The city that looks and smells like a landfill site

A Slice of Britain: Take one council, cut the pay of its binmen, then sit back and watch the rubbish pile up
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The Independent Online

The rats are having a field day. The scavengers have been pigging out on the rich pickings of the refuse collectors' strike in the suburbs of Leeds. For two months the rodents have been fattening themselves up for the coming winter. They are the only ones who are anything like content.

With wheelie bins overflowing, particularly in student districts such as Headingley and Hyde Park, the rats have been helping themselves to a rich banquet of September's soggy pizza crusts, and mouldy lasagne thrown out weeks ago.

The fat rats have been the beneficiaries of a bitter industrial dispute and strike action by the city's refuse collectors. The unrelenting nature of the protest – the length of the stand-off has inevitably drawn parallels with militant walkouts in the 1980s – has left Headingley shrouded in the whiff of landfill.

The root cause of the dispute also seems to be a throwback to another generation: the Liberal Democrat and Conservative-run council is attempting to equalise pay between male and female workers. But instead of raising the pay of female staffers, it wants to cut the salaries of male workers. The first proposal was a £4,000 drop for some. What's more, the council thinks the workers need to increase their work rate.

The strike, which has gone some way to forcing the council to scale back demands for wage cuts in recent days, could soon be mirrored elsewhere in the country: bin collectors in Brighton are also due to walk out this week with similar grievances.

Other local authorities are still working out how to meet new regulations to balance inequality in pay between the sexes. The lesson from Leeds is that failing to handle the negotiations adroitly can lead to parts of the city degenerating into a foul-smelling paradise for vermin.

Postal workers are newly back on the streets after walking out in the national strike over pay and conditions. Firefighters across South Yorkshire are also locking horns with management. So far, everyone in Leeds is assiduously avoiding phrases that begin with the words "winter of". But walkouts last week in Doncaster and Sheffield are concentrating people's minds. More discontent and more strike action are expected.

Few of the students in Headingley were alive in 1979. The term "all-out strike" is just the stuff of political history textbooks. And so, unknowingly, they sit at the centre of what future books may call a new wave of industrial action. They're not enjoying it.

Jess Johnson, a 20-year-old music student, has "flipped", to use her own phrase. Looking out of her bedroom window on to the back alley of Headingley Mount, she is so angry at the sight of giants slabs of mouldy food that she is bagging it up herself. "If I don't do it, who is going to do it? It's gone on so long that if something isn't done right now, the problem will just get too big for anyone," she says. "It's disgusting; it's like we've been forgotten by the council. People think students don't care where they live but nobody should live like this."

She knows her efforts may be for naught: bin bags that don't fit in the wheelie bins risk being ripped apart by foxes or, as the most recent street craze has it, blown up with fireworks. And so she struggles outside the redbrick terraces, where university students cram in six to a house, to hold back a waste tide of pizza. And beer cans. And vodka bottles. She can just about cope with the used sanitary towels and soiled tissue. She recoils in horror at wriggling maggots.

"We've bagged our stuff up so it's not our rubbish," says Layla-Jane Gabriel who lives in the next street. "I know it might not be the right attitude but I don't want to be picking up other people's rubbish. Some people have just come along and dumped it, didn't even put it in a bag. That's all right if the bin men take it away, but there's hardly been a collection."

Other areas of the city have fared better, cleansed by small cadres of refuse workers who were finally talked back into work at the end of the week and a hastily arranged substitute team of new recruits hired by the council to break the strike.

Some areas are heading towards sanity but the patched-up patrol has clearly not reached all corners. It's not obvious why some areas have been left out. The students are muttering that the area they have colonised has been shifted to the bottom of the list because they don't pay council tax. "I live down the road where it's mainly residential," says Jack Verran, 22. "There are only a few students down there and they've cleared the streets and collected the rubbish."

But they don't plan to do it for much longer. The streets are revolting. The people who live there are heading that way too.

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