A combination of lorry driver shortages, vastly increased alcohol consumption and closed charity shops are putting council waste collection services under growing pressure.
Councillors were told that Bedford Borough Council’s recycling services have seen so much increased demand that frontline workers are struggling to keep up.
“We are struggling to get drivers, if I am totally honest, the same as any other waste and haulage company up and down the UK,” said Paul Pace, the council’s chief officer for environment at a meeting on Thursday (15 July 2021).
Mr Pace referred to a national shortage of 150,000 heavy goods vehicle drivers that has already hit retailers. Many drivers from the EU headed back to Europe at the end of June, he said.
Thursday’s meeting of the environment and sustainable communities overview and scrutiny committee was told the council has kept normal household waste collections going throughout the pandemic.
But collection from bottle banks and textile drop off points at the council’s network of recycling centres depends on workers being available to get round to them.
Cllr Roger Rigby (Cons, Bromham & Biddenham) spoke of bottle and clothes banks at Great Denham being full and of pictures on social media.
Mr Pace said: “The amount of drink that’s been consumed throughout the pandemic is about 50 per cent up on usual years. That’s putting a massive demand on us getting round the bottle banks.
“We’re going to some bottle banks three times a week which is incredible and it is putting a pressure on us.”
Mr Pace added that they try to optimise the routes so they don’t have to waste money on emptying half full bottle banks. They wait until they are as full as possible.
“We can empty bottle banks but find that within two days they are full again and overflowing,” he added.
He outlined a similar situation for clothes banks where some charities have been closed, or not collecting from their own facilities. This has meant people turning to the council.
Mr Pace concluded: “I won’t say it is a perfect storm but there’s lots of things that are making it an unusual challenge for us.”
The committee was receiving a series of reports from senior officers to tell them how services are performing.
As well as the pandemic, council officers have had to deal with floods in Bedford at Christmas and a potential outbreak of bird flu at the same time.
In other services John Shortland, the chief officer for planning and highways, said his building control staff had seen hostility from members of the public when they tried to enforce construction rules.
He put this down to people being at home during the pandemic and going “stir crazy“.
Staff have also been leaving the planning enforcement team where they are now down to one member of staff and a team leader.
The council has also seen a 33 per cent increase in planning applications which means each officer has 100 cases to deal with.