A new broom under our control

Hastings Council this week considered a report on the future of the street cleaning service, after the current contract ends next June. But rather than get another contractor to run it, we agreed to re-establish a street cleaning ‘direct services organisation’ (DSO) and run the service directly. This will include removing flytips, and bulky waste collections.

Up till the 1980s, most council services were provided by the council employing staff directly to empty bins, clean the street, and maintain parks. But the government introduced Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT). This meant councils were in practice forced to accept the lowest tender from commercial contractors, with little flexibility around service quality. The last Labour government abolished CCT, replacing it with a requirement to demonstrate ‘best value’ when procuring services. But without in-house expertise, many councils continued to use external contractors to provide services.

In recent years however, there has been a change across local government. Councils have realised that running a service directly makes it more responsive, and gives the council more flexibility, as they’re not tied to a contract specification that requires commercial negotiations and additional payments every time it needs to be changed. It can also be cheaper than using a contractor. It’s better for the workforce too, as they’re entitled to enrol in the local government pensions scheme.

Our new street sweeping service will give greater freedom to the workers to use their own initiative, stopping to pick up flytips when they see them rather than having to wait for a job ticket. It will use more manual street sweepers too, in conjunction with mechanical sweepers, to make sure litter under parked cars is dealt with properly, for example. And it will focus more closely on keeping litter bins empty, with a half-size refuse freighter and its crew emptying bins continuously. But most importantly, the in-house service will be able to react to problems more quickly, especially in summer when litter is such a problem in a busy tourist town such as Hastings.

We will however still be encouraging everyone to report any problems they see via the ‘My Hastings’ reporting system on the council’s website. No matter how good the waste team are, they can’t deal with problems they don’t know about – and in a town with many visitors, seagulls, foxes and badgers, not to mention flytippers, problems will still occur. But now, ‘My Hastings’ reports will go directly to the workforce, so they can deal with it promptly.

Another advantage will be that the council can market the service to other organisations, and will look at other commercial possibilities, such as collecting trade waste, particularly in areas such as the Old Town that are difficult to reach with a standard size refuse freighter.

Now we’ve established a DSO, we’ll aim to bring other services back in-house when contracts expire – for example, building cleaning, toilet attendants, and grounds maintenance. Refuse will remain with an external contractor for now, but we aim to bring that back in house eventually, too.

The automatic assumption that privatising public services would save money was always wrong, and service quality has often suffered through contractors putting in unrealistically cheap bids to run them. There is no reason why councils can’t run services efficiently and effectively themselves, and without the need to contribute to contractor profits. For us, street cleaning is just a beginning.