Council workers faced abuse and ‘foul language’ over missed Derbyshire Dales bin collections

Derbyshire council staff had to deal with abusive complaints from residents angry over bin collection failures by private firm Serco.

By Eddie Bisknell
Friday, 18th February 2022, 1:48 pm
Updated Friday, 18th February 2022, 1:56 pm

The public services giant had 69 times breached its refuse contract for the Derbyshire Dales – covering Ashbourne, Bakewell, Matlock and Wirksworth – a damning report has found.

It led to council workers having to take the brunt of anger over hundreds of thousands of missed bin pick-ups.

Now councillors have vented their full frustrations at Serco over its “completely and utterly failed” management of the Derbyshire Dales bins contract.

Council workers took the brunt of anger over hundreds of thousands of missed bin pick-ups

And it has been claimed that other local authorities are “in trouble” over their contacts with Serco.

At a Derbyshire Dales District Council meeting last night (Feb 17), an independent investigation commissioned by the authority into the company’s management of the contract was debated.

This comes after months of disruption to bin collection services managed by Serco for the council at a cost of £3.1 million per year.

During the meeting, it came to light that Allen Graham, the independent lead of the review, found that there had been 69 breaches of the contract – by Serco – within the space of three to four months.

The assessment of Serco’s management of the bin collections contract was summarised as a “catastrophic failure”, which also could not be explained away by pandemic pressures.

Mr Graham said in hindsight the roll-out of the contract could have been extended but that repeated management changes at Serco “is bound to have had an impact and started to cause some of those issues”.

Much of the detail – which residents, and those outside the council looking to scrutinise the management woes of the contract, had been waiting for – has been kept private due to commercial and confidentiality reasons, the authority has ruled.

Peter Dobbs, an Ashbourne resident speaking at the meeting, said this was “disappointing”.

He said it was not “helpful or credible to put 100 per cent of the blame for what happened on Serco”. He said he and other residents were “barely getting 60 per cent of the service I had come to expect and paid for, and yet the district council were apparently paying Serco 120 per cent of what had previously been budgeted for”.

Mr Graham, of Circling Squares, a former chief executive of Rushcliffe Borough Council in Nottinghamshire, said his review found an “incomplete delivery” of the contract by Serco.

He said: “As is well recorded, any failure in any waste collection service is a bad failure for a council, because it is the one thing that can impact upon your reputation far greater than some of your other services.”

Mr Graham said this “can be very painful”.

Cllr Garry Purdy, leader of the council, started proceedings by giving a formal apology, saying: “An apology to all our residents for all of the upset and distress this has caused and I also apologise not only on behalf of this authority, but on behalf of all our councillors.

“It has been a torrid time and we are working hard to come through it, so once again, our sincere apologies for the distress and upset it has caused.”

Later in the meeting, Cllr Purdy said he had his worries about Serco as a company and its management going forward.

He said: “I am, like others, very concerned about Serco, I am not naming other local authorities but there are other local authorities in trouble with Serco, some far worse than us in actual fact.

“My nervousness means that we leaders now need to pin down Serco on this, not officers, and then discuss weekly where we are at with this because I am concerned for the future.”

He said that during the course of the current bin collections contract, which started in August 2020, Serco has had three different managers and two different directors overseeing operations, which Cllr Purdy says “speaks volumes”.

Mr Graham’s report details that four regional directors and three contract managers have overseen the Dales contract.

Cllr Purdy also said the capacity of the authority itself was exposed during the bin collections plight, saying the number of staff it employs has been “decimated” over the last decade from more than 400 to less than 200.

Deputy leader, Cllr Sue Hobson, said that key officers within the council had been putting in 60 and 70-hour weeks to try and tackle the spiralling bin collections issues during a pandemic.

Cllr Clare Gamble said officers “had little chance of gaining control despite working tirelessly” having been “badly let down by the contractor”.

Cllr Mark Wakeman claimed during the meeting “a lot of the agency staff (hired by Serco) were let go because of some money issues”.

Mr Graham said that issues around bin collections created “an unmanageable level of customer queries and complaints as things started to deteriorate”.

He said “the capacity of the organisation to respond to that becomes fragmented” and this resulted in “significant duplication” and was “very messy and very complex”.

Part of the issue, he said, was that council staff trying to handle customer complaints and queries only had the same information available to them that the public had sight of, on the authority’s website.

Councillors were stern in their condemnation of abuse aimed at council staff assisting with these queries and complaints.

Cllr Purdy said: “They had to put up with some very abusive and foul language which is not acceptable and it has been sad to have seen that.”

Cllr Colin Swindell said: “I feel we have let our staff down, they have experienced things they shouldn’t have had to, they have faced a lot of stress and pressure and abuse which frankly they shouldn’t have had to.”

Cllr Swindell continued: We have got to acknowledge that the contract delivery and the service delivery has been a complete failure and has let a lot of people down.

It has been absolute chaos in my ward at times, funnily enough, yesterday was the first time that Elton and Winster had a full clean sweep of bins.

“First and foremost, we have let our residents down, big time. We are accountable to them, not Serco, and we have got a duty to put this right and hopefully this inquiry will be the start of that.

“This council has been badly let down, we have had our reputation tarnished as a really good council. People out there see the bin delivery as the number one service and when that goes down the Swanee, the reputation does as well.

“Waste crews have also taken flak from residents, they’ve taken abuse and it is not their fault.

“I don’t feel we have come out of the report completely smelling of roses.

“There are lessons to be learned.”

He said council management was “now holding Serco’s feet to the fire and applying the maximum penalties to them and I think that is the approach we need to take”.

Cllr Swindell said: “Serco has been an absolute shambles, they have failed on so many accounts.”

He and Cllr Peter Slack said Mr Allen’s report had found 69 breaches of the contract, which was not disclosed in the public portion of the meeting or associated papers.

Cllr Slack said: “The blame has been put where it belongs, at Serco’s door.

“Serco have completely failed the council, they’ve failed us they’ve failed us and most of all the public, they have completely and utterly failed.

“Serco, to be honest, doesn’t have a good reputation, as we know, and unfortunately we haven’t got a lot of people interested in taking the refuse contract over. But I never recommend Serco to anyone again…Serco has let everyone down.”

A statement from Cllr Paul Cruise, who had called for the investigation and an independent chair, following a petition signed by hundreds of residents, was read out by Cllr Martin Burfoot.

It said: “I firmly believe we have been badly let down by Serco and the report demonstrates this clearly. Serco needed to step up and deliver this vital service even in the face of the pandemic and they didn’t and their lack of performance was a key driver in the disruption to residents.”

Over the past 18 months, the council has committed more than half a million pounds in extra funding to Serco, for HGV driver pay rises, an additional rented bin lorry and funds to cover the monies lost through the first lockdown.

He writes that the impacts of the pandemic – including communication, staff absence, HGV driver shortages and arrival of new vehicles – “cannot and should not be underestimated”.

However, he is clear that “it would be wrong to immediately conclude that this accounts for the non-delivery of significant elements of the contract deliverables which were clearly documented”.

Serco has given its “sincere apologies” for the disruption and impact on residents over the past two years.

It has been approached for further comment.