Brighton’s Rubbish Collections

Time for a quick post about a local difficulty in Brighton. A dispute over allowances that has been rumbling on for weeks has resulted in a vote for a strike by the city’s refuse collectors and street cleaners, due to start next Friday (14th June). Unless a deal is reached there will be no refuse or recycling collections or any street cleaning for a week. If the warm weather continues, a serious environmental hazard could ensue, as uncollected food waste will no doubt lead to a proliferation of vermin.

I’m not going to comment on the rights and wrongs of the dispute, and facts about what precisely is going on are difficult to come by. A webcast by the Council explaining the background can be found here. The issue is not about basic hourly pay, which isn’t changing under the Council’s proposals, but Cityclean workers are claiming that changes to the Council’s system of allowances will lead to some of them losing as much as £4000 per year in take home pay. I don’t however understand what these mysterious “allowances” are. If anyone can enlighten me through the comments box then I’d be very happy. Other than that all I’ll say is that I hope a settlement is reached before things get even more unbearable, but the atmosphere between workers and Council seems already to be so acrimonious that it is hard to see either backing down. I hope they don’t but things could get very nasty.

I will, however, comment on the state of the rubbish collection in Brighton even before the strike starts next week. A two-day wildcat strike in May led to a pile-up of rubbish beside the communal bins. In the weeks since then “targetted disruption” (the Council’s phrase) has meant that this backlog has never been cleared, despite the Council effectively cancelling recycling collections to concentrate on ordinary refuse.

In fact I haven’t had any paper or glass collected for recycling for a month, so I have given up and now take it on foot to one of the few recycling centres dotted around the place. That’s a bit inconvenient, but not too much of a problem in the grand scheme of things. In fact, it has surprised me a lot since moving to Brighton from Cardiff a few months ago, just how poor the recycling service in Brighton is. Home to the UK’s only Green MP, Caroline Lucas, and with a (minority) Green party controlling the Council I would have expected a much more comprehensive approach to recycling than is actually the case. As it is,  compared to Cardiff (which isn’t brilliant), Brighton’s recycling service is really hopeless. The Greens will probably argue that they inherited the system in a time of austerity and have been unable to improve it, but if they can’t improve something which represents one of their core values why bother having Green councillors? Brighton’s Green Party shows signs of going into meltdown over this issue anyway, with the resignation of a Councillor in Hanover ward triggering a by-election so their prospects in the next Council elections look pretty grim.

Anyway, the immediate problem is not the poor provision for recycling, but the regular refuse collection. Here’s a typical picture of St James Street (Kemptown):

IMG-20130510-00111

It’s extremely unpleasant to have to walk through or around piles of stinking garbage, but remember that this picture was taken before the official strike has even started! It seems to me that Cityclean workers, who are currently getting paid for not collecting garbage, will, when the strike begins, simply no longer get paid for not collecting the garbage. What this means about the likely duration of strike action remains to be seen.

I continue to hope that a settlement can be reached that averts industrial action, but that hope is fading fast, and so, unfortunately, is the prospect of Brighton having a decent refuse and recycling service in the foreseeable future.

And there’s another point. Councils have a statutory obligation to collect and dispose of domestic refuse. There’s no doubt in my mind that Brighton and Hove County Council is failing to meet that obligation, but what action can an ordinary person take? Answers on a postcard, or through the comments box….

UPDATE: I have invited @gmbcityclean to comment here on the nature of the allowances, but they have declined to do so.

11 Responses to “Brighton’s Rubbish Collections”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    “Industrial action” in this case seems to involve neither an industry nor action.

  2. Iain Chambers Says:

    The dispute and the rubbish in the streets are not that hard to explain but unfortunately not that easy to solve.
    Brighton & Hove’s municipal refuse & recycling collection is carried out by City Clean. That collection is normally only achieved by workers on basic wages for their usual working hours plus allowances for working outside of those hours (eg weekends, bank holidays, unsocial hours). In other words, if the workers decide to rigidly apply their standard hours & do no overtime (ie work to rule) then clearing all B&H’s refuse & recycling is impossible & backlogs will occur. The allowances are complicated and have built up over many years of pay negotiations under different political administrations (Labour & Tory) and under different types of council (eg the previously separate Hove and Brighton councils).
    The current Green minority controlled council is addressing what they (probably correctly) regard as inequalities in those allowances, in a bid to make them more fair & head off the very real possibility of the council being sued because of these inequalities. Such legal action has helped elsewhere & the costs can run to millions of pounds. The political leader of the council has (controversially) handed over responsibility for negotiations to council officers (ie permanent civil servants). The current ‘final’ offer will result in some City Clean workers losing allowances and thus reduced overall pay packets. I believe the council has offered these workers compensation of up to three years worth of lost allowances in a lump sum. The workers, via their union the GMB, have unofficially struck in protest at the final offer, and have now overwhelmingly voted to strike officially for a week beginning next week. As I understand it the GMB do not reject negotiating to amend the City Clean contracts to bring equality to the allowances, but reject the City Clean workers losing take home pay to achieve this.
    If you follow up to this point, and assuming what I have written is largely factually correct and uncontroversial, where one stands on this issue then becomes a matter of politics and finances.
    My feeling is that the council’s approach is too rigid and it needs to talk more, to citizens but more importantly to City Clean workers. Get negotiating & get help to do so. The strike vote was massively in favour so it’s likely the strike will be effective. I believe in the right to withdraw labour in a dispute so my sympathy is with the City Clean employees. I think they work pretty hard at a job most of us wouldn’t do. I am sure that a way could be found to afford to equalise allowances without cutting take home pay.
    But I also feel that this Green-led council has made efforts to improve wages for the low paid employees & are not the enemy of the less well off in Brighton & Hove. I also believe that local Labour & Tory politicians appear more keen on making political capital out of this dispute than helping to solve it, either for the benefit of B&H citizens or council employees.

    • Iain Chambers Says:

      In para 2 ‘helped’ should be ‘happened’

    • telescoper Says:

      My natural inclination is to be sympathetic towards workers whose already low levels of take-home pay are threatened, but my main problem is that the street-cleaning, rubbish and recycling service, at least in the part of Kemptown I live in, is very poor anyway. It has deteriorated since May because of uncleared backlogs arising from an unofficial strike, which may well have been unlawful, but was poor even before that. It is possible that much of this is down to poor management, so I reserve judgement on the workers’ case. What I will say is that I believe in a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work and I’ve seen precious little evidence of the latter recently.

      I think there has been a lot of propaganda on both sides, so don’t know what to believe about the *actual* cuts in take-home pay that the rationalisation represents. This would not normally be any of my business except that Cityclean have chosen to make it so by withdrawing the service which the Council has a statutory right to provide.

  3. Dave Home Says:

    That’s what you get for wasting votes on parties like the Green Party. Well done, you got exactly what you voted for.

    • telescoper Says:

      I didn’t vote Green in the Council elections. I wasn’t living in Brighton when they were last held.

  4. Guy Beggs Says:

    I have a house in London and a flat in Hove and over the last two years have been really amazed by the difference in standards: London Borough of Lewisham outstanding refuse and recycling collection and general street cleaning; Brighton & Hove, well how many strikes in two years? but even when they operate it has to be described as a truly appalling service with a trail of litter marking their progress. In London they bend down, yes that’s right actually bend down to pick up anything they drop. I thought that was unremarkable till I saw the third rate teams at work here; strike? they should be fined for dropping litter until they learn how to do the job properly!

  5. […] years ago I posted an item about the effects of industrial action by Brighton & Hove’s refuse collectors, the ironically-named company […]

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