Members considered the report of the Corporate Director of Neighbourhoods and Climate Change that provided members with an introductory overview of the Neighbourhoods and Climate Change service grouping (for copy of report, see file of minutes).
The Head of Environment Services was in attendance to present the report and deliver a presentation (for copy of presentation, see file of minutes).
The presentation focussed on the services within the Service Grouping that were within the remit of the Environment and Sustainable Communities Overview and Scrutiny Committee, that included Environmental Services, Technical Services and part of the Community Protection Service.
The Environment service covers a large number of services which are front facing and has statutory obligations to keep the streets clean and to respond within a reasonable timeframe. The Head of Environment explained that the grounds maintenance service has a £2.5million service level agreement (SLA) with schools and has similar contracts with social housing and Durham County Council open spaces. However, it was highlighted that the service had benefitted from the work of volunteers especially with Civic Pride projects and has provided opportunities for young people through the Hagrid project. In addition, Durham County Council employs 54 Neighbourhood Wardens some of which were sponsored by Town and Parish Councils, with one warden sponsored by Durham University.
Members were advised of the Bereavement Services that includes two crematoria which are managed by two joint committees, council graveyard and closed graveyards. The work of the Pest Control Service was also highlighted stating that the service undertakes both domestic and commercial work. It was also highlighted that this service area was responsible for allotments which is a large asset of the authority that is managed via devolved management or by direct let.
In relation to Waste Management the Head of Service focussed on how much has changed from being a wasteful society to becoming wiser in giving consideration to the environment and the impact of climate change. Durham County Council collects refuse and recycling from 250,000 households and in some areas garden waste too. Another area which was highlighted, subject to the ascent of the Environment Bill was food waste and that it is expected to be mandated by 2024 that local authorities collect food waste separately. This would require the service to be ready to meet that time frame, along with other local authorities. The Head of Service highlighted the work being done to encourage waste reduction and how the service was promoting and encouraging recycling, reusing and composting and avoiding contamination through engagement and education.
Members were advised about the waste contracts including the multi authority residual waste re-procurement contract which is a partnership contract with other local authorities that provides huge economies of scale. The facility would be a publicly owned energy from waste facility that would provide energy and heat offtake and the project will also benefit from carbon reduction and capture.
Members were advised that Technical services is divided into two areas – Strategic Highways is responsible for the assets, it covers planned maintenance of highways, footways and bridges; it also includes the Street Lighting Energy Reduction Project (SLERP); Drainage and Flood Risk Management and public rights of way. In a recent government survey regarding indicators to establish the efficiency of prioritising and targeting highways work Durham County Council came out top of all local highway authorities which enabled Durham County Council to secure further funding from government. The Highway Services are responsible for carrying out the actual maintenance of these assets including winter maintenance.
The presentation concluded with the challenges to the service being highlight and that these services covered areas that were front facing such as fly tipping which was an issue many members had in their divisions and it was important that Durham County Council combat this and other service challenges such as the increasing regulatory environment.
The Chair thanked the Officer for his very informative presentation and asked Members for their questions.
Councillor Stubbs referred to the garden waste collection service and the number of subscribers to the service and asked if this had increased during the COVID pandemic period or if the Council predicted a future increase.
The Head of Environment Services responded that they had seen an increase in the number of subscribers to the garden waste service despite the service being suspended for a short period during the pandemic at the start of the first lockdown, and that they now had over 65,000 subscribers to the service. The service had also come to the end of a three-year deal last year which could have resulted in a fall in subscriptions, but they had not seen any drop off from the renewal of the service and were at the highest level for the service since the introduction of the charges. He continued that government had indicated in the Environment Bill that there was a potential for requiring local authorities to collect garden waste for households for free or at a reasonable charge. Durham County Council would need to consider the Environment Bill and its implications, but the service was delighted at the take up of the garden waste collection services. This could result in extending the service and looking at current charges in the future.
Councillor Charlton referred to Highways Assets and was concerned to see a low number of grit bins.
The Head of Environment Services responded that providing additional grit bins was not an issue it was the servicing of them. In bad weather grit was used up very quickly and needed to be replenished very frequently and this was a limiting factor. There was a priority list for grit bins and when an application was received for a salt bin, an assessment was carried out of the conditions at that location. Currently there were a reasonable number of bins that could be replenished within the timescales.
Councillor Adam highlighted how the wide ranging and front facing services impacted on all individuals and asked in relation to the key challenges regarding staffing, and resources what the council could do to ensure they received fair funding from the government including from the shared prosperity fund, and any work required in terms of the levelling up agenda. He highlighted that these were key sources of funding to ensure that Durham County Council can meet the challenges identified.
The Head of Environment Services indicated that the challenges were across the council as a whole and not just for the Neighbourhoods and Climate Change Service Grouping. Colleagues in Regeneration, Economy and Growth Service Grouping and on a regional basis were doing their best to attract funding. The Head of Service advised that his role was to do the absolute best with the resources at hand and to achieve efficiencies where possible.
Mrs Holding congratulated the authority on the flower arrangements on the various roundabouts throughout the county adding that it was a pleasure to see the flowers on them and requested that more planting is undertaken. She then referred to dog fouling and indicated that while the dog mess was being picked up poo bags were not being placed in bins and were often left in situ or hung on trees and bushes and asked if the bags were biodegradable or if it was a lack of bins causing users to leave these bags lying around. She then referred to the waste from covid lateral flow testing kits and disposable masks and asked if they were recyclable and whether special bins could be used for this waste.
The Head of Environment Services thanked Mrs Holding for her feedback on the roundabouts and confirmed that he would feed this back to the team. He commented that they were trying to use more sustainable planting which resulted in less grass cutting, which was both better economically and for the look of the roundabouts. With regard to dog fouling this was a major irritation for members of the public. The service had produced informational posters and targeted areas where there were high numbers of complaints regarding dog fouling, Neighbourhood Wardens would also act on local intelligence where it was available. There were also campaigns and street signs that would indicate that the area was being patrolled and monitored and he confirmed that this was an ongoing issue and that the service was using various options to tackle this issue including education and working with schools to highlight this subject. In relation to the waste generated by COVID, there is a lot of waste resulting from COVID testing but it was designed as singe use due to the biological material which could be hazardous. Where there were centres with large volume of this type of waste, such as schools, arrangements are being considered for recycling. At the moment the government advice was to put these items in your waste bin, but the Head of Service indicated that he hoped that the agencies concerned were looking at what items could be recycled when safe to do so.
Councillor Manchester referred to food waste recycling and indicated that the committee were advised approximately three of four years ago that the council were preparing a business plan to implement a food waste programme. He asked if the Service would be able to use this work already undertaken or whether the service would have to start again and were the authority in a good position to meet or exceed any government expectations on time frames.
The Head of Environment Services indicated that the council had submitted a bid for food waste recycling for the Durham City area for a trial which was not successful. This however, had enabled the authority to do some thinking around this. The authority had received some government funding for waste research a couple of years ago and as part of this the service had investigated and analysed the potential for a food waste collection service. They were one step ahead of the game by having a comprehensive report that looks at the sort of vehicles required and caddies and in addition the council also has a team for this work, and he would keep the committee updated with the progress. The biggest challenge would be low emission vehicles to collect the food waste.
Councillor Quinn asked if there were any plans to improve cycle routes to encourage more cycling for example the A167 from Rushyford to Newton Aycliffe to improve travel safety.
The Head of Environment Services responded that the council has a Strategic Cycling and Walking Strategy and that was referenced in the Climate Emergency Response Plan to encourage the use of sustainable travel and supporting the Strategic Cycling and Walking Strategy. Supporting the strategy were a variety of bespoke plans to secure funds for new cycle and walkways as well as improving existing routes.
Councillor Adam added as the previous chair of the committee that consultation had taken place and plans were in place and that this route features in the strategic plan.
Councillor Nicholls referred to the winter maintenance and how some villages could be cut off if it was not for the winter maintenance programme. He asked if the same level of funding would be available for the team to maintain or improve the level of service. He also asked how the council were involving experts in the decisions made around the environment i.e., ecologists as Durham County Council needed to ensure everything was implemented in the best way possible and asked if resources such as Durham University and the Wildlife Trust were utilised.
The Head of Environment Services responded that Highways services do more gritting of priority networks in comparison to other local authorities, but that did not stop requests to expand the network. We have years where we have good winters and years where we have bad winters, and the approach was that a suitable budget was allocated which has enabled a build-up of resources as a result of the good winters and that the County had sufficient resilience and made it clear to the committee that he could not see any threats on delivery. In reference to environmental specialists the council does employ specialists and confirmed that the council feeds into the County Durham Partnership which is made up of public, private and third sector organisations and includes organisations such as the Wildlife Trust and the Environment Agency who all work together in delivering plans. He continued that, Durham County Council has worked closely with Durham University including having students work secondments with services, and that we were very fortunate that Durham University specialises in the areas that Durham County Council focus on and this is reciprocated as Durham County Council is an ambitious council.
Councillor Potts asked if they were plans to have a section where people could go to for advice in relation to the installation of solar panels and the erection of wind turbines.
The Head of Environment Services acknowledged that the members questions was very valid and advised that the service had the following plans going forward, firstly building on community intelligence to have a system similar to the single use plastics pledge providing the opportunity for individuals and companies to sign up to a similar pledge in relation to climate change and find out more information and ways they can help. Secondly, as a means of filling the gap without any funding establish a community organisation to change for example a gas boiler, which has a small grant fund providing a mix of grants and loans. On top of this the service has the Business Energy Efficiency Project (BEEP) which is very successful, they carry out a free survey and develop an action plan for businesses to help them through making small scale energy reductions.
Councillor Avery referred to the weight of bin wagons and commented that in his local area they were causing damage to the cobbled streets. He continued that this damage was being repaired with tarmac and that using tarmac was spoiling the look of these streets. He asked if the bins in these streets could be moved to the end of the street so as to prevent further damage to the cobbles.
The Head of Environment Services indicated that the vehicles weighed 26 tonnes and it was environmentally better to use the bigger vehicles as less journeys would be needed resulting in less carbon emissions, but there may be a potential to use a smaller electric bin lorry but would need to look at the merits of doing this.
Councillor Elmer referred to the contamination of recyclates and the disproportionate impact of the use of black bags in contamination and that it was difficult to persuade people to stop using them and required a national stance from government to ensure these products are not manufactured in the first place. He asked whether the council was putting pressure on government to legislate in relation to this issue.
The Head of Environment Services indicated that the upcoming Environment Bill announced proposals for greater national consistency in relation to recycling. However, it does require the support of the companies who make the materials to be in agreement also currently the rules regarding recycling can change from one local authority to another. There were two elements relating to black bags, a person who has excess recycling may think it is ok to put additional recycling into a black bag and place next to the recycling bin, the problem is that not only can black material not be recycled but the operatives cannot see what is in the bag. At the waste transfer stations those black bags are put to one side, there is no separate sorting of these bags. So, we either stop using black bin bags or we have an outlet that can utilise them in due course to extend as far as we can what we recycle in the county. An opportunity would be to have an outlet that could utilise the black plastic.
Resolved: That the report and presentation be noted.