Sorry about the mess! Town Hall apologises for bin collection problems as rubbish piles up
Environment chief says he is aware of complaints but that Camden's revamped bin rounds will soon settle into place
13 April, 2017 — By Tom Foot
A growing mountain of rubbish on the Chalcot Estate
BIN BAG chaos in Camden has seen rubbish mountains piling up, collection workers declare a “total balls-up” on their rounds and thousands of phone calls flooding a complaints hotline.
The turbulent start to the Town Hall’s new contract with Veolia, which has switched some waste collections from a weekly to a fortnightly service, last night (Wednesday) led the council’s environment chief, Meric Apak, to apologise “unreservedly” for “failures” in the service.
He added that the vast majority of collections had been “completed satisfactorily” since the new system began on April 1 and council chiefs insist they are still confident that the changes will prove a success in a double-pronged drive to save money and increase rates of recycling, which will still be picked up once a week.
Street corner rubbish
They are, however, facing a barrage of complaints ranging from concerns about missed nappy collections, a failure to deliver new orange bags which household refuse is being rationed with, the size and appearance of new wheelie bins and anecdotal claims that fewer waste pick-ups have led to new levels of street corner fly-tipping.
Inside the service, bin workers say they have been left to face the rage of residents. One source on the rounds told the New Journal: “The collections we have are not in line with what it says on the Camden/Veolia website, so all the residents are wondering what the hell is happening – and are totally disgusted. I’ve already noticed big piles of rubbish mounting up. To make it worse they have moved the regular staff that worked that area elsewhere, so no one knows the work – it’s a whole new team. It’s a total balls-up.”
The issue has been ramped up the Town Hall agenda further by Conservative councillors and election candidates, who have spent another week deluging social media with pictures of apparent fly-tipped waste and leafleting heavily on the issue, reminding residents of a line in Labour’s manifesto ahead at the last council elections that pledged not to reduce collections. With just over 12 months go until boroughwide council elections, all of Camden’s local politicians are keenly aware of how the issue is often characterised among residents, fairly or not, as one of the few universal services which everybody gets in return for paying council tax.
In some cases, it has been claimed that the photos shared across the internet show rubbish bags left for collection in the street which are actually close to being picked up in the same way as they always have been.
The statistics logged on a customer hotline run by Veolia, however, revealed an estimated 3,000 calls a day from residents wanting to report problems. Opponents to the changes said those call figures could have been even higher but some people had waited for so long on the line that they had given up.
Conservative leader Claire-Louise Leyland said: “The new contract is a shambles. These aren’t just teething troubles. The contract has been badly designed and it is unfair that some roads get more for the same council tax. The new Camden Labour leader needs to admit that mistakes have been made and reinstate weekly collections for the north of Camden.”
The rubbish battleground, politically, is being presented by Tory strategists as Labour taking away weekly collections in wards that normally vote for the Conservatives, but keeping them in their own strongholds – a theory which again is wholly disputed by the ruling party.
Below the Dorney tower block
Tom Simon, chairman of Camden Liberal Democrats, who took a photograph of what looked like one of the worst pile-ups at the Dorney tower block in Belsize Park, said: “Labour has shown its incompetence on this issue by plunging in and imposing these very significant changes on the whole borough without testing them first. “When we were running the council and implemented contracts for estate cleaning, we ran pilots to identify teething problems and issues with communications. This is a basic thing to do when making a major change.”
Mr Simon, a former councillor for Belsize, said a “missed collection” had resulted in the large collection of refuse on the Chalcot Estate.
The main topic of conversation on Camden Council’s Twitter feed features complaints – and sometimes abuse – about the changes from irate residents. Amy McLean, from Hampstead, tweeted the council: “Here’s a ‘tip’. Why don’t we flytip our rubbish outside Camden Council, and see how they like the chaos?”
Some of the borough’s high-profile residents have also tweeted complaints, including the newspaper columnist and radio broadcaster Julia Hartley-Brewer, leading to expectations that the issue will soon get national press attention. The New Journal has also learned of a growing group of so-called “refuse-niks” who are discussing whether to stop paying their council tax bills in protest.
Camden High Street
Hampstead community activist Jessica Learmond-Criqui said: “The first two weeks have been a disaster with missed collections and people who have not had black bins or orange bags delivered.” But John Saynor, chairman of the West Hampstead Amenity and Transport Group (WHAT), said: “What I think is very important is the need to educate and train residents, particularly as to how the system works and what to do with their rubbish and recycling. It is hard to know whether bags have been left in the street by someone who doesn’t know what they are supposed to be doing, or whether they have been put there by someone who is too damn lazy to do their recycling.”
Housing campaigner Petra Dando, who had raised concerns about the way the changes would hit the elderly and disabled, said: “I’m sure some households will cope with the new scheme, but many households, for various reasons, will still find it a challenge. Some vulnerable residents, through no fault of their own, will simply not be able to engage with the new service. It won’t be as simple as organising what Camden calls a special collection.”
It is understood that Labour council chiefs were expecting some fallout from the changes but believe the system will work out in over long-term. Some also feel they are getting flak for complaints that should instead be directed at Veolia, who hold a multi-million-pound deal with the Town Hall.
Cllr Apak has forecast that the level of complaints will fall away “in weeks four and five weeks” before the service is “bedded in properly” after six or seven weeks. He responded to the complaints on Twitter with a story about so-called rubbish “carnage” in Sutton, south London, where a similar scheme has been put in place. He said hundreds of angry residents there had been forced to queue-up at a B&Q to collect their new wheelie bins, while Camden had arranged for 20,000 to be delivered directly to people’s homes.
Cllr Apak said: “I am aware there has been failures in service, and I apologise for this unreservedly. In contrast, though, the vast majority of collections have been completed satisfactorily and I am grateful to the crews who are working so hard to make this work. I am not happy with the long waits to answer telephone calls by Veolia and I have asked for this to be addressed urgently and no later than the beginning of next week.”
Veolia reacted by announcing that they had agreed to hire more staff to cope with call volume over the Easter weekend. Staff numbers at Veolia have been hit by the changes in the contracts, and some workers told the New Journal this week that they felt they were having to work on large changes with fewer colleagues.
Veolia senior contract manager Vincent Masseri said: “We are working hard with Camden Council to complete the transition to the new waste and recycling service as smoothly and as quickly as possible. “We’ve increased the number of staff taking calls and answering emails on the new service to assist residents with queries over the Easter weekend. As the new service becomes business as usual, we expect the number of queries to fall and Camden’s recycling rates to rise, as is the case in other London boroughs we work with.”