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Two Kent borough councils to fork out up to £176,000 to improve Urbaser's bins collection service

Anger has been expressed after it emerged taxpayer cash would be used to fund bin collection improvements - just months after the waste contractor was fined by the same councils for poor performance.

The authorities, covering Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge and Malling, are to provide up to £176,000 in extra funds to Urbaser from the start of next month for a six-month period.

Urbaser has previously been fined for poor performance and missing bin collections
Urbaser has previously been fined for poor performance and missing bin collections

But Tunbridge Wells Borough Council leader Tom Dawlings (Con) insists “this is a price we need to pay” to help the provider to recruit and retain HGV drivers.

Taking over in March 2019 on an eight-year joint-contract with TWBC and Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council (TMBC), Urbaser has been plagued by blunders from the outset.

TWBC and TMBC issued fines to the Madrid-based company last June following more problems - although the amount of fines or the cost of those fines was not revealed - while garden waste services were suspended a month later to free up staff so food waste, recycling, refuse and clinical waste collections could continue.

At the time, residents complained about missed collections, bin lorries leaving trails of litter behind them - and even being sworn at by refuse collectors. The news of Urbaser being fined came just days after MPs Tom Tugendhat and Tracey Crouch stepped in following frequent complaints and wrote a letter to TMBC insisting more needs to be done to tackle the continued problem.

In that letter, they said: "It is clear that, since Urbaser started delivering waste services across Tonbridge and Malling their performance has been significantly short of what we, and all the residents, expect.

Leader of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council Tom Dawlings
Leader of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council Tom Dawlings

"We would appreciate it if you could articulate in the strongest possible terms our deep disappointment at the state of the borough, and identify the action that will be taken over the coming days to resolve the problem."

But both councils last week agreed to provide extra support to Urbaser who said it had been hit by a global HGV driver shortage. TWBC will pay up to £14,000 per month, while TMBC could potentially pay more than £15,000 a month.

The maximum amount the councils will provide between them in the next six months is £176,100, with Kasmir Cheema - chairman of Friends Of Blue Bell Hill - concerned, ultimately, taxpayers will be the ones hit.

He said: “My first reaction is who is going to be paying for this? The residents, ultimately, will be paying for it.”

Mr Cheema said he felt Medway Council provided a much better service than the one being offered at present, saying: “I think it’s wrong.

"Who is going to pay for this?"

“Obviously, they have got to sort the situation out, which they have done. But from speaking to (people in) Medway, they don’t have these problems. They worked all the way through Covid and did weekly collections. But in Tonbridge and Malling, it’s every two weeks.”

Harry Fone, grassroots campaign manager at the TaxPayers' Alliance, reckons many will have similar concerns to Mr Cheema.

"Many residents will question why they are being asked to stump up more cash on top of an existing contract agreement,” he said. "Taxpayers are facing another year of council tax rises and it's vital that local authorities get the best value possible from contractors.

“Town hall bosses must fully justify these additional costs to the electorate as they can't afford to waste a single penny.”

But with garden waste collections - which not all householders subscribe to - either having restarted on Monday or next Monday, depending on where residents live, TWBC council leader Mr Dawlings admitted he felt this was a call the councils simply had to make.

Tonbridge and Malling Council entered the joint-contract with Tunbridge Wells Borough Council in 2019
Tonbridge and Malling Council entered the joint-contract with Tunbridge Wells Borough Council in 2019

“The decision to suspend the garden waste collection was made last summer when the contractor’s refuse truck drivers were leaving to take better paid jobs elsewhere,” he said. "Our focus needed to be on the core waste and recycling service.

“Any spare crews have been used to make collections of garden waste to keep addressing the backlog - residents have not been charged for those interim collections.

“As recruitment of drivers and loaders remains difficult in a tight labour market, we have agreed to contribute to some of the contractor's additional staff costs for a limited six-month period.

“We know that residents want the garden waste collection service re-instated as soon as possible and accept that this is a price we need to pay to achieve that.

“With staff shortages compounded by absences due to Covid, this has been a very difficult time for all waste collection services and I would like to thank subscribers for their forbearance while our contractor has not been able to provide the garden waste collection service.”

A TMBC spokesman added: “We are making additional monthly payments of up to £15,350 over six months to help Urbaser meet the increased costs, relating to the recruitment and retention of HGV drivers.”

Urbaser’s contract serves around 100,000 homes in total across both boroughs.

On what the service had been like in 2022, Mr Cheema added: “The service is not very good. It (the problems) have been continuing this year."

Urbaser has been approached for comment.

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