IT is often said backstage that Meric Apak wanted the housing portfolio when he was elevated to Camden’s cabinet last May, but the decision didn’t lie with him and council leader Sarah Hayward handed him the environment brief instead. Which means this newbie to the executive found himself dealing with, among other things, public toilets and bins, two services often cited by residents as what they think their council tax really pays for.
So there by the grace of God will go Meric over the next few months, with Camden facing claims of lacking a basic civility over it changes to the availability of free toilets, and the removal of weekly bin collections from a large share of households who feel they’ve paid fairly to have them.
While there is no suggestion that Camden’s leadership and its decision-making cabinet are not collectively signed up to these changes and endorse them as a team, Meric has looked a little lonesome in fronting up the details of the latter, a waste deal worth £200 million. On such a thorny, public-facing issue, maybe it’s easier to say ‘see Meric’, than argue with residents worried about rats and fly-tipping through layers of tweets, emails and letters to the press.
Camden here has been accused of using a ‘stick’ to change behaviour and to force people to recycle more by retaining a weekly recyclables pick-up but only collecting refuse on a fortnightly basis. But as we wait to see which streets will be affected, just one of several potential flashpoints may come if residents who have diligently recycled over the years feel they are being punished because others haven’t.
Meric actually seems a little softer in approach than a guy with a big stick when you hear him speak, as he did at a key scrutiny committee ‘call-in’ meeting last week. Backbench councillors had there been tasked with reviewing the cabinet’s decision to press ahead with the plans, doing so somehow without the sharp detail of who will be affected and how. Meric talks cautiously of not wanting to run too far ahead without ongoing conversations with residents, and of conciliatory talks with the public over what they are throwing away before threatening enforcement heavies at their door. But the council reports and documents on this always seem much colder in black and white, and you could feel the lack of trust in the room when it was claimed the so-far unnamed winning contractor would be left with the headaches if Camden’s rubbish is not collected properly. It’s not far-fetched to think it would be the council who copped it first in public perception if rubbish piles up on street corners; a dip into Twitter sees how quickly residents rush to shame it with photos of fly-tipping, while the Tory group have already made clear they will be monitoring performance like hawks.
Doubters see a deal now clearing each hurdle speedily, moving like a runaway train with the threat of legal challenges and costly delays clubbing anyone who asks for a pause. In general, the view of Labour councillors at last week’s meeting seemed to be to agree that the new set-up would have some rough edges, but that trying to reach for perfection may be a quest for the impossible, and that it would be better to sign it off now.
So, after some dutiful frowns and itchy questions, the Labour councillors on the Culture and Environment Scrutiny Committee ultimately fell in line. All five backed their bosses.
And yet it’s still said, again only in the corridors for the moment, that this consensus hid a murmur from within the party. No surprises here, but the leftier quarters of Camden’s Labour Party question why refuse collection can’t be run from the Town Hall, instead of through a profits-interested private operator, so that greater control and flexibility over the service – and to the conditions of those who literally get their hands dirty taking away our muck – could be obtained.
Officers maintain this would unacceptably ramp up the costs to Camden and its tax-payers, and the leadership has shown little appetite in recent years to handle big contracts in this way. But in between the lines, questions were asked by some councillors about how far the detail in the deal will be cemented, and whether there was room for flexibility in the future should, and this is the unsaid bit, there be a change of personnel among those who draw up Labour’s local manifesto for power.
For those emboldened by Jeremy Corbyn’s rise as Labour’s leader last summer and the predictions that he may see off the challenge from Owen Smith next month, there is interest in turning that murmur around a preference for a council workforce into something louder. On the forecast that Corbyn wins again, there is talk about the left of the party demanding more input in the leaflet pledges that will go to residents in Camden ahead of the next boroughwide council elections. As unrealistic as it may seem to more centrist councillors, there will be a push to incorporate Corbyn ideas about taking the running of public services back from private contractors into Town Hall strategy.
So while the Conservative letterbox election material in 2018 is likely to accuse the council of unfairly taking away a round of bin collections, however well or badly the changes work out, there is a contingent in the Labour group who will want their own leaflet promises to talk more about doing things in-house. And, unlike past elections, this time they’ll argue that such ideas should no longer be dismissed as some abstract dream of how municipal government could work in a parallel world, but the direction which comes directly from their leader and the top of the party.