Oxford is a battleground. There’s a war on waste but there’s also a war about the war. While recycling sounds like a cause akin to loving Mandela and wanting world peace – a progressive’s no-brainer – it has become in this city a cause for the barricades. Yes, in Oxford, which prides itself on its intellectual and liberal credentials, even here there’s a backlash against raising the city’s appallingly low rate of recycling by the tried-and-tested method of wheelie bins and alternate weekly collections. For anybody who’s interested in how a political dog-fight can threaten to derail even the most uncontentious of causes, it’s a salutary tale.
A couple of things need to be made clear at the outset. First, there has long been a significant majority in this city for the introduction of recycling. It’s been advocated for years by both LibDems and Greens and, last municipal year, Labour came on board. But – and this is the second point – there are a few Labour councillors who have become champions for the claim that they are in favour of ‘choice’ instead of ‘forcing’ people to recycle.
Some background is necessary. It is simply not the case that Oxford’s recycling scheme forces everyone to have a wheelie bin: if a house can’t cope with a bin, then the council’s staff will arrange for the inhabitants to have waste collected in sacks; if a resident can’t cope with moving their bin, then fortnightly assistance will be arranged. It is a flexible policy, more so than in many cities. But that’s not enough for some councillors. A recent Council motion, proposed by a Labour councillor, asked the administration not to ‘force’ people to have a wheelie bin. The Greens presented a helpful amendment outlining what is present policy: that if there are ‘access, storage or safety concerns’ at a property, then alternatives to a wheelie bin are available. As the LibDems supported this phrasing, it seemed as if there might be a consensus. But the dealbreaker came from the proposer of the motion: he would only accept the amendment if it also envisaged residents rejecting a bin on ‘aesthetic’ grounds. It’s on this that the debate about ‘choice’ revolves: whether you can stand in the way of recycling if you can’t stand the colour green.
The mantra of ‘choice’, so beloved of New Labour and fresh-faced Tory policy wonks, is a smokescreen: waft it aside and what you find is a threat to recycling itself. I am not saying that’s the intention of the Labour councillors, but there’s no doubt that would be the impact. The system works, of course, on the change of habits which comes with alternate weekly collections, encouraging all of us to reconsider how we deal with different elements of our waste. In turn, alternate weekly collections only work if residual waste can be safely stored and that is possible in wheelie bins: the more sacks you have, the more you have a danger of a public health risk – and, as we already know, Oxford is like any other city in sharing its space with a population of rats. As we are running a flexible policy, the percentage of sacks is already high. If you added to that a wrecker’s charter, allowing anyone to reject on a whim a wheelie bin, then you would undermine the practability of the system. The ‘aesthetes’ would consider landfill taxes and pollution preferable to a green bin in their own garden.
As I said, I’m not convinced this is what those clamouring for fewer wheelie bins actually want, if they stopped to think about it. And this is where it gets interesting, for the politicians are not in control of the issue, instead the momentum has taken hold of them. There are two councillors who are pushing this cause. They are ward colleagues and are doing so because their patch includes streets where there do seem to have been more difficulties than elsewhere. Some of us would think the answer is not a change of policy but everyone – including local councillors – working together to alleviate problems and to reassure residents, rather than stoke their concerns. Of those two, one has been heard to say it is a pity to have introduced recycling now when it could have waited a couple of years. But, while neither is the most ardent advocate of the environment, the stance of both of them seems to me to be formed by assumptions, however mistaken, about what is best for their small patch.
What’s made this larger than a ward issue is that the Labour leadership have jumped on it as if were political gold-dust. They have their reasons to do so: it trumpets their New Labour credentials with the catchword ‘choice’, at the same time painting the LibDems against type as they would describe us as usually preaching individual freedom at the expense (they would say) of collective responsibility. It also might not be a coincidence that the tempo has quickened in the days following the budget session where Labour felt that had lost out in the negotiations. (They are wrong on that, as I’ve said before, but that’s by the bye).
And then there’s the matter of the Greens. On this I differ from my learned friend, the other councillor for Headington. I hear that elsewhere, in Reading, the Greens have decided to oppose alternate weekly collections, but I don’t sense the same inclination here in Oxford. If anything, they find themselves in a quandary, in principle in favour of the scheme, but worried about its impact in what passes for their heartland, where there are many students and terraced houses. It’s an understandable dilemma, but my money would be on principle winning out this time.
To return to Labour: what fascinates me is what a gamble their stance is. Promoted by a couple of backbenchers and adopted as a group line, it has a real disadvantage for them. Labour’s environmental credentials have never been strong but this is liable to weaken them further. Already the press are painting their position as a route to madness and lower recycling. The longer they allow the issue to run – and they show no desire to end it – the more likely it is that the public will rumble their rhetoric and write them off as anti-recycling. There are few votes in that, let alone any good sense. If that’s the battle they want to have, we’re up for it. But I’d much prefer it didn’t have to be a battle. I, for one, hope saner counsel prevails amongst their ranks.