Privatisation of council services is not a new idea, but it does not always work, write Times Group historians PERCY REBOUL and JOHN HEATHFIELD

Household rubbish is big business and always has been.

One of the common sights on the streets of Barnet today are metal skips, hired at considerable expense, filled with rubbish of every description. To which may be added the plastic wheelie bins, used by every household in the borough, which are emptied weekly into the council's purpose-built vehicles. All are part of an essential service which, since its earliest days, has never been far from controversy.

One of the first actions of the newly set-up Finchley Borough Council in 1899 was to establish a rubbish collection service with a depot in Squires Lane. Residents had to supply their own dustbin, the contents of which was collected weekly and taken by horse-drawn tipper' carts to a piece of wasteground in Summers Lane.

By 1910, these carts were worn out and to save money the council decided to privatise' the service by employing a private contractor who provided his own carts.

In November 1910, the dustmen went on strike. Their complaint was that the new contractor had supplied carts that did not tip (presumably cheaper), which meant they had to be offloaded by hand using shovels and forks.

The result was that the men had to work much longer hours for the same wages 24 shillings a week. The working day was 14 hours for five days and 12 hours on Saturdays. Matters came to a head when the men had to empty the metal-lined cart used to collect offal and fish guts. The earlier tip-up cart had been fine but now the men had to work almost waist-deep in the foul-smelling mess.

One of the men who had been employed by the council without complaint for 13 years was dismissed for being too old. Another was sacked because he refused to take out a horse that he insisted was lame.

While denying these charges, the contractor also dismissed two other men who had complained and this resulted in the rest of the men going on strike, saying they feared wholesale dismissal.

Councillor Bogan brought up the matter in council, saying the 15 local men had all been educated in Finchley and were of good character. Winter was coming on, he reminded the council, and these men had wives and families.

What seemed a reasonable compromise was agreed. On November 11, the strikers were given temporary work at the council's sewage works to be paid for out of the rates.

On the following Wednesday, however, there were further developments. The council met again and it was pointed out that there were 23 men in Finchley without employment, and they should be given work ahead of the strikers. The decision to employ the strikers was rescinded.

The contractor took on men who worked until the following February when he asked to be released from his contract, stating he had underestimated the cost and was losing money. The council agreed and reinstated a direct labour scheme in which 12 of the original strikers were re-employed, the others having obtained other jobs.

We can conclude with another story connected with local refuse disposal. In 1935, a German delegation visited Friern Barnet to see for themselves how the rubbish tip in Bethune Park had been successfully turned into sports fields and a running track.

How could anyone have guessed that only five years later, the small brick building by the football pitch would have been turned into a temporary mortuary for people killed in German air raids?