Birmingham is to move to fortnightly rubbish collections while the dispute with trade unions rages on.

The Labour-run city council cabinet today (Tuesday, January 15) agreed a series of contingency measures to reduce disruption.

Council leader Ian Ward (Shard End) described the on-going industrial action by Unite the Union and UNISON members as 'unlawful' with the cabinet also approving a move to seek a court injunction against the unions if they refuse a formal offer to resolve the dispute through the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS).

Average calls to the council call centre about missed collections have spiked from 214 a day to 1,030 since Unite commenced industrial action on Saturday, December 29.

Birmingham City Council waste fleet. Library photo.
Birmingham City Council waste fleet. Library photo.

UNISON confirmed earlier this month their members would be joining them in the 'work to rule' protest which effectively self-imposes an overtime ban with  workers also returning to depots for breaks and lunch to access washing facilities.

These are the measures agreed by the cabinet to tackle disruption.

- Temporarily move rubbish collections from weekly to fortnightly, with household waste to be collected on the normal day for recycling. The council has asked residents to continue separating waste even though it might be mixed when picked up.

- Agency bin men will be brought in specifically to tackle rubbish piling up at the city's 200-plus high-rise blocks which have been hit hardest by the disruption in recent weeks.

- Ward-based street cleansing crews have been suspended and re-allocated to the 22,000 properties still using black sacks.

- An eight crew task force will be established specifically to combat fly-tipping seven days a week in response to the 'dramatic rise' in illegal rubbish dumping during the prolonged 2017 dispute.

- Opening times will be extended at council tips. Figures show that there were 6,151 visits to household recycling centres on January 2 this year compared to 4,629 visits on the same date in 2018. An extra 39 tonnes of waste was disposed of.

It is costing the council £350,000 a week extra to deal with the industrial action. It is estimated the costs of seeking an injunction and trial will be in the region of £1.5m.

Unite has already declined an offer to go through ACAS.

The union lead the lengthy 2017 strike action over council proposals to axe the grade III bin worker role.

The council ultimately resolved that dispute coming to an agreement with Unite to make changes to the service, including moving from a four to a five day working week and establishing the new Waste Reduction
and Collection Officer (WRCO) roles to boost recycling.

But the authority now say they wrongly went along with Unite's 'demands' to exclude the GMB union from the talks.

GMB subsequently made a successful claim against the council for 'failure to consult' about the changes which resulted in settlements to their members totalling £68,465.

But Unite claimed the payments were not warranted and effectively 'blacklisted' their own members prompting an overwhelming ballot before Christmas to take industrial action.

 

Opposition group leaders Cllrs Rob Alden (Cons, Erdington) and Jon Hunt (Lib Dems, Perry Barr) criticised the council's handling of the matter, particularly the fact the two previous cabinet meetings to discuss the situation had been cancelled.

Cllr Alden said residents had 'suffered for two years' because of the 'on-off industrial action' adding: "If the council's view has been that it's (the industrial action) illegal why have you made residents put up with not having refuse collected for four, five, six, weeks when you already thought it was illegal?"

Cllr Hunt also pointed out that moving to fortnightly collections - albeit in the exceptional circumstances - was expressly against Labour's pre-election pledge to maintain weekly collections for their four-year term.

In response Councillor Ward said: "The council finds itself in a very, very difficult position.

"We do want to resolve this dispute and reach agreement with Unite and UNISON, we want to improve industrial relations with the trade unions and we certainly don't want to be in a position we are in.

"The situation has been changing since the ballot and we have been considering all of the possible ways forward and all the options available.

"This is not an easy situation."