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Christmas bin collections in UK at risk as lorry drivers quit

The Guardian logo The Guardian 23/10/2021 Jon Ungoed-Thomas
Photograph: Michael Heath/Alamy © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Michael Heath/Alamy

Households are being warned of a “Christmas crisis” in bin collections as drivers quit their jobs for better pay working for supermarkets and food hauliers.

Bin lorry drivers are being offered pay deals worth as much as £40,000 a year to switch to jobs in the food industry. One council in Lancashire said last week it had lost almost half of its drivers in the last three months.

Residents in councils from Devon to London to Peterborough have already seen some collections suspended or delayed. There have also been complaints about overflowing bins and missed rounds in areas affected by staff shortages. Bin lorry drivers earning about £25,000 a year can boost their salaries by more than 60% by going to work for supermarkets, food hauliers or online retailers.

Councils across the country are reducing and delaying domestic waste collections as there are not enough drivers for refuse trucks. © Photograph: Michael Heath/Alamy Councils across the country are reducing and delaying domestic waste collections as there are not enough drivers for refuse trucks.

Jacob Hayler, executive director of the Environmental Services Association, the trade body representing the UK’s waste management industry, said there was a vacancy rate for driving jobs of about 15% among waste contractors.

He called for the government to include HGV drivers among the list of shortage occupations and increase the number of lorry driving tests to avoid a “Christmas crisis”. He said. “The UK is short more than 100,000 HGV drivers, resulting in disrupted collections that will only come under greater pressure as we near Christmas – when waste volumes typically rise by 30%.”

Related: ‘It seems impenetrable’: the trials of HGV training

The latest figures from the Local Government Association workforce survey show bin services in more than half of councils which responded in England and Wales were being disrupted by staff shortages.

Ribble Valley council in Lancashire said last week that six of its 13 drivers had resigned and it was struggling to fill the posts. Stephen Atkinson, leader of the council, said: “We are maintaining a full service, but are seeing a huge turnover in drivers.”

Council leaders in Devon warned there were vacancy rates of up to 20% for bin lorry drivers. Alistair Dewhirst, deputy leader of Teignbridge council in south Devon, said the council had 11 vacancies in its team of 52 drivers in its waste collection service and councils were competing with supermarkets and their suppliers for drivers. He said: “There has always been a risk of drivers being poached, but we’ve never seen anything like this. We’re also having to collect more waste because of people working at home. ”

Councils in Devon, Oxfordshire, Surrey and Cambridgeshire have suspended garden waste services. Haringey council in north London said last week that its waste collections may be delayed by up to 72 hours “due to the effects national HGV driver shortages [have] on our operations”.

Croydon council in south London has told residents of the “severe” impact on waste collection services because of driver shortages, informing residents their refuse teams “will get to you as soon as possible”.

Nadia Sawalha, the actor, who lives in south London, tweeted earlier this month: “Croydon council!! Massive bills from you and only one of my bins has been taken?!! Where am I supposed to put my rubbish???” Another resident in Croydon tweeted: “The local service is failing & residents are left with overflowing bins/awful smells.”

Two of the biggest council waste services contractors, Amey and Veolia, are now offering signing-up bonuses of £1,500 to recruit drivers for council waste collection services.

Simon Ellin, chief executive of the Recycling Association, which represents some of the major firms involved in refuse collection and recycling, said: “The shortage of heavy goods drivers is having a profound impact. If you’re a driver you can go to the highest bidder and that is often the supermarket hauliers. It’s driving up costs for everyone.”

David Renard, leader of Swindon council and LGA environment spokesperson, said councils were working with the government to support more training. He said: “Fast-inflating HGV driver salaries in the private sector risks exacerbating issues in the public sector, with the rises potentially creating a retention as well as a recruitment problem for councils and their contractors.”

A spokesperson said the government had increased capacity for HGV driving tests. “We are moving to a high-wage, high-skilled economy and the government is encouraging all sectors to adapt and make employment more attractive to UK domestic workers through offering training, careers options and wage increases.”

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