Friday, 20 April 2012

Apologetic council waste bosses face up to councillors

Cornwall Council waste bosses and contractors Cory faced up to disgruntled councillors today to answer questions on the problems of the new waste and recycling contract. We learned about the scale of the problem - and the challenges still ahead. There was still a good deal of spin, but a lot of tempers were soothed as all those at the top started their remarks with an apology for the failings.

Those on show included cabinet members Julian German and Steve Double. This in itself sparked a question as it had never been properly explained who was in charge. In the January reshuffle Julian gave up the waste portfolio to Cllr Double - yet it seems to have been him who has taken the flak and faced up to the challenges of the new contract. It was explained that, as Julian oversaw the initial stages of the changeover, it would be he who finished the job.

Also there were call centre boss Wayne Smith, Head of Waste and Transportation Nigel Blackler and Cory's boss Nigel Carr.

To me, the most telling statement was about the performance of the call centre. A unit designed to cope with about 3000 calls per day had 22,000 people trying to get through. Of these, about 7,000 calls made it to the call centre and about 4,000 were answered.

We were told that, in anticipation of the new contract, ten extra staff were taken on but that this proved to be "a drop in the ocean" and the number needed was more like 150. Even 20 days into the contract there is still a huge delay in answering calls (and a backlog of 2200 emails) and this is apparently due to the call centre operating at absolute capacity even though the number of attempted calls has dropped.

As well as the good information, there was still spin. Officers repeated the claim that the whole of East Cornwall had their new recycling boxes and bags despite many councillors saying they knew of areas that hadn't - including their own houses. There was also a claim that only very new houses were not listed on the council's web-based postcode finder. This is patently not the case as many properties - old and new - all over Cornwall have been unable to find their new collection days as the website doesn't recognise their post code.

Yesterday the BBC raised the issue of waste crews being unhappy with their new terms and conditions. The Cory boss said that the vast majority of his staff were happy but just a few were not. He seemed to indicate that this was because they could no longer 'go home at 1pm' and 'had to work a full day'. Yet he admitted that he would not dare ask staff to deliver pre-prepared letters to people unaware of the new recycling schedule because he was worried about the affect on morale.

Other key points:
  • The Council believed that empty recycling bags blowing about in the wind would not be a problem;
  • The Council is considering introducing a smaller recycling box for those concerned that it is too heavy or bulky to carry;
  • In some cases recycling was being picked up by normal waste lorries because of the missed collections "but it would all be hand picked back at the depot":
  • There was acknowledgement that the wrong lorries were being sent to many areas and so collections were being missed. As one councillor said "Two minutes watching Doc Martin would have told Cory that many areas are inaccessible to big lorries";
  • The location of dog and litter bins has been "quite challenging" and many were only emptied when someone told Cory where they were;
  • An inquiry will be held into the problems that have occurred but it will be led by the Environment scrutiny committee and not the Corporate Resources committee as reported yesterday. 
Overall, my impression was of a service transfer which was woefully under-prepared. Of course it's a big changeover, but it seems that neither the Council nor Cory did the right amount of work in advance to ensure that problems were minimised. Other services are still suffering as a result and may do for some time to come.

The Council has set itself a target of two months to get things right. Mr Blackler was quite clear that, by the end of May:
"we will have a service which will be working well. It will be the service that we wanted to put in place when we first set out. It will be a service which people will value and see the benefits of the changes that have been made.”
Councillors (and no doubt the public too) will hold them to that.

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