Anger at lack of transparency over council’s new garden waste charges

A council bin lorry. Photograph: Hackney Council

Hackney Council’s new subscription for collecting garden waste from ‘street-level properties’ has caused frustration over allegedly unfair charges and a lack of transparency.

The Town Hall has followed other councils across the capital in charging for the service, citing a £52m government funding shortfall over the next three years.

In March, Mayor Caroline Woodley announced that all garden waste pickups would be subscription-only from 6 May, costing service users £78 or more from that date until 31 March 2025.

However, concerned residents say their questions about the charges have gone unanswered.

Diana Weir, a former solicitor, has lobbied the council over cost disparity.

An email sent out by the council on March 18 said the new scheme would bring collections “in line with neighbouring councils which also charge.”

But Weir said: “Hackney wants £85 a year per 140 litre brown bin, or £110 to empty two 90-litre garden waste bags every fortnight. In terms of charge per volume of waste collected, that’s nearly double Islington council’s rate.”

Of those councils to have introduced the fees, Haringey currently has an annual charge of £60 per 140 litre sack or bin picked up every week. Islington recently introduced an annual charge of £75 to empty three garden waste bags every fortnight, with the charge halved to £37.50 for householders in receipt of certain benefits.

Weir continued: “The scheme assumes all garden waste is compostable but realistically that only applies to soft green waste.

“Many gardeners may only need a small but irreducible amount of their garden waste collected, so subscribers may well maximise the garden waste that they put out for collection to make up for having to pay for far more collections than they really need.”

She added: “Clearly the assumption is that those with gardens are very rich and can afford it. But those gardeners on very tight budgets, who already struggle to both heat their homes and eat properly, will be particularly badly affected by the unavoidably high basic charge.”

On 2 April, Weir filed a complaint which included a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to the council, seeking details and supporting documents quantifying the charge.

She said the council’s replies stated that the subscription charge would cover only the costs of their vehicles and crews.

The council later clarified that the target for the garden waste charge was £350k, but that this would not cover all of the costs of running the service and is instead a contribution.

It anticipates savings of £350k in 2024/25, £468k in 2025/26 and £468k in 2026/27.

Weir told the Citizen that no supporting documents for the vehicle and crew costs have been provided by the council, and that she is yet to receive a substantive reply to the FoI request. By law, the council must answer such requests within 20 working days.

“None of the charges have been properly explained,” said Weir. “The council has already had more than double the maximum time to respond, but they’ve failed to do so and they’re not entitled to any more.”

Hackney councillors are also seeking more information.

Cllr Alastair Binnie- Lubbock of the Greens, who sits on the council’s corporate committee, told the Citizen that he had asked senior council officers to give a full breakdown of how the new scheme is performing as it is rolled out.

“The fundamental point that only a small percentage of people in the borough have access to gardens is a fair point to make,” he said. “But we don’t yet know what the impact on fly tipping could be if people simply refuse to pay the charge.

“I asked if there was a risk that there’s going to be unintended costs and how handling composted waste will affect the council’s income. I haven’t yet had a good enough answer.”

Meanwhile, Weir has submitted a draft e-petition, publication of which has been delayed by the council until 5 July due to the ongoing general election campaign.

A council spokesperson said: “We introduced these changes to help cover the cost of providing garden waste collections as the council faces increasing financial pressure.

“This will help to prioritise funding for essential services, such as the care we provide for vulnerable children and adults.

“Most London boroughs already charge for garden waste collections with nearby Haringey and Islington charging £80 and £75 respectively.

“Over 5,000 households in Hackney have subscribed to the service but free alternatives, such as composting or using Reuse and Recycling Centres, are also available.”

The Citizen contacted Hackney’s main political parties for comment, but did not receive a response from the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats.

A Hackney Labour spokesperson said it was for the council to comment.

Update: this article was amended on 28 June 2024 to include a clarification from the council on the target income and expected savings from the subscription model.