Mayor will have little say over borough’s rubbish contractors

CROYDON COMMENTARY: It is one of the biggest and most important services provided by any local council. But the manner in which the borough has outsourced the management of bin collections, street cleaning and waste disposal and recycling has become a massive failure of democracy, writes STEVEN DOWNES

No accountability: Veolia’s service is supposed to be overseen by the SLWP quango

For all the blather and promises from the candidates, whoever gets elected as Mayor of Croydon in two weeks’ time will be virtually powerless over many major decisions, with contracts worth billions of pounds, over one of our local authority’s largest areas of responsibility: collecting and dealing with a load of old rubbish.

That’s because Croydon, along with Kingston, Merton and Sutton, have outsourced all responsibility for their refuse contracts and other related business, including the Viridor incinerator at Beddington, to a completely unaccountable council quango, the South London Waste Partnership.

It has been allowed to become a significant collapse of democratic accountability in this part of the capital.

The SLWP is not answerable in any transparent form to any of the four councils it is supposed to serve. It’s certainly not answerable to you, the electorate of Croydon. Nor to the people of our neighbouring borough, Sutton, nor Merton, nor Kingston.

The SLWP has effectively become the client organisation operating on behalf of the big waste disposal businesses – Veolia and Viridor. The only people that the SLWP is really accountable to are the multi-national firms who have stitched up long-term contracts across the four boroughs, guaranteeing them generous payments for their services, in some instances for decades.

The SLWP operates in an almost semi-autonomous manner from the councils. There are, for appearance’s sake, regular meetings of the SLWP “board”, which is made up of eight councillors, two each from the ruling group of the four constituents councils. Significantly, there’s no device for any opposition voice at these SLWP meetings.

Going for the burn: emissions data from the Viridor incinerator has been withheld, been incomplete and only published reluctantly

The SLWP makes decisions, and these are then communicated to the councils as fait accomplis. These important public services are now being operated for the convenience, and profit, of the big companies.

This distorted, unaccountable relationship, subject to little if any proper scrutiny, was most blatantly corrupted when one member of the SLWP board, the then LibDem councillor from Sutton, John Drage, was able to influence the decision on awarding the 25-year, £1billion contract for an incinerator to Viridor – without ever declaring that he was a life-long family friend of the company’s chairman.

More recently, the all-too-cosy relationship between the multi-national companies and the SLWP saw Stooge Collins, Labour’s ineffective deputy leader, wave through a £21million uplift to Veolia’s contract in 2020, in the midst of the pandemic lockdown, while the standard of service delivery was dropping to an all-time low.

Sutton Bin Shame: IdVerde, another contractor hired by SLWP, also attracted headlines

When warnings for poor service are issued, it is not the SLWP that takes action, but the individual councils, as happened recently with Croydon.

Against a backdrop of ever-falling recycling rates, the four client councils are sending ever more rubbish as fuel for the Viridor incinerator. And Viridor is demanding permission to burn even more waste at Beddington, the polluting smog from which tends to blow across Croydon.

Yet in this borough, at least, with its first Mayoral election campaign entering its final stagings, rubbish collections and waste disposal, the blighting of so many Croydon streets with row upon row of out-sized wheelie bins, and the polluting incinerator, have barely got a mention.

In Sutton, the impact of the SLWP pernicious takeover of the borough’s waste services, almost by stealth, is a little better remembered, simply because it occurred more recently, the privatisation of the service happening in 2017.

The previously in-house services were handed to Veolia (bins, dumps and street cleaning) and IdVerde (parks).

Cosy: Stooge Collins, increased Veolia’s contract by £21m in 2020

It was not long before there was a volley of negative “Sutton Bin Shame” headlines about the misfiring service. Across the borough boundary, overflowing bins and missed collections saw a new hashtag created for social media: #MuckyMerton.

In Croydon, Collins imposed Binmageddon on the borough.

One thing Veolia appear to be outstandingly skilled in recycling are their excuses, which they continue to trot out whenever required.

As one Sutton resident said, “Since 2017, we in the London Borough of Sutton have continued to be plagued by sub-standard services.

“Bins are regularly missed, dog poo bins over spilling, fly-tipping is rife and the roads are dirty while not being kept to the standard outlined by the various environmental acts of law to protect us.

It took until July 2021 to start publishing performance metrics in a transparent way. But this attempt at transparency now includes links which don’t work and it doesn’t always have the latest data published promptly.

“Why did it take till 2021 in the first place?

“Since the initial contract, the opaque organisation that is the South London Waste Partnership negotiated a worse level of service for more money.

“However, we don’t know the full details as we don’t know how much we are really paying, how much we claim back due to poor performance, or generally how the governance around the SLWP works.”

The resident refers to “insidious behaviours of councillors”, and says that any requests for transparency on the contract are rebuffed because of “commercial confidentiality”.

Because, they say, “no commercial, multi-billion operation that is accountable to its shareholders will ever want the little people to discover how much they are really paying for an increasingly shoddy service”.

They say, “I can only conclude that the council officials who work within the SLWP failed in the commercial negotiations and the elected politicians have failed and are avoiding taking responsibility for the initial decision and subsequent lack of transparency.”

Binmageddon: the takeover of our streets by wheelie bins was done at the behest of Veolia

That toxic opacity around the SLWP and its commercial arrangements with Veolia and Viridor has re-emerged recently, when it was discovered that the incinerator operators want to increase the volume of garbage that they burn, and have applied for a variance on their licence. But the Sutton LibDem councillor responsible for the matter kept the issue a secret from their own council, and public, for at least three months.

When they got caught out over the withholding of this important information, the SLWP stamped its foot in a bit of a huff and wagged a finger angrily at their bosses at Viridor.

“The South London Waste Partnership boroughs are disappointed that Viridor is making this application just 12 months after the Environment Agency agreed to increase the maximum capacity of the facility by 15per cent,” the SLWP says on its website.

“Whilst the Partnership recognises the need for additional energy from waste treatment capacity in London and the southeast… we are concerned about the impact any increase in capacity at the Beddington facility would have on local traffic congestion and vehicle emissions.” Note how they always swerve any mention of the emissions from the incinerator’s twin chimneys.

And what does the SLWP intend to do about this? Nothing, of course, as they pass the buck for a decision on the matter to the toothless watchdog that is the Environment Agency. When the SLWP, as the customers of Viridor, after all, could simply state that “enough is enough”.

That this Viridor-led increase in the amount of waste to be burned at Beddington has not been raised as an election issue by any of Croydon’s Mayoral candidates – with the obvious exception of Green Peter Underwood – just further underlines how utterly powerless the Mayor, and the public, have become in this matter as their waste policies are now completely run at the behest and for the benefit of Viridor and Veolia.

“When I look at it,” our Sutton resident said, “I can only conclude we are all screwed.”

Read more: ‘People will die’: Dombey accused of Viridor ‘Faustian pact’
Read more: Viridor incinerator given 20 warnings in just 15 months
Read more: Viridor breaking rules over incinerator’s pollution reports

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
This entry was posted in 2022 council elections, 2022 Croydon Mayor election, Business, Croydon Council, Fly tipping, idVerde, Kingston, London-wide issues, Merton, Peter Underwood, Refuse collection, Stuart Collins, Sutton Council, Val Shawcross, Veolia, Waste incinerator and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Mayor will have little say over borough’s rubbish contractors

  1. Georgie Walbrook says:

    Why are we separating our refuse in Croydon if it’s all going into the same furnace.

    I sent a freedom of info request to Croydon asking clarification and they said in response “for ongoing operation and contract reasons we cannot answer this question”

  2. John Kohl says:

    I guess that means the “improvement notices” that Merton and Croydon Councils served on Veolia in February 2022 that Inside Croydon reported on 23 February 2022 will have no effect!

    The problem is outsourcing, poor contract negotiation and a failure to manage the businesses providing the service. The councils that have formed the SLWP have chosen to outsource waste management to third party contractors.

    Given the billions of pounds in central government funding sucked out of local councils since 2010, it is understandable why two or more councils would club together to pool resources to deliver common services, like waste management.

    Outsourcing also allows councils to transfer to the businesses delivering the service the binmen/women doing the work, reducing the council’s wage and pensions bills.

    The internet suggests the SLWP was set up in 2003, so – in Croydon at least – the majority on the council was Conservative.

    You’d hope the councils’ legal departments – or an external law firm with expertise in such matters – would have put in the contract before it was signed off robust key performance indicators, robust penalties for inadequate performance and most importantly, break clauses in the contract allowing the councils to walk away if service levels fell below an objective, verifiable standard. Was that done?

    From the news items and residents’ in Inside Croydon, and residents’ comments, it is obvious the councils aren’t managing their service providers properly.

    I understand the current contract for bin collection that SWLP signed won’t end until some time in 2025.

    Legally each council is responsible for the waste management service provided to its residents. If we are unhappy with it, and in the absence of firm action by our councillors or prospective Mayor (whose ability to take action may well be constrained by a contract signed years ago), all we can do is draw the poor service to the attention of our councils – and the local government ombudsman.

    Most importantly we have a vote. We should use it!

  3. Lewis White says:

    The sad truth is that boroughs have little real choice nowadays when it comes to placing large contracts, particularly waste and highways, as there are so few “players” (contractors) in the market place.

    Once upon a time, every borough had a direct labour force, with teams of officers and manual workers who could do everything from design to implementation.

    Examples are :-
    Parks and Cemetery / Crematorium Departments with park keepers, arborists, grounds people, gardeners, tractor drivers and cemetery staff–plus a range of parks officers, tree officers, cems and crems officers and others

    Highways Construction, Sewer and Highway maintenance and Highway Lighting and signage – with design and maintenance engineers, technicians, and masons, paviors, tarmackers, sewer workers, electricians, street furniture etc etc. maybe a sign shop and metal workers.

    Refuse and Cleansing – often with the council owning their own landfill site or incinerator, with a whole range of people running the system, including the “dustmen” and people who negotiated with the privately disposal sites.

    At the same time, all or most local authorities placed a proportion of their highway services, even trees, with external contractors. My guess is around 50% of budget value.

    With Mrs. Thatcher’s low opinion (did I hear someone say “hatred”??) of Local authorities, the not very hidden agenda was to dismantle such municipal undertakings and get as much privatised as possible. The theory was that this would be cheaper, and that the imposed “Compulsory Competitive Tendering” would give a kick up the backside to the Unions and their “Spanish Practices” which were sadly a real failure of the Council systems in the refuse collection area in particular. (oops, I forgot the newspaper press)

    Starved now, not just of funding wrought by the central government culture of “cut and cut –deeper than the bone”) but of technical experience in all the above fields and others, Local Authorities in may respects are hollowed out shadows of what they were in the 70’s, 80’s. Amazingly, they are still doing a good job, in very difficult circumstances.

    When it comes to rubbish, we now have a few, mainly private players (very large PLC companies) who actually burn or process or bury the rubbish. I nearly forgot “recycle” !!

    These are like medieval barons, with their regional strongholds, or incinerators, studding the skyline, just like castles. Many are in fact owned by European, American and Chinese companies…… er….. just like the Water Authorities.

    They are nearly monopolies as there are so few in the market place.
    They also have shareholders who naturally expect a dividend.

    Overall, the cost of the service is not as low as it could be, as all the companies –naturally– deserve to and want to make a profit. With services like highways, where 25 years ago, local authorities had a range of contracts such as highway surfacing , highway minor works, highway repairs, gulley cleansing, etc, all of which were re-tendered every year or every two or three years, we now have super contracts lasting 10. The number of contractors has reduced, again leading to the baron type of super company. How ever good those companies may be, there is a huge risk in having very few baskets to hold all the eggs.

    Regarding refuse and recycling, I would imagine that it is hard for any one member council of the South West London Waste Partnership to do anything but go along with the flow. Croydon is stuck, as even if it left SLWP, and found some alternative waste disposal mode, much of it it is still downwind of the Beddington Incinerator, so the residents of North Croydon and Waddon have to breathe in the burning plastic stench, and the health-killer mix of gaseous and particulate pollution, whch must be ruining their health and quality of life. Should not everyone have a human right to clean air and water?

    Who holds the Aces? SLWP or Viridor, and Veolia ?
    The Barons held a lot of power. The latter day ones also. And where there’s muck, there’s a lot of brass.

    • John Kohl says:

      Well said Lewis. I try to stay agnostic about whether a local authority service is run by the public or private sector. All I ask is that whoever does it (1) doesn’t provide an objectively worse service than we had before, and (2) treats their staff (including any former council employees external contractors may inherit) decently and pays them properly.

      Unfortunately, outsourcing doesn’t always result in better services!

      But you are right, from 4 May 1979 it is staggering just how much what was once wholly run in the public sector has been privatised and since 11 May 2010 the eye-watering sums of money taken away from local councils to provide the services we all rely on.

      Perhaps we don’t have a right to complain as – for good or ill – that’s what voters in successive general election have voted for.

      It is also staggering just how rubbish (pun intended) bin and recycling has become in the last few years.

      The internet suggests there are at least a dozen third party contractors (including the current two incumbents) who hold themselves out as being able to run waste management services. I have only heard of one of those other providers. I do wonder – other than price – on what basis the incumbent providers won the current tender.

      But it is crystal clear local councils in the SWLP simply aren’t keeping a good enough eye on what their waste contractors are doing.

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