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Fly-tipping menace: does your council care?

Friday 17 November 2006

Our countryside and rural affairs commentator John Sheard, recalling a bitter but pointless battle with his local council, discusses some shocking figures about the huge growth in rural fly-tipping and asks: is your local council even trying to cope?

THREE years ago, I threatened to take my district council to the Local Government Ombudsman in a last-ditch effort to force its officers to at least try to stop a statutory nuisance: the mayhem caused by a local youth with ambitions to become a professional disc jockey.

To this end, he played a professional twin-table disco machine so loud that it once shook the pictures off my wall. Being a youth, he did his rehearsals at any time between 10.30 pm and 3.30 am - apart from his favourite daylight break, which was Sunday afternoon when most civilised people had finished lunch and wanted a bit of peace and quiet to read the papers.

cla adviser with flytipping mess
Regional adviser for the CLA, Jane Harrison, at a fly-tipping
site near the village of Brandsby, North Yorkshire

Unfortunately, responsibility for tackling such behaviour had just been taken from the police and handed to the environmental health department of the local council - and its so-called "enforcement officers" only work office hours, nine until five, weekdays. And so they never came to hear the racket that was driving me and my neighbours mad.

This is when I threatened my own action against the council - who take a lot of money from me for not protecting my interests - and prepared to sue the youth involved at my own expense. The owner of the house took the hint, sold up, and the youth moved. I presume some other unfortunate souls are now being tortured, poor so-and-so's.

Now this might not seem a particularly rural problem but some figures issued last week highlight one which most certainly is: the fly-tipping of mountains of rubbish from our towns and cities in mainly rural areas. The Yorkshire Dales, being surrounded by industrial towns and cities it West Yorkshire, Lancashire and parts of the North East, are particularly vulnerable.

The statistics revealed last week were about local authority action on waste distribution. They showed that councils issued 33,033 fixed penalty tickets for "minor" offences like filling a wheelie bin so full that the lid would not close, fines which brought in an income of some £900,000.

But there were only 33 fines imposed on noisy neighbours and - the heart of the matter for many country folk - only 883 prosecutions for fly-tipping out of more than one million reported offences, which is undoubtedly a woeful underestimate of the other millions which go unreported.

This is not just a matter of despoiling beautiful countryside, barbaric as that is. Farmers and landowners often have to pick up the bill for removing rubbish dumped illegally on their land, at a cost estimated at some £10 million a year in Yorkshire and Humberside alone (See News, November 14). But even worse is the threat of injury to livestock from broken glass, sharp metal, and nails left in discarded timber.

The root cause for all this is - surprise, surprise - Government legislation. Anxious to prove their green qualifications, New Labour have imposed swingeing increases on fees for legitimate dumping at municipal tips and have ordered councils to clamp-down on - "criminalise" is perhaps a better word - householders who do not recycle their waste.

As always with this particular bunch of short-sighted politicos, no-one thought that people would try to avoid greatly increased tipping bills by driving a few miles into the country, probably at night, and dumping their unsightly and potentially dangerous loads in some farm gateway, as often as not blocking a farmer's access to his stock.

...even worse is the threat of injury to livestock from broken glass, sharp metal, and nails left in discarded

There are, of course, tough new laws to make illegal tipping a serious crime. But guess who is supposed to enforce them? The environmental health officials and their nine-to-five office hours, five days a week (apart, of course, from their extended Bank Holiday weekends).

Experience has shown that bureaucrats, when presented with government targets, choose the easy way to fill them. The police have been accused of ignoring serious crimes because it is easier to clear up minor offences, particular those involving motorists, to boost their detection figures.

And the soon to be scrapped Child Support Agency made itself a pariah by bearing down on divorced fathers who regularly paid their alimony but tracked down laughably few absentees who had never coughed up a penny.

Sadly, those fly-tipping figures seem to suggest a similar state of mind: jump on someone who puts a bottle in the wrong recycling bin but ignore the oafs who make our countryside an uglier and more dangerous place. If councils really wanted, it would not be too hard to trail the odd builder's wagon from the town to the countryside: hundreds of them are at it on a regular basis.

That would mean effort and initiative, of course, from people who really care. And as I have remarked many times in this column, this country is run by politicians and bureaucrats who couldn't give the proverbial fig about the countryside.

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