Privatisation and Waste Management – (dis)Organising the Work


“Compulsory competitive tendering was introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s to force councils to outsource or privatise services.  Everything was up for sale from NHS cleaning and catering, to road maintenance to refuse.  The plan was based on cost and profit, not providing a service, making a profit means slashing the service and worsening workers’ terms and conditions.”    The Socialist Worker

So, contract awarded, mission accomplished, winning the work had been a piece of cake and hacking off the entire work force a relatively straight forward process that usually took only a couple of hours at a work force meeting but now came the really tricky part when someone had to plan the work.

The successful company now needed some managers and staff to draw up some new work schedules because all of the work had to be reorganised to take account of the fact that there would be fewer collection rounds and less men to do the work.  Producing new schedules requires skill and quite a lot of work and has to take account of how far the vehicles can travel, any special difficulties, how much weight they can carry, how much work the men can realistically do in a day and factoring in driving backwards and forwards to the landfill site a couple of times.  All of this takes time but the companies usually left this until the weekend before mobilisation and that meant almost certain disaster.

One man I worked with thought he had a brilliant solution and produced collection schedules in alphabetical order!  All the roads beginning with A-F on Monday, G-K on Tuesday and so on throughout the week, it didn’t occur to him that this meant driving hundreds of unnecessary miles and wasting hundreds of pounds worth of diesel.  I seem to remember that he had only a very short career in waste management!

At Boston in Lincolnshire, the Regional Manager for Onyx UK, Peter Clint had no idea how to schedule refuse rounds (or very little else for that matter) and on the first morning, not knowing what to do, told the office clerk to get on and do it because she was the only one who was local and was familiar with the area.  I know this is true because later I worked with her husband at South Holland District Council.  Needless to say the Boston contract lost money from day one, the service was shoddy and eventually the Council took it back in house to do it properly.

Refuse Collection 04

There are some other strange recruitment tales as well as this and I have already told you about the Ginster’s pie salesman at Woodspring in Devon.  At Waveney in Suffolk, Cory appointed one of the drivers, Steve Simms, as the manager on the basis that he asked a lot of questions at the work force meeting and they thought that he might be a bit of a trouble maker but an office job and a new Peugeot 405 might shut him up.  At Southend, Mike Jarvis appointed the waitress at the Camelia Hotel, Amanda Greenstead,  to be the sales manager because one night she persuaded us to have fillet steak when we were only going to have rump and he thought that her powers of persuasion perfectly qualified her for the job.

The first week of any new contract was a guaranteed catastrophe.  The biggest problem of course was that the disgruntled men simply didn’t want to work for the company and were completely uncooperative.  The truth is that they liked watching it all go wrong and putting the unpopular new managers under increasing pressure.  On the first day they had unfamiliar work schedules and far more work than they had ever been used to so they left the depot, dawdled  about and sent the plans go down the toilet.

Peter Bevan at Windsor and Maidenhead Contract

When I say plans I am using the word in its loosest possible sense because you can’t really call ‘keeping your fingers crossed’ a real plan.  At my first contract at Gedling in Nottinghamshire the Managing Director and the Operations Director, Blunders and Bodger, came to the depot the weekend before the first Monday morning and contributed nothing more useful than cleaning out the vehicle cabs and putting the company  logo on the side of the trucks.

With them was Jane Brennan from Head Office Operational Support whose only important job was to buy cutlery and a washing up bowl for the office kitchen.  This was important because everything in the office and the kitchen had to be in company colours and the local staff couldn’t be trusted to get it right.

It was usually about lunchtime on the first day when the awful truth dawned on the new bosses that they were presiding over another disaster and it was going to be a very long and stressful week.

Refuse crews that had been used to finishing by mid afternoon at the latest were still out collecting at six o’clock and when they could physically do no more and the tip was closed anyway they would return without completing the days task and as they buggered off home the managers were obliged to put on overalls and go out and try to complete the day’s work.

This was important because even people like Blunders and Bodger knew that the planned work had to be finished because there was another load of trouble waiting for them the next day especially when now they would be starting work with a full lorry rather than an empty one, which meant that the first job was to go to the tip, which inevitably put everything behind.

Uncollected Rubbish

And more trouble came in bucket loads from every possible direction.  On Tuesday there was another unachievable day’s work and by Wednesday their sheer incompetence was announced to all on the front page of the local newspaper usually with pictures of rubbish strewn roads and unemptied bins.

By Friday the Council, who didn’t want them there anyway, had had enough and were pestering on and on about how the company proposed to clear up the mess.  For the managers, who had already worked a sixty-hour week, this meant working through the weekend to try and clear things up and then spending Sunday afternoon frantically trying to correct all of the mistakes in the collection schedules.  They couldn’t of course because the truth was that even if they had the ability, thanks to the Tendering Manager,  they didn’t have enough vehicles or men and the agony went on for weeks and weeks and sometimes it just never ever stopped.

What the private companies had failed to factor into their tender calculations was that the council’s wanted the job done properly and they had financial control over the contract.  At Southend-on-Sea I once argued that the street cleaning was over-specified and the client manager John Whiddon immediately put me in my place: “Andrew”, he said “You are a contractor, if I wanted to pay you a million pounds to stand on your head  in the middle of the road then you would have to stand on your head in the middle of the road”.  I thought that was rather heavy handed but I got the point that he was making.

Managers came and went, most turned to alcohol at some point because of the stress, but some had other ways of relieving the pressure.  Dave Royle, the Cory manager at Wansbeck in Northumberland, was an ex army paratrooper and when things got too much for him he used to climb on top of a refuse vehicle and jump off just to relieve the pressure.

The ‘putting things right team’ kept getting bigger and bigger and more and more stretched and there was no realistic way of putting things right.  Contracts continued to lose money and the tendering manager kept winning more and more unprofitable contracts.

headscratchAnd then things got worse when in 1991, as part of the European Acquired Rights Directive, TUPE was introduced to protect employees if the business in which they are employed changes hands. Its effect was to move employees and any liabilities associated with them from the old employer to the new employer by law.  TUPE is an acronym for the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations and from now pricing a tender document was a lot more complicated than just cutting people’s wages because it required some thought and this was not what the company’s top men were best at.

2 responses to “Privatisation and Waste Management – (dis)Organising the Work

  1. Pingback: Malta, Love it or Hate it! | Have Bag, Will Travel

  2. Pingback: My Holidays in Malta – Privatisation and The Buses | Have Bag, Will Travel

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