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Councils accused of complacency over rubbish

Local councils have been accused of complacency over rubbish collection, amid growing public anger that bins in some areas have not been emptied for as long as four weeks.

Local government minister Bob Neill wrote to all English council leaders to tell them that taxpayers regard regular bin collection as "one of the most basic services" they provide and will not accept it being allowed to slide over holiday periods.

Piles of refuse sacks in the streets are "potentially unhealthy", warned Mr Neill. And he said that taxpayers told to store uncollected rubbish in their homes were right to wonder whether their council sees emptying the bins as "a favour, not a right".

The minister also criticised the leader of Labour-run Exeter City Council Pete Edwards for saying he did not see the issue as "a major problem", insisting: "The public deserve better."

Heavy snowfall which prevented collections ahead of the Christmas and New Year period has been blamed for the backlog of rubbish in some council areas including Birmingham, Merseyside, north London and Exeter, at a time when bins are traditionally heavily-laden with wrapping paper and food leftovers.

Some areas saw council staff working over the New Year weekend, including Bank Holiday Monday, to make inroads into the problem.

But Mr Edwards told the BBC he did not think it necessary to ask binmen to work bank holidays during the Christmas period. Asked about fears over rubbish piling up in the streets, he said: "I do not see it as a major problem."

In his letter to council chiefs, Mr Neill wrote: "It is clear that there is widespread public concern at the extent of the disruption to collections.

"It is particularly troubling that some press reports could appear to suggest a level of complacency and a failure to address the seriousness of the issues.

"Families who have been told to stockpile their rotting refuse inside their own homes by councils are entitled to wonder if their council views the rubbish collection as just a favour, not a right.

"And the public deserve a better answer than, 'this is not a major problem'."

Mr Neill said he recognised that the severe weather, combined with festive holidays, created "a major headache" for many councils and paid tribute to those binmen who braved the cold and ice to complete their rounds.

But he added: "A regular bin collection is one of the most basic services council taxpayers pay for.

"Yet many families, who have already seen council tax more than double in the last 13 years, have had to wait for over a month for their waste to be collected, which because of Christmas is likely to be larger in volume and may well include more food waste than usual.

"As a result a potentially unhealthy backlog of waste is piling up on many streets."

Mr Neill called on councils to show a "can-do approach" to emptying bins.

And he said councillors would be "wise" to explain to residents what action they are taking to deal with the Christmas bin backlog and to make sure that collections are maintained over the Easter period - when the extra royal wedding bank holiday means there will be two four-day weekends in a row.

Rob Hannaford, Exeter City Council's spokesman for environmental issues, said before Christmas officials had to put "safety first".

"We are doing everything that is practicable to catch up. But let's not forget that these were exceptional circumstances - the coldest December for over 100 years and the most snow for nearly 50 years - and Exeter is not the only authority in Devon and the whole of the country that is playing catch-up.

"Many roads were snowbound and we could not risk putting 26-ton trucks on them. Two of our workers broke bones slipping on the ice and we had to consider the risk not only to them but to the public."

Timothy Huxtable, cabinet member for transportation and regeneration at Birmingham City Council, apologised to taxpayers and said the rubbish backlog was caused by a "triple whammy" of extreme weather, increased waste and strike action over the festive period.

He said a casual workforce collected more than 500 tonnes of black bag waste per day from the city's streets during the bank holiday weekend when regular staff were not working.

"With the weather now improved and bank holidays at an end, we expect to continue to make significant progress from this point forward," he added.

Clyde Loakes, vice-chairman of the Local Government Association environment board, said: "Residents can rest assured that waste collection is a priority. The lengthy bout of unusually severe weather in December disrupted a number of bin routes. As a result some collections had to be missed for safety reasons and made up later.

"The vast majority of councils have caught up with the backlog and are now offering a normal service."