Back to the Future: remunicipalisation in Bergkamen

01 May 2007
The return of waste services to council control has benefited the citizens of Bergkamen, writes Heike Langenberg.
When the bins are emptied in Bergkamen, a town in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, the refuse is carried away in vehicles decorated with the blueblack logo of “Waste Disposal Managment Bergkamen” (EBB), the public company which has been responsible for waste services in the town since 3 July 2006. Financial considerations were a crucial factor in the city council’s decision to remunicipalise waste disposal services, says Hans-Joachim Peters, EBB’s manager. It has been able to reduce costs by 30 per cent, according to consultants hired by the council, despite the fact that EBB has purchased six new vehicles and maintained the wage levels of its 16 employees. ‘We were able to make greater savings than originally expected’, recalls Peters. Three years ago the municipality decided to reorganise its waste services. Cooperation with councils in surrounding areas was discussed, as well as private and public options for the running of waste services. The latter was found to be more efficient, with cost reductions and better service. The fees charged for waste disposal were reduced by 5.9 per cent in 2006, and by another 1.5 per cent this year. For the disposal of biological waste, citizens paid 10.6 per cent less in 2006, with a further 6.4 per cent reduction in 2007, although the council has raised the fees for garbage incineration by 6 per cent, and VAT on these services has increased by 3 per cent in 2007. Services for the town’s 52,000 inhabitants have also improved. EBB manages complaints more quickly. In exchange for a small top-up fee, EBB also offers a service to remove bulky refuse directly from apartments and cellars within 72 hours. The range of services is also complemented by a new diaper-dumpster system, to support parents with small children. Norbert Henter, head of personnel at the town council, welcomes the council decision: ‘We are happy that more people are coming back to public services again. What we have here is a good example of reclaiming public services.’ The decision has sparked interest amongst other councils. ‘There are several cases of remunicipalisation’, says Erich Mendroch, who heads the national waste industry section of the public services union ver.di. He says that experience shows that private companies, contrary to their promises, do not always offer cheaper services. Mendroch says that private companies should be required to stick to the collective wage agreements for the industry when tendering for contracts, so that the burdens of cost reduction are no longer borne by the employees. Ver.di regards the waste industry as amongst the Daseinsvorsorge (Services of General Interest), which are the responsibility of local councils. There is evidence that, in some areas, citizens’ resistance to proposed privatisations is growing – including a recent case in Luebeck an Leipzig. ‘In fact there are a few more examples of recommunalisation of services that had already been privatised’ says Birgit Ladwig of ver.di’s national politics and planning administration. The city of Hannover, for example, is planning to re-integrate inspecting structural engineers into the municipal administration, because this is the most cost-effective solution. Similar arguments are used to justify the public control of Freiburg’s building cleaning services, and the same services are due to be remunicipalised in Dortmund. The rural district of Soltau-Fallinbostal has also returned waste services to public control.