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Fly-tipping in England increases during Covid pandemic

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Rex/Shutterstock

Farmers and rural business owners call for stricter rules and enforcement


Fly-tipping incidents in England increased last year, with household waste accounting for by far the biggest proportion of the problem, which has been worsened by the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

From March 2020 to March 2021 in England, 1.13m fly-tipping incidents were dealt with by local authorities, an increase of 16% on the 980,000 reported in the previous year, according to data released by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on Wednesday. Higher numbers of incidents were reached in 2007-09, but the way the data is collated has changed, so direct comparisons with years before 2018 are not possible.

Despite the increase in numbers, the number of enforcement actions went down over the period, with only 456,000 actions taken, compared with 474,000 in the year 2019-2020.

Jo Churchill, minister for resources and waste, said: “Fly-tipping is a crime which blights communities and poses a risk to human health and the environment. It also undermines legitimate waste businesses where unscrupulous operators undercut those acting within the law. During the pandemic, local authorities faced an unprecedented challenge to keep rubbish collections running and civic amenity sites open, and the government worked closely with them to maintain these critical public services.”

She said new technology was being used to combat the problem, such as apps and online platforms to report the crime so local authorities can take action, and she said local authorities had been given new powers to tackle fly-tipping, which would be further strengthened by the forthcoming Environment Act. But she added that individual responsibility was key: “We all have a duty to know where our waste is going.”

About two-thirds of the recorded incidents, or 737,000 in total, involved household waste, a similar proportion to the previous year. The most common place for rubbish to be abandoned was on pavements and roads, where more than two-fifths of dumping took place, a similar proportion to the previous year.

About a third of the incidents involved a small vanload of rubbish, and a further quarter were the contents of an average car boot or less. Fewer than one in 20 incidents involved major quantities of rubbish, equivalent to a lorryload. The cost to councils of clearing up these major incidents was £11.6m over the year, up from £10.9m in 2019-2020.

Defra noted that the first national lockdown, introduced in March 2020, led to some local authorities being unable to maintain collections of dry recyclates, and the widespread closure of household waste recycling centres. These were later reopened, but with restrictions such as booking systems in place. Along with changes in household consumption, travel and leisure owing to the pandemic, these factors “may have contributed” to the increases in fly-tipping, according to the government’s analysis.

The reduction in enforcement actions was attributed to staff shortages, staff being furloughed, and staff being redeployed owing to the pandemic and lockdowns.

Councillor David Renard, environment spokesperson for the Local Government Association, said the problem cost them about £50m a year. He said the government must step in and do more, while the companies that benefit from selling consumer goods must also bear responsibility.

“We continue to urge the government to review sentencing guidelines for fly-tipping so that offenders are given bigger fines for more serious offences, to act as a deterrent,” he said. “Manufacturers should also contribute to the costs to councils of clear-up, by providing more take-back services, so people can hand in old furniture and mattresses when they buy new ones.”

Farmers are also concerned that not enough is done to prevent fly-tipping on private land. The government’s figures cover only fly-tipping incidents on public land, such as streets and pavements.

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA), which represents 28,000 farmers and rural businesses, said many of these incidents fall to farmers to deal with – one CLA member reported facing a bill of more than £100,000 to clear up one major incident.

Mark Tufnell, president of the CLA, said: “These [Defra] figures do not tell the full story of this disgraceful behaviour which blights our beautiful countryside. Local authorities tend not to get involved with clearing incidences of fly-tipped waste from private land, leaving the landowner to clean up and foot what is often an extortionate bill. The government figures do not reflect the true scale of the crime because increasing reports of fly-tipping on private rural land are not included, coupled with the country plunged into lockdown.”

He called for tougher rules and a crackdown on fly-tipping criminals, as enforcement has not kept up. The maximum fine for fly-tipping is £50,000 or 12 months’ imprisonment, but fines and sentences on that scale are rarely invoked in the magistrates courts where such offences are tried. Tufnell warned that without stricter enforcement, fly-tipping was likely to continue to rise.

He warned: “It’s not just the odd bin bag, but large household items, from unwanted sofas to broken washing machines, building materials and even asbestos being dumped across our countryside.”

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