Accidental South Staffs waste hero

Written by: Geraldine Faulkner | Published:

Dan Roberts might not have set out to become South Staffordshire Council’s waste management officer, but you wouldn’t think it when hearing him enthuse about everything in the local authority waste pantheon, from fortnightly bin collections to engaging residents to the impact of austerity. Geraldine Faulkner finds out more

If, like me, you have grown up thinking local government officials are unhelpful, disinterested, bureaucratic, dried-up sticks who do their best to be obstructive then you clearly have not met Dan Roberts.

The 35-year-old waste management officer at South Staffordshire Council, where he has worked for 10 years, exudes enthusiasm and passion on the subject of environmental services despite the fact it was by no means his first choice of career.

“In 2003 I completed a degree in planning studies and geography at Oxford Brookes University and I had plans to travel for a year and was looking for work to subsidise my trip. So I worked at South Staffordshire Council initially on a nine-month fixed-term contract to assist in the rolling out of a waste minimisation project.

“After travelling for 12 months in Asia, Australasia and North America, I returned to South Staffordshire Council to assist in the roll-out of an alternate weekly collection service with kerbside recycling. Once the roll-out was completed in November 2005, I was offered the post of assistant waste management officer,” recalls Roberts.

South Staffs was one of the first authorities to introduce the alternate weekly collection service. “One of the things that excited me,” continues the waste management officer “is that it was so innovative. At the time, the recycling rate in South Staffs was only 7% and now it’s 55%. It was a time when WRAP hadn’t intervened and we were learning as we went along. You had a real chance to look at things on a local level and work out how to make the new system work. You can identify your residents, the composition of the population and local accountability and, even if it doesn’t work, you can decide what you can learn.”

Roberts pauses for a moment before adding: “While austerity has obviously had an impact on what we do at South Staffs, we were in fact making waste efficiencies/service changes prior to the first wave of major local government cuts in 2011, because it is the right thing do in order to protect public money.” He points out that the UK has come a long way from when the landfill allowance trading scheme (LATS), an initiative to help reduce the amount of biodegradable municipal waste being sent to landfill, was the main issue in environmental services.

Other issues

“LATS did a good job, but now we don’t even remember it. Other issues have now taken over, such as the exporting of materials as we have no capacity to deal with it in this country.”

Once again he exhorts local authorities to recognise their achievements instead of dwelling on shortcomings.

“We are such a bunch of masochists and always selling ourselves short,” he laments. “Even with budget cuts of up to 40% we maintain and improve services, which is a fantastic achievement.”

The waste management officer refers to the Ricardo-AEA report published earlier this year entitled Waste on the frontline. It is an austerity study whose aim is to provide insights into how councils can deliver cost savings and improve services. Roberts again: “Ricardo-AEA says councils are facing the ‘perfect storm’ with falling costs and pressure on performance. The report says: ‘To balance all these is a balancing act worthy of Houdini.’ It is a phrase I really like. As local authorities we don’t give ourselves enough credit yet we’ve done some good things.”

In 2014, Roberts was elected West Midlands representative to the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee (LARAC). It is clearly a position he is proud of and takes very seriously.

“With my LARAC cap, I think we need to shout about our achievements. There are high profile examples of waste partnerships, but we don’t boast enough about the work going on behind the scenes.”

Roberts then tackles one of his favourite bugbears; namely the constant harping on the topic of shared procurement.

“There isn’t a council that is not already bulk buying and making economies of scale. We’ve been doing this for years,” says the exasperated waste management officer.

“Districts work with districts across county boundaries and share services. It’s no longer about a council operating in isolation. We have been forced by austerity cuts to look at every aspect of our service; what we can do and what we can learn from other authorities.

“You recognise you can’t be so parochial and that there is a helluva lot you can learn from other authorities and organisations like LARAC and the CIWM.”

Sharing risk

Risk awareness and sharing risk is another topic the outspoken waste management officer feels strongly about.

“In this industry, both the private sector and local authorities need to be more risk-aware,” states Roberts firmly. “I absolutely agree that many of the material contracts being tendered should be on a risk share mechanism. After all, we have as much interest in the delivery of quality materials as our contractors, particularly as with global fluctuation, the market will naturally put that risk into the contract.”

Standardisation is another of Roberts’ concerns. “The debate around harmonisation, standardisation and uniformity has taken on a different mindset of its own.

“I feel the debate should not be so much around the colour of the bin or the size of the container. It is not a silver bullet that will solve all our waste problems.

“If, for instance, we have a number of flats and you designed a service to meet the residents’ requirements, irrespective of whether you give them a red box or blue bin, if you don’t tell them what to do it with it, the standardisation debate is irrelevant. At the moment it is the buzzword, but we need to ask: what exactly are you trying to convey?” says the waste management officer.

A local perspective

According to Roberts, the focus should not be on the national composition of waste materials.

“We have to look at it locally,” he stresses. “What materials are we picking up? I believe there is a disconnect between residents’ expectations and the reality.

“In this day of social media, we are under greater scrutiny than ever before. I don’t resent that; if a resident wants to hold us to account, we have nothing to hide. We must be open because if residents don’t connect, they are not going to participate in our services.”

Similarly the waste management officer is keen for residents to get in touch with the council if they want something changed.

“We tell residents that if you see anything that could be done better, let us know. ”

This brings Roberts neatly onto the subject of accountability. “In the waste sector, we’re so obsessed with targets; we forget we are providing a public service. After all, we are accountable to residents and local politicians.”

South Staffs is obviously getting things right when it comes to communicating with its residents. “We received a 97% satisfaction rate in a survey run by an external consultant,” he says with justifiable pride.

“We can also capture comments on our system so that when a compliment is paid about the service our crews give residents, we can fire them to Biffa, our waste contractor, and request them to pass it onto the crews.

“The guys are great as they will walk up a drive to collect a bin in the rain if it hasn’t been put at the gate. They don’t get a ruler out.”

Roberts is also keen that councils support the health, safety and welfare of crews, citing the use of CCTV on refuse collection vehicles to tackle dangerous driving, which he believes is a major industry issue.

“We work in a dangerous industry and it is essential that we protect our frontline staff. Some councils may contract out their services but we cannot contract out the risk and, as clients, we have a role to support the safety of our crews and residents,” he states firmly.

Balancing act

Returning to the analogy of comparing the delivery of environmental services to a balancing act, the waste management officer states: “Yes, times are tough and austerity has kicked in, but it has forced councils to look at what we deliver and the very fact that we maintain services and there is no rubbish piling up in the streets and alternate weekly collection has not brought the plague to the streets of Britain shows what we can deliver,” stresses the waste management officer.

“Having said that, we need to professionalise the industry and make sure that decisions to cut services are not short-termist. We have to be clear about what we’re doing and its long

term impact.”

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