Roughly once every month now, I fill my ageing Vauxhall to the gunnels with lumpy black sacks, rain-soaked cardboard boxes and random other household detritus and creak off to the local tip.
There’s a part of me that enjoys these trips. Town dumps are fascinating, often melancholy places – the flaking, outdated furniture and yellowing Polaroids cleared from the homes of deceased elderly relatives; the baskets and bowls of pets that have made that final journey to the farm; childhood toys from a treasured period of family life now outgrown and never to return. This month a pub-worn Deal or No Deal slot machine was abandoned by the electrical goods bin. I stared at a beaming Noel Edmonds for a bit and then at my car boot, calculating, half-tempted…
But in the main, the visits are an unwanted, colossal pain. They are a result of our council’s decision to cut refuse collections from fortnightly to once a month. Given the sheer volume of stuff our family of five (plus one dog and two cats) gets through, the bins quickly overflow and the garden fills up with bags in a way that feels very 1978. At a certain point my wife gives me the stare, and off I go.
A former Labour councillor once told me that when he was first elected he was taken aside by his battle-hardened leader. “Listen son,” came the advice, “whatever you do in this job, never mess with the bins. It’s all the middle classes get from us, and it’d start a revolution.”
It is of course true that the middle classes also benefit from, say, council-run state schools and the provision of various civic amenities, but bin collection is the one highly visible, obviously useful, regular service that comes out of their council tax. For many, it is one of the few moments where their lives recognisably touch the state.
Since our local collection was reduced – the same thing has happened in many other areas too – and the council started charging to remove garden refuse, the school-gate mums have been vibrating with fury at their suddenly sack-packed gardens. A consequence: the habit of careful recycling has in many cases been replaced with an “any old bin will do” approach.
I’m too long in the tooth to expect that May’s Scottish council elections will make a great deal of difference to this irritating state of affairs, even if there is some kind of mini democratic rebellion. Local authorities have been struggling with viciously tight spending rounds for more than a decade. For much of that time, the SNP government has prevented council tax rises, leaving councils with little choice but to attritionally cut services across the board. Many of these have been projects designed to support the poorest communities, which are often most easily done away with.
All 32 of Scotland’s local authorities – including 14 led by the SNP – have spoken out against the most recent funding settlement, which increases the grant from central government by just £40m to £11.1bn. Councils say too much of this is ring-fenced to deliver Scottish government priorities, heavily restricting their freedom of movement and ensuring a real-terms cut. As a result, ministers will allow council tax to rise for the first time in years.
It’s probably the case that so pared to the bone have services become, most town halls will feel they have little choice but to increase rates, though with the May elections it is a decision that will be taken nervously. And what should concern politicians is that this will be just one more burden placed on an electorate that is increasingly struggling with the rising cost of living.
Inflation is eating into household budgets as it is. With the cost of energy soaring, many await the arrival of winter bills with dread. Interest rates look likely to rise further across this year, meaning the cost of mortgages will increase. Rishi Sunak’s National Insurance rise of 1.25 percentage points kicks in from April. And although the jobs market appears relatively healthy, uncertainty remains and many high streets resemble wastelands. Living standards have already barely risen and in some cases fallen since the 2008 financial crash. And then there’s the growing pressure to install green boilers and to buy environmentally friendly cars.
It is always the economically vulnerable who suffer the most. In a powerful Twitter thread this week, the poverty campaigner Jack Monroe argued that, for the poorest, inflation already well outstrips the 5.4 per cent figure quoted nationally – she revealed two and even three-digit percentage increases in the cost of basic foodstuffs such as pasta, rice and beans in supermarkets.
People are feeling the heat across the economic percentiles, and that is only going to intensify in coming months. Who will they blame and who will they take it out on – their council, Nicola Sturgeon, Boris Johnson, or the whole lot? It promises to be a year of severe pocketbook pain, with no magic money tree in sight at a local, devolved or national level.
[See also: Why inflation could break Britain]