 2012 [when Labour took power].”
Liberal Democrat Cllr Rhys Taylor said since collection days have changed, residents have reported missed collections more than 9,000 times, although many more collections are not reported. He claimed there was a lack of accountability for the service failures.
He said: “More than 9,430 missed collections have been reported since February. That word ‘reported’ is an important caveat. There have been problems with the reporting system, and it doesn’t really reflect the picture on the ground.
“In Gabalfa, North Road hasn’t had a food waste collection in three weeks; Cross Place and Herbert Street haven’t had a regular waste collection since February and went six weeks without a black bin collection; Quentin Street and Maitland Street went two whole weeks with every waste stream street left on the pavement; Maelog Place has gone a fortnight with recycling uncollected.
“[Complaints about] waste collections fill our inboxes, voicemails and social media because the problems are inescapable. The dismissive attitude to the concerns of councillors and residents is absolutely and totally unacceptable. There has been a lack of leadership on this issue, a lack of clarity and a lack of accountability around the failures in the service.”
Labour council leader Huw Thomas said much less money is spent on overtime for refuse collectors now than before the changes to collection days, while the challenges the council now faces are national and not confined to Cardiff, such as a shortage of lorry drivers.
He said: “The changes in February have halved overtime spending compared with previous years, are seeing staff work almost 100 per cent of their contracted hours in safer conditions, and are ultimately resulting in cleaner streets.
“Those huge changes, though challenging in their introduction, were bedded in quickly and are distinct from the issues now being faced in particular by garden waste collections, owing to a shortage of HGV drivers and self-isolating workers — national challenges which Cardiff is coping better than many other cities.
“It is not for a handful of Cardiff Tories or a handful of Propel or Liberal Democrats to decide who runs this council. That is a matter for the people of Cardiff, and they will have that opportunity in 10 months time. When that happens, I will proudly and confidently stand on my record and the record of Labour in power in Cardiff.”
One specific problem highlighted by Propel Cllr Neil McEvoy was the closure of the tip in west Cardiff at Waungron Road. This closed in 2014, and the council is planning to build apartments and a new bus interchange on the site. Propel wants to reopen the tip instead.
He said: “What disturbs me the most is the arrogance of the cabinet member in particular and the Labour group in general. Last month we had to hear ‘there’s nothing wrong with the service, it’s better than ever’. Even in Fairwater my own family has not had things collected. It’s endemic across the whole community, and there’s a failure to recognise that.
“[Waungron Road tip] was the most popular one in Cardiff, really successful; we have seen an upturn in fly-tipping since it’s closed. We had a local referendum and 98.8 per cent of those who took part, close to 2,000 people in Fairwater, voted to reopen that centre. All those people were just ignored. The centre should be reopened, that’s just so obvious.”
Productivity has improved since the changes in February, according to Labour Cllr Michael Michael, cabinet member for clean streets, who said any current challenges with missed garden waste collections are due to the pandemic and Brexit causing a lack of drivers.
He said: “When I was asked to take on this portfolio I was aware that tough decisions were needed to deliver a better and more cost-effective service. Some of the challenges had been there for almost a generation. Relationships between management and crews were at a low.
“Some staff were working 50 per cent of contracted hours, and the fleet I inherited was past its sell-by date. But I’m proud of the progress we’ve made. We have a new management team, with excellent relationships with crews and trade unions. We have a modern fleet with digital systems to provide real-time information on delivery. We have introduced a four-day week, doing away with bank holiday disruption. Productivity has improved.
“One shift now works nine hours per day collecting two pick-ups; rounds are completed five hours faster so litter is being taken off our streets much faster; and teams are now working 90 to 100 per cent of their contracted hours. Nobody could be in doubt changing a service like this could be easy, but we had to make big decisions. And they were the right decisions.
“Of course there’s going to be disruption, particularly in a pandemic. But missed collections are already down to a similar level to the old system. As the new system and technology become embedded, it will improve even further. The issues relating to garden waste are not related to the new four-day-a-week model, it’s simply down to a lack of staff caused by the pandemic and the national shortage of HGV drivers …. as a result of Brexit.”