Jim, John and Marc are picking through a nasty pile of rubbish. Used nappies, shoes, dirty laundry and a rotting carpet. Fly-tipping doesn’t look nice, and up close it doesn’t smell great either. We’re on a piece of wasteland, about 2 miles from some houses and less than a mile from the local council tip. Yet this is rubbish central. Behind us a TV carcass, chunks of polystyrene, abandoned furniture and endless tyres pile up.
I can’t tell you exactly where we are and we weren’t able to take any photos that would identify the people I’m with, because they are part of a fly-tipping SWAT team, made up of former police and military police officers who work for the Environment Agency and local authorities in northeast England. Identifying them could ruin ongoing court cases.
Jim, in collar, tie and high-visibility vest, smiles. “It’s tropical weather.” he observes. I’m in four layers, some of them thermal, and I’m freezing. “Last week we picked through five wheelie bins worth of rotting food looking for a receipt,” he tells me.
The team is dedicated to tracking down fly-tippers and is searching for any evidence that will link this rubbish to whoever dumped it. Team members use all the investigative techniques they’ve learned in their former roles, including forensics, and they’re so dedicated that while most of us go in search of some much-needed hot food at lunchtime, John heads back out to follow up a lead. And they say this approach works. Since this project and its forerunner started, the team has seen a 21 percent reduction in fly-tipping on public land in the area.
“Fly-tipping is unacceptable and a blight on public land,” says waste minister Jane Kennedy. She’s announced a 7.5 percent decrease in incidents in England over the past year, and a 26 percent increase in prosecutions by local authorities. “But we still need to work on the serious environmental and social problem of fly-tipping. I am determined to make fly-tipping a thing of the past,” she says.
The same war is being waged in Scotland, with similar claims of victory. There, more than 70 local authority and Environment Agency staff met for a fly-tipping seminar at the end of last year. Keep Scotland Beautiful is running a Dumb Dumpers campaign, complete with website and hotline for people to call if they see rubbish being dumped.And fly-tipping has reduced, from 40,525 incidents on public land in 2006-07 to 38,186 in 2007-08. But it still costs Scottish taxpayers an estimated £11m a year to clean up.
In Wales the Welsh Assembly is funding Pride in Our Communities, which brings together councils, the Environment Agency and others to tackle fly-tipping. But though the Environment Agency saw a drop in the number of the worst cases, local authorities in Wales saw a 13 percent increase, mostly in urban areas.
The Welsh Assembly’s environment, sustainability and housing minister Jane Davidson says: “These figures show our attitude to fly-tipping is changing – more and more local groups are reporting the problem and helping to improve our communities. We are addressing fly-tipping in three ways – though education, partnerships and enforcement action.”
But mention all this to farmers and landowners and you’ll get a hollow laugh. “Fly-tipping continues to be a serious issue for our members,” says Aarun Naik, environment policy advisor for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU). “And anecdotal evidence from farmers suggests that the problem is only getting worse.” There aren’t any national statistics for the amount of fly-tipping on private land, so it’s difficult to gauge the extent of the problem, but the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) estimates that 95 percent of farmers have cleared other people’s rubbish from their land. And in Scotland, farmers spend an average £1,000 every year cleaning up dumped waste.
“We constantly receive calls from members worried about what to do with illegal waste on their land that, in a few cases, has been hazardous and is very expensive to clear up,” says Henry Aubrey-Fletcher, president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA). “It may be that public landowners can afford to pay the costs of preventing the fly-tippers, but many private landowners can’t.”
At the moment if rubbish is dumped on public land then the local council or the Environment Agency pays to clear it up. But if it is left on private land, it becomes the responsibility of whoever owns the land. They usually have to pay to have it taken away or to dispose of it at the local tip, and that can cost. The landfill tax, introduced to make us all cut down on throwing things away, means that both local authorities and landowners have to pay £32
per tonne on most waste, and that will rise by £8 in April. That’s on top of the normal landfill charge, and then there is VAT too.
“The way local authorities deal with fly-tipping on public land is, in some respects, displacing the problem,” says the CLA’s head of environment, Derek Holliday. The CLA is now demanding a change in the law, so that local councils can take on fly-tipping on both public and private land, something it suggests could be paid for by the landfill tax.
The NFU agrees that something has to give. Aarun Naik says: “Farming and land management is an industry that faces ever-increasing financial pressures. The NFU believes it is unsustainable for landowners to have to continually bear the costs of cleaning up illegal waste.” But a Defra spokesman made it very clear to me that councils won’t be picking up the bill: “We have no plans to impose a new, unfunded burden on local authorities by obliging them either to clear up fly-tipped waste from private land or accept it at civic amenity sites free of charge.”
The department is funding the Landowner Partnership Project, which aims to reduce the impact of fly-tipping on private land. At the moment there are no figures on how big the problem is, so from April it will work with eight landowners or their representative groups in Northumberland and Durham, the West Midlands and the northwest to record all fly-tipping incidents on their land. That information will then be presented to the government in 2010. The Environment Agency, which is running the project, is also working on campaigns around the country to make clear the damage fly-tipping does and the punishment for those caught doing it.
Raising awareness is seen as vital by the CPRE. It’s running a three-year campaign called Stop The Drop, which aims to change behaviour “and restore the countryside to its former beauty for all to enjoy.” Its president, author Bill Bryson, warns that: “Litter is becoming the default condition of the countryside. It is time that we – all of us – did something about it. The landscape is too lovely to trash.”
But does a bit of rubbish left in a field gateway or on a piece of wasteland really cause much offence? Is it worth all this fuss, bother and money? Julie, a new member of the SWAT team, is clear on the issue. After serving in the military police in Iraq and Afghanistan, you might expect her to dismiss a bit of rubbish. But she says: “You may think ‘it’s just a bit of fly-tipping’. But it starts with just a small pile of rubble. Then more people dump there, someone adds half a house clearance, more people come and it becomes an eyesore, an illegal dump with rats and so on.”
From a mutilated dead dog, asbestos and caustic soda to builders’ rubble and rotting household rubbish, the reality of what the SWAT team deals with is, frankly, revolting. Though they once found a bin bag full of court summonses, which, as team leader Kate Halka observes, made tracking the person who dumped it somewhat easier. For her the key to the team’s success is the partnership with local councils. And as those authorities are also picking up part of the team’s bill, they too have an interest in making it work. And so, the team points out, do the rest of us.
Now here comes my confession. We recently had some building work done and the builder arranged for someone to take away the rubble. I did nothing, and thought nothing of it. When I mention this to Kate there is a long pause. “The householder is supposed to ask if the waste contractor has a licence. They should get you to sign a waste transfer note or at least sign a receipt.” To be fair the builder may have done all these things, but if not, householders are liable for a £5,000 fine. Gulp.
As Marc points out: “Some businesses make a tidy profit from fly-tipping.” They can charge people like me to take away our rubbish and then dump it for free, leaving us to pay again as taxpayers or landowners, who pick up the bill to dispose of it properly. Bill, who served with the police for 30 years before joining the team, sums it up: “It’s irresponsible. Last week we found a pile of household waste dumped round a blind bend on a country road. It blocked the road. It’s utterly reckless – someone could have been killed.”