A councillor in the South Hams was reduced to tears as she agreed to foot a £3,500 bill for a private garden waste collection that she thought would be paid by the council.
Philip Churm, local democracy reporter www.radioexe.co.uk
After the district council suspended brown bin collections because of problems with waste management company FCC, Cllr Nicky Hopwood (Cons, Woolwell) arranged for another firm to collect garden waste.
Cllr Hopwood told residents it would be paid for out of her “locality budget,” a fund that supports local projects which benefit the community.
However, Cllr Hopwood said she misinterpreted the advice she had been given and contracted the alternative waste collection firm without authorisation from the council.
The matter was brought to a, sometimes-heated, special executive committee meeting on Thursday (11 November).
Committee members heard that following the misinterpretation of officer advice, the member for Woolwell commissioned a local private contractor to carry out a one-off collection of garden waste bins.
But it was suggested that useful lessons had been learned from the incident. Councillors were told that the exercise provided a valuable learning process and addressed the overview and scrutiny committee’s concern that the option of recruiting third-party companies had not been sufficiently considered.
On Saturday 16 October Cllr Hopwood posted on her local Facebook page, saying: “I have managed to find a waste management company that will collect the brown bins from Woolwell over a period of three days and this will be FREE OF CHARGE to residents.
“The company is called Clearance4less and I have seen their waste carrier licence. It is vital to have site of this licence for any kind of waste collection service.
“I will pay the company out of my locality budget for a one off collection on Wednesday 20, Thursday 21 and Friday 22 October.”
Cllr Hopwood was later informed that her actions were not authorised and could not be paid for out of the locality budget.
Cllr Hopwood apologised to the executive group and said: “Members and officers may be aware that I organised a collection of brown bins within the Woolwell ward, which I represent.
“I sought officer advice about paying for this to be done out of my locality budget. After misunderstanding the advice given I went ahead with what I had organised in all good faith.
“I have since been contacted by the monitoring officer (David Fairburn, head of legal services and monitoring officer) and subsequently met with him.
“He advises that not only was the organising of waste collections within my ward against what the executive had agreed, which was to suspend the garden waste service, but I informed residents that this would be paid for out of my locality budget as I had genuinely misunderstood the advice given by officers.
“I offer an unreserved apology to both officers and members and have assured the monitoring officer that this will not happen again.”
Councillors then heard a recommendation that the executive “Reviews the learning from Woolwell and authorises payment for the services of the private contractor.”
But the suggestion that the cost of the error should be met by South Hams District Council was met with some angry responses.
Jacqi Hodgson (Green, Dartington & Staverton) said: “It’s very wrong to cover this payment.
“It means any of us could come back say, ‘Oh, I made a mistake, I didn’t understand what my locality budget was for.’
“I mean, that just doesn’t ring true. Not after a few years of being a councillor.
“So I just don’t think this should be allowed at all. Otherwise this meeting is going to be seen as just a cover up. And I just don’t think it’s good for the council.”
Some councillors were more sympathetic. Cllr Mark Long (Ind, Salcombe and Thurlestone) said: “Her intent that she felt there was a need for brown bins to be cleared in her ward is one that we all agree with.
“She went about it wrongly and did it completely the wrong way. But I think the intention was there, and I think – the thing is – a lot of other residents are doing exactly the same.”
Cllr Hopwood remained out the committee room for much of the time the discussion took place. After detailed debate, the recommendation that the council pay for the mistake was withdrawn.
Cllr Hopwood briefly returned to the committee room and was in tears as she addressed members of the executive again.
She said: “After listening to the debate and not wishing to bring this council into disrepute, which is why I made my apology in the beginning, I will pay the invoice for £3,500 for the collection of garden waste within the ward I proudly represent, Woolwell, out of my own pocket.
“I hope this brings to an end to the matter.”
Garden waste collections in the South Hams were suspended in August and residents were told, last month, that the service would not be restored until at least spring 2022.