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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.”
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
Croydon Commentary is a platform for all our readers to offer their personal views about what matters to them in and around the borough. To submit an article for publication, just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or post your comment to an Inside Croydon article that has caught your attention
- For the official list of council election candidates, by ward, click here
- For our report on the eight candidates for Croydon Mayor, click here
- If you have a news story about life in or around Croydon, or want to publicise your residents’ association or business, or if you have a local event to promote, please email us with full details at email@example.com
- Inside Croydon is a member of the Independent Community News Network
- By having a comment section, we provide all readers with an immediate “right of reply” on all our content. Details of how this works can be read by clicking here
- Inside Croydon works together with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as well as BBC London News and ITV London
- Inside Croydon: 3.3million page views in 2021. Seen by 1.6million unique visitors in that 12-month period