Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Waste of Competition

Today's Sunday Business Post carries a fascinating article on the growing alarm among local authorities throughout Dublin City and County about the impact of competition in waste collection services.

Now you might think that their concern relates to falling standards and unfair practices - the kind of thing that might legitimately concern our elected representatives where competition is seen to be having undesirable consequences. But no, this time it's just about the money - the local authorities are worried that private sector waste collectors are doing too good a job, leaving fewer and fewer customers for the authorities' own waste collection services.

The eye of the hurricane right now is where I happen to live myself: in Dun Laoghaire Rathdown. Here the local authority is struggling to respond to the impact of new private entrants on their revenues from waste collection: something local authorities have previously monopolised for themselves in the past. The Sunday Business Post article tells us that the different councils in Dublin have gotten together and commissioned a joint study called: "Uncontrolled fracturing of the Dublin household waste collection market - environmental and technical report".

I have to take my hat off to the authors - the title is pure genius. Instead of 'competition' (which to most of us sounds like a good thing) we get the word 'fracturing' instead. Now who could possibly be in favour of 'fracturing' and all the bad things the word implies? The choice of word is straight out of Sir Humphrey's top drawer of evasive, political euphemisms. A weasel word if ever there was one.

What is at stake here? Private waste collectors (and for the record, I myself have switched to one of them) are providing a better service (more frequent collections and collection of a wider range of materials) for substantially less than the cost of the local authority's service. Surely our local representatives should welcome this improvement in the waste collection choices of local citizens? But of course they don't: what is really at stake is the amount of money local authorities have to spend on the 'vital' services they provide local citizens (festivals, art exhibitions, committee meetings, overseas conference delegations, that kind of thing). Or make that the money available to spend on the staff and councillors they employ to provide the aforesaid vital services.

Hence all the concern about 'fracturing'. The biggest fracture of all that concerns our local authorities is the one emerging between how much they want to spend and how much they have available to spend. As for the quality and cost of waste collection services to local citizens and local businesses, why that's way, way down the list of what really concerns them.

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