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Fly-tipping in Rural Areas

Volume 631: debated on Tuesday 21 November 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)

Fly-tipping is a very serious issue in my rural Devon constituency. I am pleased to see that so many Members, some of whom may wish to intervene during my speech, are still in the Chamber. That clearly shows that this is not just a topic for Devon, but applies to all the beautiful parts of the countryside where there is the blight of tipping.

What is fly-tipping? It is the illegal disposal of household, industrial, commercial or controlled waste. The challenge is that it is difficult to find any specific legislation that deals with the problem. If we look at the continuum of waste disposal in our beautiful countryside, we see at one end what I would describe as the litter louts who cannot be bothered to put their Coke tins in a bin, and at the other end formal waste disposal, with properly regulated sites and a compliance formula. Fly-tipping comes somewhere in the middle. Individuals are involved, but in this instance it is not the odd Coke bottle but a large item such as a fridge. Those people do not want to pay the tip charge, so what do they do? They stick the item in the back of the car or in a van, and dump it in a country lane.

Then there is the activity that is closer to the formal waste disposal end. Gangs, or criminals, think, “We can make some money out of this. Households do not want to go to the trouble of getting rid of their own waste, so we, for a fee—and we will not tell them that we will not be paying the tip fee—will take that rubbish and dump it in a lane.”

I was pleased to read the Government’s recently published litter strategy, but I must add that fly-tipping takes up only one page of it. We need to pay a lot more attention to the grey area between the litter issue and the properly legislated waste disposal issue, because this is a blight on our environment. It is a source of pollution, a danger to public health and a hazard to wildlife, and the bad news is that it is increasing. In English local authorities, 1 million cases were reported last year, which represents a 7% increase on the year before—and remember, those are just the cases that are reported. Many more go unreported, so I suspect that the number is in fact much more significant. The cost of the clear-up has also risen steeply. In the past year, it was £58 million; in the previous year, it was £15 million.

My hon. Friend is right to say that this does not just affect her constituents in Devon; it also affects mine in Dorset and doubtless those of many other Members. The cost falls not only on local authorities but often on landowners and farmers. Does she agree that, although the Government have taken some positive steps, we need to look closely to see how the burden can be fairly distributed, because this is not the fault of those landowners and farmers?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Central Government and local authorities are effectively contributing to the cost—there is a contribution from the taxpayer through central Government—but there is a burden on individual landowners and a requirement for them to clear up the land, and they get absolutely no contribution towards doing that. This is absolutely something that we need to look at because, as he says, it is not fair. What we want is, in the Government’s words, for the polluter to pay. It seems to me that the victims are paying, not the polluters. Fly-tipping is definitely on the increase. Most of it involves household waste, and to be fair, most of it is tipped on the highway, but an increasing amount is tipped on farmland and in woodland.

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way; I have sought her permission to intervene on her. The role of local councils is an important one, and it is positive when they encourage people to recycle. Does she agree that they must always ensure that there is an avenue for people to dispose of their waste in recycling centres, because if there is not, they may be tempted to do something illegal, if only because it is handy to do so?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There is a real challenge to incentivise people in this regard, and we need to use carrots rather than sticks to ensure that they dispose of their waste carefully and responsibly.

Clearly, we should recognise the environmental damage that waste causes. It is absolutely right that we as a country have taken on board the European waste framework directive, which led to our Environmental Protection Act 1990. The legislation rightly dictated that we should reduce landfill and increase recycling, but there is a cost to that. The challenge is to determine who should bear that cost.

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing forward this important Adjournment debate. Sadly, my beautiful constituency was blighted when the local authority decided, for cost-cutting reasons, to close the local tip for four days each week. That resulted in a much greater cost to the local authority, through having to clean up the area afterwards. We are hoping that the national Government will take this issue further, but the local authorities also have a great role to play.

My hon. Friend makes a sound point. I am sad to hear that this is happening not just in my constituency, but I am not surprised. He is right to say that shutting the tip has placed a much greater burden of cost on the local authority than simply keeping it open.

The overall responsibility for these matters lies with the Environment Agency. The question of who has to take action to clear up the mess and sort out the licensing is split between the Environment Agency, the local authority and, in regard to removing rubbish, private landowners.

My beautiful constituency in Suffolk illustrates the fact that this problem exists across the country. We have had 658 incidents in my constituency in the past year, and the nub of the problem is that we need to catch those who dump. I have been talking to a constituent, Richard Vass of Burland Boxes, about how we can use innovation to target fly-tippers and capture their number plates in order to allow prosecutions to be brought. That would create an income stream, without which somebody else has to pay.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The challenge is not just to collect the data. A constituent of mine with a large estate regularly finds that people have been fly-tipping on it. Once, while sorting through the rubbish, he found a receipt from a fast food drive-through that included a date and time stamp. He and the local police managed to find the vehicle registration number, but when they went to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency they were told that it could not release the name because of data protection. There has to be a way of using the evidence that we can get, because we cannot rely solely on catching the villains in the act, which is extraordinarily difficult, particularly in rural areas. Installing cameras everywhere would be prohibitively expensive, impractical and completely unrealistic. There has to be a better way of dealing with the evidence trail. My hon. Friend makes a sound point.

It is really good that we are having this debate. It is not only about catching the perpetrators, either through the local authority or the Environment Agency; it is also about making sure that they are prosecuted and that the fines are very heavy. Otherwise, it is worth their while tipping the waste and saving the money, rather than taking it to a waste disposal site; if they are caught and fined, the figure is so small that they can carry on doing it. We really need to catch them and make the penalty a deterrent, because at the moment it is not.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I believe that 0.1% of fly-tippers are prosecuted, and the average penalty is a £400 fine. There is absolutely no disincentive, so why would they stop fly-tipping? That has to change.

What can we do to make the system work better? If tips just charge more, or indeed shut for four days a week, clearly that just makes the problem worse. If we do not extend opening hours, all we are doing is discouraging good citizens and good builders from disposing of their rubbish responsibly at the end of the working day.

I think that increasingly councils are trying to do this for less and less money. The consequence is that they have no incentive to extend their opening hours or reduce the cost. My local authority has recently started charging for the disposal of green waste, and the consequence has been a huge increase in fly-tipping of green waste. Indeed, in Teignbridge fly-tipping has gone up by 60% in five years, and the increase correlates with the introduction of additional charges, when there is a spike in the number of fly-tipping incidents.

Another thing that local authorities have done to try to constrain their costs is to say, “We will deal only with waste that is produced by people living in our borough or ward.” The consequence is that people are now turned away from their nearest tip. Realistically, if the Government want to encourage people to recycle and to be responsible for their waste, they need to make that easier. In the neighbouring constituency of Torbay there is a sign at the tip stating, “You have to provide evidence that you actually live in this part of Devon before you can dispose of your waste here.” We are never going to solve the problem that way.

It seems to me that we have effectively incentivised the individual householder to fly-tip, or to employ a third party to fly-tip for them, and we have incentivised the man with a van who might do furniture removals and so on to offer tip services, but then he does not get a licence and instead dumps on highways, woodland and farmland. It just does not work.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) mentioned, the penalties, even if they are imposed, are woefully low. In the magistrates court someone can get 12 months and a £50,000 fine, but I am not aware that anyone has had either of those penalties. In the Crown court they can get up to five years and an unlimited fine, but again I am not aware—perhaps the Minister is—that anyone has received those sorts of punishments. It really is a problem, and the evidence problem is probably one of the biggest challenges.

Ultimately, the Government have said that the polluter must pay, but based on everything that I have seen and everything that my colleagues have said, the polluter currently does not pay, so let us look at things in a little more detail. Who is the polluter? At one extreme, one could say that it is the owner of the rubbish. Under section 34 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, the owner has a duty of care to check that the individual to whom the rubbish is given for disposal is properly registered. I do not suppose that most people know that, that they check or that they would even know where to check. They probably also do not know when people have to be licensed, which is far from clear.

I went on the Environment Agency website, and most of the legislation and registration information was about disposal sites. There was little about the movement of waste, unless it is stored or controlled, so that might be an area to look into, or maybe I just do not have enough experience of the regulations and the Minister will be able to set me right. However, it seems as though it is quite difficult for householders to comply with that duty of care—they do not know about it and they do not know where to go to find the information. Section 33 of the 1990 Act contains a similar duty for controlled waste, and I suspect that most households are more conscious of how to dispose of fridges, batteries and electrical equipment, but there are no specific penalties or punishments. Perhaps the Minister can set me right, but I am unaware of any owner who has been on the wrong side of the law for having given a third party rubbish that has subsequently been dumped.

As for the middlemen—the man or woman with a van—for them it is a question of whether they need a licence. Most of them probably do, because they probably do store the waste somewhere along the line, but few in the business can be bothered and that leads to criminal activity. They know that the chances of getting caught or going to prison are small, so they do not bother, and they get paid when the rubbish is handed over, not when it is delivered to the tip, so where is the incentive? To fix what is wrong with the system, we need to increase the carrot and increase the stick, and we need to be clear about what fly-tipping is and not just lump it with litter or managed waste disposal, because it lies somewhere in between and is something that my constituents and many others are getting exercised about. It damages our countryside and our tourism, and it is a blight on our society.

The Government are right that one of the obvious first steps is to ensure that education is in place so that our children grow up knowing what they should and should not do. That is fine, but there are many people beyond the age of 18 who do not know that, so how are we going to get to them? That is another question for the Government. We then need to look at how to incentivise legal tipping. We must review whether we should completely remove tip charges. When they are set against the clear-up costs and the amount received in fees, we can start to see whether there is a balance. Perhaps the Minister has some ideas about that. It must also be right to extend tip opening times, because people work. We need to recognise that both mum and dad are usually working, so that means we have to allow tipping when they are not working. If people are prepared to come and dispose of waste legally, we need to enable sites to take waste from wherever it comes, which is not always the case.

We also need to consider the individuals who are the potential polluters. We need to extend the rubbish owner’s accountability. They ought to be required to ask for and see someone’s licence, and they should not pay for the rubbish to be taken away until they get some stamped receipt from the tip to say that it has actually been disposed of. The idea of trying to track waste is a good one, and we could track white goods with today’s technology; there must be barcoding, chipping systems or some means by which to do that. When we do find evidence that makes clear from which home the fly-tipped rubbish came, there should be a mechanism to trace it back to ask the householder whether they have disposed of any rubbish and who they used to do so.

Then there is the carrier, licensed or not—the man or woman with a van. How will we extend their accountability? Because of the challenges in securing a successful prosecution, the number of prosecutions has actually gone down 25% in the past year. What might we do? Maybe we could require some record keeping. At one level, a registered and licensed carrier has to keep records, but we could extend that by requiring tachographs and GPS systems. We should review again the penalties and fines, whether there are custodial sentences and at what level, and whether we should seize assets.

There is provision in some cases to seize the vehicle, which is obviously a good thing because it stops the practice continuing. If the vehicle is crushed, it clearly stops the fly-tipping completely. But there are other assets that we might consider seizing to increase the disincentive. If no fine is paid, there is also the threat of credit reference agency records. If non-payments were logged on those records, it would clearly be a black mark, and most people do not want their credit reference in any way negatively affected. We might also consider lifetime bans for anyone who is found to be undertaking such activity without a licence.

There are a number of issues. We need to consider better interagency working. It would certainly help if the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency were prepared to work with local authorities to identify the cars, drivers and owners—having an evidence trail is very important.

I turn now to the victims. Landowners are stuck. Two thirds of farmers have reported fly-tipping of one sort or another and, under section 59 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, they can be required by the local authority or the Environment Agency to clear up 100% of the mess, but they are not the polluters.

It is impossible to prevent fly-tipping cost-effectively. My local community has tried by digging ditches around carparks and by putting up fences and cameras, but the cameras get smashed by the fly-tippers. It is very difficult. Only 13% of farmers and landowners tend to insure, so very few of them are covered.

Insurance is expensive and fly-tipping is hard to prevent, so we need to consider how we can support landowners, as my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) said, because they do us a great service by keeping our land beautiful and fit for tourism. How can we share the costs with the local authority? How could we subsidise the landowners’ insurance? How could we allow the disposal, free of charge, of anything that has been dumped on-site?

Will the Minister consider making sure that the polluter pays, that waste can be tracked, that it is easier to dispose legally and that householders think before they dump so that we can preserve our wonderful countryside? I thank her for her attention to this real issue.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) on securing this debate. She has covered a wide range of issues. She has left me less than 10 minutes in which to reply, but I assure her that my Department takes the issue seriously

Fly-tipping is a serious, antisocial crime, whether it happens in rural or urban areas. It blights our countryside, poses serious risks to our natural environment and to the human health of local communities, and affects the livelihoods of rural businesses. Perhaps in contrast to the casual litter louts I deplore, fly-tipping is premeditated and unacceptable, so tackling fly-tipping and all elements of waste crime is a priority for this Government.

The number of fly-tipping incidents dealt with by local authorities has increased to more than 1 million a year, with a 7% increase on last year, and it costs local authorities in England more than £57 million to clear. Indeed, Teignbridge District Council, part of which covers my hon. Friend’s constituency, has seen a 5% increase. The number of incidents of large scale fly-tipping dealt with last year by the Environment Agency also increased to more than 200.

That does not necessarily mean fly-tipping has increased by that margin, because the introduction of new technology and extended staff training has led to higher levels of reporting. Again, I am clear that any fly-tipping in this country is completely unacceptable, and it is important that we stamp it out.

The Government take all crime seriously, and crime in rural areas is no exception. The National Police Chiefs Council rural crime lead, the chief constable of North Yorkshire, is drawing up a strategy with stakeholders to ensure that police forces engage fully with their operational priorities. My officials are engaged with the chief constable’s team on fly-tipping, and indeed one of that team was at the national fly-tipping prevention group meeting up in Wigan today, talking with stakeholders and officials about how fly-tipping in rural areas can be tackled.

The connection between charging at household waste recycling centres—HWRCs—and charging for bulky waste collection, with the increase in household waste being fly-tipped, is one that I, and other Members, hear frequently. I am also aware that my hon. Friend is concerned about changes to opening times at HWRCs causing the increase in fly-tipping. Although I recognise the anecdotal reports suggesting the connection and fully understand them, the evidence that has been gathered thus far is inconclusive. I am keen that this is explored further and my officials are working with WRAP—the Waste and Resources Action Programme—to better understand the connection between changes at household waste recycling centres and fly-tipping of waste.

As my hon. Friend will recognise, it is for local authorities to determine what is practical and affordable in their areas, but it is also important that where changes are proposed, they are proportionate, transparent and made in consultation with local residents, taking into account local circumstances and the needs of local people. I can assure her that WRAP is reviewing its existing guidance on HWRCs by the end of this year to ensure it reflects changes made in the law and to give further guidance on what can be charged for by way of non-household wastes.

I am sorry but I have many points to get through and my hon. Friend will recognise that we are dealing with a devolved responsibility. If I have time at the end of the debate, I will take his intervention.

We are clear that everybody, whether they are a householder or a business, is responsible for disposing of the waste they produce correctly and not passing it on to somebody irresponsible. As more than two thirds of all fly-tipped incidents involve fly-tipped waste, all householders have a role to play. That is why we are actively considering what measures could help with these matters. We did strengthen the Sentencing Council’s guideline for environmental offences in 2014. Since then, the level of fines for organisations found guilty of fly-tipping has risen, but fines for individuals have not seen the same increase. I want to ensure that the level of sentence matches the seriousness of the incident and is an appropriate deterrent to stop fly-tipping, as my hon. Friends the Members for Newton Abbot and for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) said. As I mentioned in the House recently, I am raising this matter with colleagues at the Ministry of Justice and we intend to work with the judiciary so that sentencing levels act as an appropriate deterrent.

I am pleased to say that the Environment Agency has worked in partnership with several local authorities in south Devon to prosecute individuals fly-tipping indiscriminately across the area. Earlier in the year, the Environment Agency and local authorities successfully prosecuted a serial fly-tipper. The perpetrator received 20 months in prison, and was fined £7,000 for this illegal activity. The vehicle used for fly-tipping was also seized and crushed. By the end of spring 2018, the Environment Agency and local authorities expect to prosecute a further nine large-scale fly-tippers across south Devon, and there have been a number of smaller prosecutions by local councils.

Local authorities are responsible for enforcing against most fly-tipping, although larger-scale and more serious fly-tipping incidents are investigated by the Environment Agency. It is the role of my Department to make sure local authorities have a full range of powers and tools to enable them to tackle fly-tipping, but it is the responsibility of local councils to use all the powers and tools available to them. Last year we gave councils in England the power to issue fixed penalty notices for small-scale fly-tipping. More than 56,000 such notices were issued against fly-tippers last year, and more than half of all local authorities have implemented the new fixed penalty notices since they were introduced in May 2016.[Official Report, 7 December 2017, Vol. 632, c. 6MC.] I would again encourage all local authorities to implement them, in order to have a more proportionate and efficient alternative to prosecutions. We also recently enhanced the powers for local authorities and the Environment Agency to search and seize the vehicles of suspected fly-tippers. The number of such vehicles that authorities have seized has increased by 38% since the powers were introduced.

My Department chairs the national fly-tipping prevention group, which met today at Keep Britain Tidy’s headquarters in Wigan, and one of the items on the agenda was fly-tipping on rural land. The group brings together a range of organisations across central and local government, the police, the waste industry and major landowners, such as the Country Land and Business Association and the National Farmers Union, to tackle fly-tipping across England. In this forum they share experiences and best practice. It publishes case studies and guidance on its website, which have been pulled together by group members and shared with a wide audience across the country. It is our intention to continue to use best practice to crack down on this.

We want to enhance local-level partnership working and strong collaboration between local authorities and other agencies, such as the Environment Agency and the police, and involve local landowners and communities. This is essential to the tackling of fly-tipping. The value of those organisations working together is far greater than the sum of their parts. I will take away and follow up with the Department for Transport the point about evidence and the issue of the DVLA sharing data. It is absolutely key that we do that. We have seen some really good examples of partnership working. In Hertfordshire, the police and crime commissioner has enabled the county council to set up an effective group that is starting to see results. We continue to work through the national group to share best practice.

I am particularly aware of the difficulty that fly-tipping poses to the farming community. As I have said, any type of fly-tipping is unacceptable, and it is absolutely key to prosecute fly-tippers and recover the clearance costs where possible. We also need to make sure that councils provide advice and guidance on measures that can be taken to prevent further fly-tipping. We are working with the NFU and the CLA to increase the reporting of fly-tipping on farmland. That will help local councils to better target their enforcement efforts.

I welcome the CLA’s five-point action plan to tackle fly-tipping. My Department is already taking forward most of the CLA’s points. As I have already mentioned, we are reviewing sentencing, promoting partnership-working and considering a potential penalty notice for householders whose waste is fly-tipped. The NFU’s recent rural crime report, which covered the prevention of fly-tipping, was a welcome addition to the work in this policy area.

The increase in fly-tipping incidents shows that we cannot be complacent about fly-tipping and that we still need to do more to tackle it. The drivers of fly-tipping are varied, and we need tackle it on a number of fronts. As part of the resources and waste strategy, we will develop a strategic approach to further tackle fly-tipping and all elements of waste crime. As part of that, we will review the waste carriers, brokers and dealers regime to do more to try to ensure that those who are part of that trade fully understand their duties and responsibilities and do not fly-tip waste while acting under the veil of legitimacy. We will explore how extended producer responsibility might help to decrease fly-tipping, and we are absolutely clear that we want to enforce appropriately the regulations on waste electrical and electronic equipment.

As I said, we are working with various organisations to tackle fly-tipping. I attended the waste crime industry roundtable earlier this year, and we will continue that engagement. This has been an important debate and I am happy to meet hon. Friends to discuss this matter. I assure them that the increase in incidents to more than 1 million a year is a clear indication that we need to do more, and we will, so that our beautiful countryside can be enjoyed by future generations.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.