Decision to accept national policy deal rather than agree on a payout to refuse workers meant Tower Hamlet Council spent £350,000 on ‘entirely avoidable’ strike action.
Tower Hamlets Council spent £342,815 on private waste collection and street cleaning services during the refuse worker strike from 18 – 26 September, a Freedom of Information request (FOI) has revealed.
Strike action began on 18 September and resulted in huge piles of rubbish towering over the streets of Tower Hamlets, dubbed a ‘National embarrassment’ on social media, with Brick Lane’s ‘Mount Everest of Rubbish’ catching the attention of national media outlets.
Over 200 Tower Hamlets refuse workers had previously rejected a national pay offer of a flat rate increase of £1,925. Unite the Union said this would amount to a real-terms pay cut due to the rising cost of living.
Councils are not legally bound to follow local government pay increases: the national agreement for local government workers sets out minimum standards and local authorities can pay a higher rate to workers if they wish to do so.
On day six of the strike, a private waste company was hired by the council to clear the streets ‘due to safety concerns’ from the borough’s fire commander that the rubbish was becoming a serious issue.
After nine days of missed collections, the council negotiated a settlement with Unite the Union, securing a one-off £750 payment for workers and an agreement to bring agency staff in-house. An FOI request has since revealed that the one-off council payment totalled £500,000.
Upon reaching the deal, Mayor Lutfur Rahman said: ‘We found ourselves in a difficult position because the strike was over a national pay dispute. However, with no resolution in sight, we had to act to see if we could negotiate a local solution.’
And yet, Newham Council reached the same pay deal with refuse workers before strike action began, thus avoiding payment of nearly £350,000 to private waste collectors and a near-public health emergency.
The settlement for both councils included a one-off cost of living payment of £750 and permanent jobs given to agency workers in refuse department.
Unite regional officer, Nick West said: ‘The strike action inevitably caused major disruption to bin collections and street cleaning services. This was entirely avoidable if managers had taken the situation seriously from the outset.’
According to Limehouse Labour councillor James King, when refuse workers began their strike on 18 September, the council hadn’t put a single offer on the table.
Speaking to London Spy, King said: ‘They thought they could get away with blaming the strike on national factors. That’s very much what the communications coming out of Aspire were saying: ‘This is a recent national strike, it has nothing to do with us.”
The Council ended up paying £500,000 to settle the dispute and amassed a further £342,815 in private waste collector fees.
In the wider context of Council spending, this might not seem like a large sum. Particularly in comparison to Birmingham City Council’s 2017 bin dispute which famously cost the council £5.8m.
However, since Birmingham City Council declared effective bankruptcy in September and the BBC warned this week that one in 10 councils are heading for the same fate, local residents are concerned about council spending.
While Mayor Rahman’s budget has been lauded as an anti-austerity triumph in London’s most unequal borough, critics have warned such high spending is unsustainable in the long term.
In 2023, Mayor Rahman invested £40m in public services, an increase of £20m from the Labour administration’s highest annual budget expenditure.
Aspire plans to spend £33 million in 2024 which will require huge savings. Tower Hamlets Council detailed in its budget that it will look to save £37 million from 2024 to 2025, but it is unclear where the money will come from.
Roman Road LDN reached out to Tower Hamlets Council but is yet to receive a reply.
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