12 February 2019

What bin collections can tell us about a Hard Brexit


Amid the endless Brexit hullaballoo another of this morning’s headlines catches the eye – not about customs unions, backstops or regulatory alignment, but good old-fashioned bins.

According to the BBC, there were no fewer than 1.8 million complaints about late refuse collection last year – 4,500 a day on average and up by a third over the last five years. And remember, that’s just the people who could be bothered to write in and complain. Think of how many more stuck to the more stereotypically British response of suffering in silence.

It’s a reminder that while those of us in the Westminster Bubble obsess over who’s tweeted what or which MP might become a parliamentary undersecretary at DEFRA, the public are rather more sane, and therefore much more concerned about the stuff of their everyday lives.

It’s not for nothing that MPs get up in the Commons with unerring frequency to complain about potholes in their local area. Their postbags are chock full of letters about the sort of routine, unsexy stuff that bores political journalists but has a real impact on voters’ lives. Other issues go up and down in salience, or perhaps affect certain sections of the population more than others – but getting rid of your rubbish really is one of those ‘when it rains, it rains on us all’ issues.

There are few more obvious visual displays of official incompetence than stinking bags of rubbish piling up on the streets. Indeed, in 2017 a row over refuse collection was enough for Labour councillors to turf out their own council leader, John Clancy. As it happens, that dispute is still going on, and the council has just announced it’s going to a fortnightly delivery, much to the chagrin of Brummies, you would imagine.

Indeed, among the most striking of the figures in the BBC report is that 99.8 per cent of collections were completed without complaint — or put differently, one fifth of one per cent of collections going awry was enough to generate 1.8 million complaints.

There may be an important lesson here as the Government prepares for the possible fallout of a No Deal Brexit.

As Lee Rotherham points out elsewhere on CapX, much of the coverage of No Deal/WTO scenarios is wildly, wilfully overblown in pursuit of a political agenda. The sky is unlikely to fall in.

Nonetheless, those who sound sanguine about “short-term disruption” should bear in mind the potentially substantial reputational damage to both the Government and the Conservative Party if we do see even a few days of “chaos” before things return to normality. After all, it’s natural for the times when things go wrong to stick in people’s memories, while all the occasions where things run smoothly go unremarked.

As Lord Ashcroft’s round of Brexit polling this week makes clear, voters are not particularly interested in the finer points of our departure from the EU. They know the Irish backstop is a sticking point, they know Theresa May has been round the houses trying to get support for her deal. The overwhelming sentiment seems to be “just get on with it” so we can all talk about something else — bins, say, or potholes.

Equally, whether Transport Secretary Chris Grayling remains in his job or not is of zero interest to 99.9 per cent of the public, but if the failings of his department mean they can’t complete their regular food shop or their travel plans are disrupted, that’s a different matter entirely.

And unlike bins, potholes or local bus services, ministers won’t be able to palm off the blame for any post-Brexit disruption on local councils. All those No Deal catastrophe warnings may prove far-fetched, but they do mean the public knows that central government are the ones responsible for any cock-ups.

After all, though people say the first duty of government is the defence of the realm, most of the time the first duty is really the defence of things ticking along as normal. Fail to do so, and it may be the Tories who end up getting binned.

John Ashmore is Deputy Editor of CapX