Ombudsmen damn Environment Agency for serious failings

The Environment Agency and two councils have been censured for failing to close an illegal waste dump which "devastated" the life of a family in rural Lancashire and could have led to serious pollution.

The Environment Agency has been told to pay £42,750 to a Lancastrian family for allowing the owner of a skip hire business to dump and burn waste on a neighbouring property for more than seven years.

The compensation is recommended in a joint report on the case by the Parliamentary Ombudsman and the Local Government Ombudsman, issued in January.1 Entitled Environmentally unfriendly, it calls the agency’s actions "alarming" and its attitude "astonishing" during that period.

Agency officers started investigating the activities of Gerald Ashe - who traded as both Ashe Brothers and NKR Ltd - in July 2000, soon after he bought the isolated farm on Croston Close Road, north of Bury. The site in the Lancashire Pennines is marked as green belt and a biological heritage site on local plans.

The agency even prosecuted him for obstructing its work. But it "seemed content simply… to monitor the owner’s blatant activities and keep reminding him of… the need to apply for exemptions," says the ombudsmen’s report.

The family was unable to sell their home because of the tip and they suffered intimidation from Ashe. One family member had a nervous breakdown.

More than 7,600 cubic metres of waste was left at the site when Ashe finally moved away. The waste, which was enough to fill three swimming pools, included rubble, plastic and clothes.

The ombudsmen also made findings of maladministration against Lancashire County Council and Rossendale Borough Council. Lancashire was also told to pay £42,750 in compensation and Rossendale £9,500.

The report does not name any of those involved and the agency declined to disclose the name of the waste dumper, but ENDS has established he is Gerald Ashe.

Shortly after moving to the farm he started bringing skips onto the site and spreading waste, some of which was used for hard standings and roads. He also put down concrete, culverted a stream, tore out trees and excavated a 25-metre long ‘burning pit’. He prevented ramblers accessing paths. He did not have planning permission for the changes.

In July, agency officers started visiting the site in response to reports of tipping and burning. By August, they had seen evidence of dumping and ordered Ashe to remove the waste, but he did not. He later denied bringing waste onto the farm and asked for information on applying for an exemption from waste management licensing to carry out necessary improvements.

During 2001, the agency received tens of calls about tipping and burning, including from Rossendale council. The fire brigade had to put out two fires at the farm. One caller said the landowner was having up to 20 truckloads of waste dumped per day.

However, when agency officers attended the site they were either unable to witness burning or work out what had been burnt.

In January 2002, two officers took photos of burnt waste, but were confronted by Ashe who refused to let them leave unless they surrendered the film, which they did.

The agency subsequently prosecuted him for obstruction, for which he was given a conditional discharge. However, it did not take action for the burning.

In fact that April the agency wrote to Rossendale council saying that although there was evidence of illegal activity it was insufficient to identify those responsible.

Ashe had transferred ownership of the burning pit to a third party in Ireland.

Rossendale and Lancashire councils also undertook investigations into the tipping and also failed to prosecute.

Agency visits and warnings continued until mid-2006 when officers wrote to the landowner asking him to attend an interview under caution. He refused.

Traffic Commissioner pulls the plug
Ashe only stopped dumping waste in June 2007 when the local Traffic Commissioner revoked his licence to operate HGVs from the site.

In June 2008, he pleaded guilty to three charges of dumping controlled waste on land without a licence, contrary to the Environmental Protection Act 1990. He was sentenced to 160 hours community service.

Ashe was eventually declared bankrupt and a bank repossessed the farm. He tried to hide assets from the Insolvency Service.

The ombudsmen questioned the agency’s then chief executive, Baroness Young, and the officers involved, about the case. They gave several reasons for why a prosecution did not occur earlier.

First, the farm was only accessible by a single road, making surveillance difficult. Officers could see lorries enter, but the farm itself was not visible. Ashe could see when they were around and stop burning.

The "health and safety issue identified" - Ashe’s aggressive behaviour - also meant the agency needed four officers to visit the site at a time.

The agency was also "over-cautious" in the amount of evidence it felt it needed to prosecute. Officers believed they needed to see vehicles enter the site and tip waste and prove the landowner was involved. They also felt they needed to know what the waste was because many types of material can be used on farms with exemptions.

However, some of the evidence from council officers suggests the agency was not fully committed to the case. Rossendale council officers said they had met the agency and Lancashire County Council in November 2000, but it "had shown little interest in the matter".

Later, the borough council’s legal advisers told them a joint approach was needed to achieve a successful prosecution. The three bodies met again, but the agency’s representative in particular "seemed anxious not to be there". The borough’s environmental health officer offered the agency her records and photos of vehicles entering the site, but was told the agency needed its own evidence.

In 2004, the agency told a barrister representing Rossendale council that the site was "a low priority".

The ombudsmen found that the agency should have prosecuted the landowner within two years of being alerted to the problems. It had "failed to conduct [a] robust and comprehensive investigation". Officers said they needed evidence of where the waste came from and what was being tipped but, says the report, they never asked to see the waste transfer notes lorries are required to carry.

To get evidence of burning, they should have visited the farm as soon as a fire was reported, but sometimes they waited days.

Right to enjoyment
The report concludes: "The delay in action was not only a significant failure to ‘get it right’, but also a very real failure to consider [the family’s] position and their right to the peaceful enjoyment of their home. Those were serious failings which constituted clear maladministration."

The agency told ENDS none of its staff had been disciplined as a result of the case. Tony Dean, its North West Regional Director, said the organisation "fully accepts the findings of this report… [We] failed to meet our own high standards. We have apologised to the family and will pay the compensation proposed."

He said the agency has now transformed the way it handles this type of crime. "We have built intelligence-led environmental crime teams, sought new powers to recoup the proceeds of this crime and work closely with partners such as the Police, Revenue & Customs and local authorities."

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