Leeds bin chaos: Boss admits there's hard work ahead

A key problem for the architects behind the chaotic new Leeds bin routes has been that details of waste collections were not written down on paper but carried around in binmen's heads.

That was the startling admission made by Neil Evans, Leeds City Council's director of environment and neighbourhoods, who brought in the changes on October 25.

In a candid interview with the YEP, he revealed that when it came to redesigning the bin routes – that were reduced from 51 to 40 – council officers found very little information had been recorded officially.

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The exact location of the properties – including hidden backstreets – was simply part of the "knowledge" that grew organically over time and was learned by a crew.

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Many of the city's wheelout services, which see binmen collecting wheelie bins and bin bags directly from driveways and doorsteps, were often done as a gesture of goodwill by a crew on that round, he said.

So when routes were altered, many binmen found themselves working unfamiliar patches without the inside information for the individual residents that a computer-generated list of properties could never know.

A city like Leeds is geographically complex, said councillor Tom Murray, executive board member for environmental services.

Susan Upton, head of waste, said council officers had worked closely with drivers and crews and not just relied on computer models.

Drivers had been out, she said, and driven at least the unfamiliar part of their new route before the change-over day.

Yet 3,300 homes did not have their bins emptied in the first week, according to Mr Evans, who said that the service missed 10 per cent of properties – or was behind on 60 hours worth – of collections.

In Week Eight, crews were still missing five per cent of collections – or 1,650 homes.

Mr Evans said: "The levels of missed (collections] are still unacceptable. I don't want to run away from that.

"They are however considerably reduced from the outset.

"We have halved the number of missed (collections].

"We are doing what we can to catch up and deliver a service that we are proud of."

There are more than 330,000 homes on the city's weekly bin round – binmen are scheduled to empty 500,000 bins a week.

Changing the actual bin routes was the biggest shake-up of the service for more than 20 years.

Streamlining the service now means crews working longer rounds and days.

Cutting the number of routes was supposed to stop a reliance on agency staff and allow 11 wagons to be decommissioned in a bid to save 2.4 million a full year – 1.4m in 09/10.

But the system was introduced four-and-a-half months late and the predicted savings were cut to 600,000.

Ongoing teething problems have now meant that the expected saving has been slashed to 300,000.

No bin wagons have been decommissioned as yet. The number of agency staff has had to be doubled.

The 10 extra staff employed in the call centre to handle a higher volume of calls during the first four weeks, are still at their posts as complaints continue to roll in.

The YEP asked the council why it launched the new bin routes at a time of the year when postal services and weather are at their most unreliable.

Coun Murray said after a nine month wait it was about "reassurance" to bin crews that the scheme would go ahead and to start making savings.

It had been anticipated that the new system would be bedded in within four to five weeks – well before winter arrived, he added.

Now council bosses "must" have the changes running smoothly by January, said Coun Murray, or bin workers will suffer when they are switched to performance-related pay in February.

Mr Evans said about the changes: "It was clear that (bin crews] were working 'task and finish' – complete a route and go home.

"However, the routes were being completed faster than the hours they

were contracted.

"The routes that we have redesigned are designed to take the whole 37 hours that people are contracted.

"For some people that's taken them some getting used to."

Some residents have not had their rubbish collected for up to 10 weeks at a time.

Missed collections meant that drivers were doing repeat journeys in a bid to clear rubbish that began to pile up.

Ryk Downes (Lib Dem, Otley & Yeadon) remembers one particular week when his street in Pool-in-Wharfedale had six collections.

As efforts are concentrating on clearing rubbish from the city's homes, the big concern now is whether recycling rates have been damaged.

Ms Upton said that she was confident that there would be little impact on recycling targets and was confident that residents were taking extra recycling to bins around the city, or storing it at home.

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