current affairs

Body in the bin: What the tragic death of Scott Williams tells us about modern British government

Waste container being emptied into truck

I'm sorry to say I wasn't all too surprised when I heard the sad news that a body had been found in Newhaven, thought to be from a Brighton waste collection. As the details emerged it's been confirmed that as far as we know Scott Williams was alive and well when he went into a bin for respite from the weather.

From what we know at the moment, I believe Mr Williams was in a commercial waste bin, not one of the city council's communal bins. My understanding from previous dealings with commercial waste problems is that businesses should keep their bins locked at all times — so someone failed in that duty. We also know that rough sleepers on at least one occassion have narrowly missed a similar fate after sleeping in one of the council-provided bins. This issue is a risk for all waste collectors.

The enormous pressure for efficiencies on all services has inevitably led to fewer staff, more automation and daily pressure for rounds to be done as quicjly as possible. We all want value for money and taxes to be kept as low as reasonably possible – hence the disgust at MPs' abuse of taxpayer funds to their own personal benefit.

With bins we see so few staff on rounds that they don't have time or capacity to check bins for rough sleepers before emptying them. Brighton & Hove has a high level of rough sleeping and homelessness issues, we should be checking these bins more carefully.

I feel this story points to the bigger issues in so many ways:

  • Drinking is all too often the common factor across so many tragic stories in the news. A recent scrutiny report by councillors highlighted that Brighton & Hove's teenagers are above the national average for drinking. How do we turn-around the culture which leads to drink fuelled accidents, violence and health problems?

  • We need to be producing so much less waste, which would mean fewer large bins for people to use as a refuge.

  • There are potentially some good economies of scale and interesting possibilities if local councils were to collect commercial waste from shops and restaurants. This could replace the four or five private firms all sending trucks to different premises on the same streets in addition to council collections for residents.

  • The pressures for efficiencies and cost cutting never diminish. The fight over the political middle ground by Labour, Tories and LibDems leads to incrementalist policies which do little or nothing to reform the fundamental systems and processes on which our government is based.

So called 'big debates' are fought over tax credits, 10p tax rates and so on. Yes this do hit people in the pocket – but we're arguing over tweaks really. We Greens want to scrap the complex raft of means-tested, forms-based credits, rebates and top-ups in favour of a simple to administer Citizens Income. We would also eliminate the unfair system of council tax which exacerbates local government's financial woes. Instead we would have a land value tax which not only would be fairer but would discourage properties being left empty, firms running huge speculative 'land banks' and would encourage people living in houses of a suitable scale.

Scott Williams' death was all to preventable. But we won't be able to create a people-centred system of government services without more fundamental reform than the fiddling round the edges the other parties are fighting over.