Waste not


Coat of arms of Cork
Coat of arms of Cork (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had this editorial written for last week’s paper, when the Vita Cortex news broke and bumped it! There is a lot to come yet on this story, I think…

It can only be the outstanding success of worldwide capitalism in recent years that is provoking the current fashion for privatising public services. Well, that or the absolute poverty of our local authorities, which used to both provide services and have some kind of power, but now appear to do neither.

Bin waiver controversies have been roaring throughout the country for the last number of years – Limerick about five years ago, Dublin only recently, and, next up I suspect, Cork.

Cllr Michael Ahern of the Labour Party, and Cllr Emmett O’Halloran of Fine Gael told last week’s meeting of Cork City Council that something must be done to protect city residents who currently are in receipt of a bin waiver for their waste collection. Cork City Council privatised its waste collection service last year, in rather a sudden move by management which apparently saw Councillors given no choice about the provider and no role in negotiating the contract.

While it was an executive decision – with commercial sensitivities that required a level of secrecy – there’s something very unsavoury about quite a large policy decision being taken over the heads of elected representatives. Country Clean, a big employer with a good track record based in North Cork, was awarded the contract, the terms of which included the extension of the waiver until April 2013. In comparison to the waiver system in other areas, that’s a decent commitment. In Dublin City – where the privatisation has been described by the public and the local authority as an unmitigated disaster – the waiver has just run out, leaving residents with no option but to pay.

The waiver has been there, traditionally, for a very good reason; some people just cannot afford to pay it. But now, the same people, many of whom will have seen their pay or social welfare cut dramatically, will be forced to pay a household charge, water charges, and now waste charges, to a company whose only commitment is to the market.

The good news is that the Programme for Government contained a commitment to investigate a National Waiver Scheme, in light of the wholesale privatisation of waste services from all but two or three local authorities throughout the country.

The bad news is that this is not exactly high on the Government’s agenda – in fact, a call to the Department of the Environment reveals that this commitment “to look into the matter” is contained within an overall review of the National Waste Policy. Which has no deadline. And which, apparently, has been policy since 2006.

So, for the pensioners and others in Dublin who must now pay for their waste, there’s certainly no immediate hope of a change. Those who can’t afford to pay in Cork will have some breathing space – until this time next year, roughly – in which they will have to work hard lobbying national government to provide some kind of shelter for them. Because calling on a private company to give away its product for free – without having this written into a watertight legal contract – is ridiculous. This is a classic case of local authorities seeking a quick buck from selling off services, without a thought to the public they are meant to serve.

Councillors should have had a role in determining the policy side of the contract with Country Clean in order to protect the citizens they represent, and if they did not, this presents questions about the accountability of highly-paid City officials. At this point, unfortunately, it’s a case of bolting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Cllrs Ahern and O’Halloran would do more for vulnerable citizens by lobbying their ministerial colleagues to introduce the mooted National Waiver Scheme than by asking a private company for charity.

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