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Maidstone BC – Councillor Patrik Garten’s Newsletter – 24th April 2024

Cllr Patrik Garten 1

Dear Residents

 

On 2 May will be local elections.  For the first time in over 20 years we will have borough-wide elections.  Ward boundaries have been changed and the overall number of councillors will reduce to 49 from the previous 55.  Your new ward will become a two or three member ward, depending which part of North Downs you reside.  You will have two / three votes for two / three members.

As you know from previous years, it is very difficult for me to write my newsletters in election purdah, since I am not allowed to mention anything, which may reflect upon any political candidate.

Thankfully – lol, just kidding! – there is one issue which is of enormous current interest and allows me to write endless pages within purdah-rules:

 

Bin Collections

Just over six weeks ago we started a new waste collection contractor.

Bad timing for the elections you may think, and I am sure you are right.  However, the contract with the previous contractor came to its natural end; and eight years ago, nobody anticipated that this would fall right into the first all-out elections for MBC.

The MBC administration worked hard to get this new contractor in order to achieve service improvements.  I can assure you, that at no point was there any intention of cost cutting when we put out the tender.  Getting a new, state of the art vehicle fleet, reducing down-time and achieving overall service improvements, where historical issues developed, was our intention.

Whilst, during the past weeks, you could be forgiven for calling the situation chaotic, I am absolutely sure that, once things have settled, there will be a noticeable and lasting service improvement.

 

We did not change the contractor because we wanted to save money!

Unfortunately, we got off to a disastrous start and the past weeks were our and your worst nightmare coming true.  Changing such a major contract of 17,000 collections per day, while hitting the ground running, is always difficult and the problems we are experiencing were anticipated and are by no means unique to Maidstone nor the contractor Suez, which is an experienced reputable international company.

Over the past weeks I held several emergency meetings with MBC Directors, local Suez managers and senior Suez Directors.  Everyone present clearly understands that the current situation is unacceptable and immediate improvement is required.  Suez is doing their best to sort out all identified issues.

Why didn’t we prepare for this?

Some issues were anticipated.  MBC sent out letters to all households in the Borough in early March.

Suez did two weekends of operator staff training, and months of preparations went into the change over at managers’ level.  The preparations included the change of routes, which was necessary.  We now have many more houses since 2015 and the old system was creaking at the seams.

Unfortunately, in a logistics operation you can never predict real life problems by doing desktop exercises, thus problems when a new contractor starts are anticipated and are industry standard for which special provisions for short-term exclusions from contractual fines are made.  You may not remember, but 8 years ago, when we had the last change of contractor, disruptions lasted for almost 6 months.

Not all preparations were perfect and hindsight is a wonderful thing.

It is clear that lessons need to be learned, especially at the communications level / website.

We also discovered a major unforeseen problem.  As you may know, when such big contracts change, staff is usually retained through TUPE regulations.  I cannot delve into too much detail publicly, but the new contractor inherited serious unresolved issues from its predecessor.  I am glad to say that Suez is very keen to foster better staff relations and to build up trust with the crews.  Several immediate action-points were implemented as soon as the contractor became aware of it.

While writing, we are currently achieving a 80-90% daily collection rate, except Mondays. Although this seems low, it does not take into account that about 4-5 vehicles (30% extra resources) are available daily to engage in mop-up operations.  So, in total we are getting close to where we want to be in the upper 90%, albeit not always on time.  If your bins are missed, please leave them out until collected.  Suez is aware of persistent problems, particularly in the South Street and Wichling areas.

 

Why did we choose this new contractor?

 

Downtime, due to an ageing fleet, was a reliability issue in the past.  The new contractor provides a brand new fleet, which also comprises more smaller vehicles, for rounds where we historically had access problems.  All new vehicles have vastly improved telemetry and real time CCTV.  Managers can track vehicles in real time and the CCTV will allow us to spot problems when they occur without complicated downloads of discs or tapes.

We did and still do expect a great improvement in the quality of our service, despite things not appearing anything like it at the moment.

Just imagine you bought a new car; it will take some time to get used to it.  Our drivers feel exactly the same.  There is a world of difference between HGVs built in 2015 and the latest generation.  All drivers and operators will also have to learn new routes through narrow residential roads, many with inconsiderately parked cars.  And the operators will have to locate the bins correctly.  Many bins are tucked away in alley-ways or unfamiliar places.

All this within a strictly timed schedule will take time to familiarise.

 

What about Garden Waste, will I get a refund?

 

When residents receive their next invoice for garden collections, and collections have been missed beyond their contractual guarantees, they will see a forward credit towards their next collection, rather than a refund being issued.

 

Will any services be cut as a result of the current problems?

I can assure you that the current administration (if re-elected) will absolutely not cut any services as a result of these problems. The problems, albeit awful and very badly timed, were anticipated and there are sufficient contractual safeguards that Maidstone taxpayers will not be left out of pocket.

Unlike so many local authorities up and down the country, Maidstone is in a healthy financial position and we have no need to cut any frontline services.  Regular readers of this newsletter will know that the current administration invests heavily in New affordable housing for our most needy residents.  The last street-count showed no more than a hand-full of rough sleepers, which is one of the best results in the country. We have plans to improve the town-centre and Leisure Centre. We are also proud to maintain our parks to their Green Flag standards.

I apologise for the current bin problems but I can confidently assure you that a better than satisfactory service will be the final result in a few weeks.  Please bear with us.

 

PATRIK GARTEN

MBC Councillor for North Downs Ward

Cabinet Member for Environmental Services

 

Phone: 01622-807907