Leading article: Wasted opportunities

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The Independent Online

In May this year, the Environment Secretary at the time, David Miliband, proposed a scheme in which homes that recycle regularly would receive a £30 per year rebate from their council tax and persistent non-recyclers would pay £30 more. This week, the Department for the Environment was widely expected to announce a law allowing local councils to implement such a scheme. But now the Government is saying that no final decisions have been made. The suggestion in Westminster is that Downing Street has "put a stop" to the whole idea. If so, this is a depressingly regressive move.

An incentive scheme for recycling household waste is an entirely sensible idea. Our landfill sites are under severe pressure. If we do not cut down on the amount of rubbish we put into the ground, we will eventually run out of space. And the public clearly needs some encouragement to recycle more. Our national recycling rates are substantially below many of our European peers, partly because such incentive schemes have been adopted on the Continent.

Of course, there is significant domestic political opposition to such moves. The reactionary press has whipped up hysteria over the so-called "bin tax". And the scheme has suffered from coming hard on the heels of a similarly manipulated panic over the hygiene of fortnightly rubbish collections by councils, another initiative designed to boost recycling rates.

Some of the public anger over such schemes is real. But it is fired less by public objections to the principle of recycling than the lack of accountability and incompetence of local councils. Fortnightly collections and a levy on non-recyclers are seen as motivated more by laziness and cost-cutting by local councillors than a concern for the environment. The remedy for this feeling of mistrust is not for the Government to remove the right for councils to collect recycling as they see fit, but to reverse the three-decade long trend of political centralisation and devolve more power to local authorities. Then the public would be able to hold their local councils accountable through the ballot box rather than demanding action from Westminster.

But none of this makes the absence of national leadership on recycling any more acceptable. The Conservative opposition to the recycling agenda sits uneasily with its supposed green priorities. And why does the Government seem to be caving in so easily? We understand the Government feels the need to regain control of the political agenda. But shying away from environmental promises is not the way to demonstrate leadership. In fact, what it demonstrates is precisely the opposite.