City bins chief clings on after shake-up 'crisis'

Speciality lies in educationCALLS for the resignation of a councillor in charge of the bin collection service in Leeds were rejected at the end of a stormy three-hour debate last night.

A motion of no confidence in Labour councillor Tom Murray was defeated by 54 votes to 39 following an increasingly personal debate in which opposition councillors called into question his competence to lead the city out of what has been called a crisis in its bin collection service.

A major reorganisation of the service was undertaken in October that resulted in 11 of the 51 collection routes in the city being axed.

Bosses claimed longer, more efficient routes, allowed them to take some bin lorries off the roads, saving the authority an estimated 2.4m.

But extra staff and managers have needed to be drafted in as rubbish piled up through missed collections, leading to anger among residents and the launch of Sunday collections to clear the extensive backlog.

It came after Local Government Minister Bob Neill warned council leaders that taxpayers' viewed bin collections as "one of the most basic services" provided by local authorities, following problems elsewhere.

Last night Councillor Murray and supporters told the council the problems of missed collections and missed telephone calls of complaint from angry householders were beginning to ease but critics on the Tory benches ridiculed the suggestion.

Coun Murray, who is executive member for environmental services, has been "incompetent in his handling of the bin route re-organisation," according to Tory councillor Barry Anderson, who brought the motion.

A total of 31 councillors spoke, including Coun Murray and council leader Keith Wakefield, both of whom apologised for the way the re-organisation had been handled. Coun Wakefield said: "On behalf of the administration we accept that the bins service has not been good enough for the people of Leeds. We never denied it. We are not trying to run away from political accountability,"

He said "profound problems" had been identified with management performance, communications and the contact centre which deals with complaints. He pledged that these would be reviewed.

Councillor Murray apologised for the poor service and said he was disappointed it had not gone to plan but he denied the city was still gripped by "bin chaos".

"There is no bin chaos in the city. It has been chaotic at times. Nearly 98 per cent of bins are being collected. There is not an overspend of 1.1m but we have not saved as much as we hoped."

But a succession of angry councillors contradicted his assertion that the problems of missed collections were easing.

Lib Dem councillor Colin Campbell said streets were still being missed and claimed Coun Murray's "heart's not in it". "Executive members have to stand up and be counted and accept responsibility," he added. "Therefore he should be looking very closely at his position."

Fellow Lib Dem member Mark Harris told Coun Murray he had said two and a half months ago the service was getting back on track, adding: "Ultimately the buck stops somewhere. Unfortunately you have form when it comes to management. You were chairman of the education authority and presided over disaster... there is a pattern here."

Coun Harris described Coun Murray as a "very affable chap" but said he was part of a Labour tradition of "incompetent management".

Headingley Lib Dem councillor James Monaghan said: "It is wrong to say there is no more bin chaos. We are still getting complaints from residents in Headingley."

Morley Borough Independent councillor Robert Finnigan said one of the problems was that some bin crews were "very resistant to these changes", although many worked very hard, and he warned, "Calling for Tom's head is political pantomime."

Conservative councillor Andrew Carter said: "I just think Tom needs to ask himself the question: 'is he in the right job?' We have had the longest bin chaos ever, including the strike."

Coun Murray told the Yorkshire Post that the changes would save the council around 300,000 compared with the original estimate. "I won't back down," he insisted. "I have no intention of resigning. We were getting on top of these issues but then we had the bad weather. It was a double whammy."

Speciality lies in education

Tom Murray, who has been a councillor since 1992, is a former science teacher at a high school in York and freely admits that education is his main specialism.

He is a governor at a school in Garforth, Leeds, and is chief executive of Leeds-based Learning Partnerships, a charity which helps improve the chances of people in some of the city's most deprived neighbourhoods.

His register of interests with the council lists his chairmanship of Garforth Football Club and Presidency of Garforth Jubilee Band. Critics in the council chamber claimed yesterday that he had not really taken to his role as executive member for environmental services and that his skills would be better employed elsewhere.