Debate on fly-tipping and local environmental crime continues

The Government has received broad support for its plans to tackle local environmental crimes from a report by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee.1 The Committee argues that the onus now rests with local authorities to tackle the degradation of the local environment with greater determination - but it also takes issue with some of the Government's proposals to combat fly-tipping.

The report is the second in a series of four on environmental crime. In its first report in May, the Committee called for stiffer sentences and a greater diversity of punishments for environmental offences (ENDS Report 352, pp 39-40 ).

Launching the new report, the Committee's chairman, Peter Ainsworth, said: "There can scarcely be a town or village across the country where the local environment is not damaged or defaced by heaps of rubbish, fast-food litter, walls covered in untidy and illegal posters, obscene or ugly graffiti, or excessive neighbourhood noise."

The Committee is adamant that "the greatest issue is not one of resources, nor of powers, nor even of sentences for offenders."

Rather, it says, "those within councils dealing with these issues often lack the necessary diligence, enthusiasm and persistence...Occasional strategies and initiatives...are not sufficient to the task of improving the quality of our local environment in any real way. The war on local environmental blight has to be mainstreamed within local authorities."

The Committee's most extensive recommendations deal with fly-tipping, on which the Government itself consulted in February and, after the Committee's inquiry was completed, in July (ENDS Report 354, pp 52-53 ).

The Environment Department (DEFRA) earns a rare accolade for the first consultation, which the Committee lauds as "well thought out and comprehensive". However, it was not convinced by some of the detail.

For instance, while welcoming DEFRA's plan to give statutory force to the protocol which parcels out responsibility for dealing with fly-tipping between the Environment Agency and local authorities, the Committee feels that the cost implications need to be recognised by the Government. "Consultations are pointless," it says, "unless there is a chance that some of the new powers over which individuals and organisations are being consulted will be properly resourced."

In particular, the report urges the Government to "match its rhetoric with resources" by supporting the Agency's proposal for a fly-tipping abatement force costing £14 million to start up and £6 million per year thereafter.

The Committee is sceptical of DEFRA's proposal for £300 fixed penalty notices for businesses found not to have proper "duty of care" waste transfer notes for commercial waste. This system seems easy to manipulate and is likely to deter only the casual fly-tipper rather than organised waste dumpers, it says.

The report also takes issue with DEFRA's proposal for a single national tariff for fixed penalty notices. It backs calls from enforcement authorities for penalties to be variable, so that, say, the Agency could impose stiffer penalties than councils because it is more likely to tackle more serious dumping offences, or to enable repeat offenders to be hit with higher penalties.

The Committee welcomes DEFRA's proposal for an increase in the maximum fine available to magistrates for waste dumping offences from £20,000 to £50,000 - but concurs with the Agency and local authorities that this alone will not be enough of a deterrent. It advocates greater use of community sentences, with fly-tippers being required to clean up their own and other dumped waste, and confiscation of fly-tippers' driving licences as well as their vehicles.

Another DEFRA proposal was to amend the law to enable notices to be served on landowners requiring them to clear illegally dumped waste - but the Committee sides with farming and landowning interests in arguing that such a move would "shift the blame and the costs of fly-tipping in law away from the real malefactors onto innocent parties." It urges the Government not to proceed with the amendments.

On litter and graffiti, the Committee believes that the main issue is not one of creating new powers but of local authorities tackling environmental renewal with determination.

"Councils, such as Leeds, that have in recent years seriously begun to tackle environmental blight have not done so by throwing money at the problems they encounter but by dedicating themselves to the struggle to improve neighbourhood standards, and by better co-ordinating their services internally and with external agencies and national government as appropriate," the report notes.

"A policy of zero tolerance for litter, graffiti and like offences has been adopted: not sporadic and occasional outbursts of activity but a general strategic plan to mainstream environmental improvements across the council and its activities."

Similarly, on noise nuisances the Committee found little evidence for legislative change - except for the suggestion that the new powers provided by the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003 to use fixed penalty notices to tackle night-time noise from domestic premises should be extended to non-domestic buildings.

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