Could Birmingham's green waste anger decide its election?

Recycling bin and ballot box composite picture Waste collection has become a key talking point in the lead-up to Birmingham's local elections

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A row over bin collections has dominated the run-up to Birmingham's local election, with some claiming it could damage the city's Labour administration. But why do people get so angry about their bins? And could voters really vent their fury at the polling station?

In February Birmingham City Council stopped free garden waste collections and introduced a £35 charge for the service.

It is thought about a third of UK councils have introduced the measure - branded a "garden tax" by critics - in a bid to make savings in the face of central government cuts.

Birmingham has saved £2.1m by introducing charged collections, according to its 2014 budget document, as part of £85.7m of cuts made this year.

The move has been criticised in some quarters, with 40,000 of the city's 400,000 households signing up for paid collections, although the council said it was receiving 1,000 new subscribers each week.

'Matter of principle'

It comes against a backdrop of several high-profile crises in Birmingham - such as the highly critical Ofsted inspection of its beleaguered children's services department and allegations some of the city's schools have been infiltrated by Muslim hardliners.

But it is the issue of garden waste collections that has become one of the key topics ahead of Thursday's ballot.

Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors in Birmingham have vowed to scrap the charges if elected, while the Labour administration has said it will not reverse its decision.

But why have people become so animated about the idea of paying for bin collections?

Garden waste in Prince of Wales lane Residents in Prince of Wales Lane, Yardley Wood, said bags had been left for two weeks
Garden waste abandoned in Druid's Heath Piles of uncollected garden waste have accumulated in a number of areas

Paul Dale, chief blogger at Birmingham political site The Chamberlain Files, believes one reason is a sense of annoyance among taxpayers at being asked to pay for a once-free service.

"It's a drop in the ocean but it's the kind of thing that people get really annoyed about," he said.

"They think 'this time last year the council came and collected our garden waste for free and now they want us to pay £35 to continue'.

"It's not a lot of money but it's a matter of principle: people are damned if they're going to pay extra on top of their council tax."

'Taking liberties'

Since the change, abandoned bin bags filled with hedge trimmings and grass cuttings have appeared across Birmingham - and huge peak-time queues have been reported at household refuse sites.

Rather than take them away, binmen have placed bright yellow stickers on the bags advising residents of the new charges and reminding them of possible prosecution for fly-tipping.

Analysis

The green waste charge has been targeted as a genuine vote winner by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

Both of those parties have pledged to abolish what they call the "garden tax".

Sir Albert Bore, leader of the current Labour-run authority, said the charge had already brought in £1m, with more than 30,000 people signing up.

He said the income would off-set service cuts, for which he blamed the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government in Westminster.

The local Conservatives said they could find the savings elsewhere - by cutting £3.8m spent on policy officers and reducing the spend on memberships of groups like the Local Government Association.

The Lib Dems, meanwhile said they had examined the budget and "didn't have trouble finding £20m to fund a package to restore street cleaning, garden waste collection and a host of other measures".

Shannen O'Reilly, who lives in Prince of Wales Lane, in Yardley Wood, said several piles of bags had been left in the road for about two weeks.

"I think it's stupid, you shouldn't have to pay to have your bins collected," she said.

"No-one wants to pay for it - if you're paying council tax already you expect them to take your rubbish away.

"They're taking liberties."

Kevin Golding-Williams, from pedestrian campaign group Living Streets, said the issue impacts a large number of people, and the fallout - with bin bags dumped on streets - is highly-visible.

He said: "It's one of those services which affects everyone regardless of area, regardless of whether you're in the most affluent areas or the poorest areas.

"It's going to start rotting and smelling which isn't particularly nice.

"If there are a number of bags there it becomes a real problem."

Some have also argued the issue of garden waste has proved so emotive because it brings politics to people's doorsteps and drives.

Mr Dale said the inconvenience of losing the collections would have been keenly felt among a number of residents.

"In Birmingham there are lots of people without cars so they can't take their own garden waste to the tip," he said. "So they have to pay the £35."

Yellow sticker attached to abandoned waste bags The council has warned people they may face prosecution if they are caught fly-tipping

Dr Steve McCabe, of Birmingham City University's business school, agreed those on low incomes or with limited access to transport may feel "trapped" into paying.

"For a lot of people finding £35 a year might not seem a lot," he said.

"But if you are retired and on a limited pension, finding £35 might not be so easy, but you may not feel you have a choice, especially if you don't have your own transport."

The big question is whether feelings over bags of garden waste will actually influence the outcome of the election.

Chair of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee, Andrew Bird, said he thought voters would understand local councils faced a "difficult financial situation".

"With budget pressures local authorities are having to look at all their services and anything that's non-statutory will come under closer scrutiny.

"Unfortunately, garden waste falls into that category."

Mr Dale is not so sure.

"I don't know that people will actually connect it with the Labour party as a lot of people might not actually know who runs Birmingham City Council," he said.

"It may be more likely to contribute to people not voting as an expression of protest."

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