Fly-tipping is a blight on our countryside, a serious risk to wildlife and human health, and costs the taxpayer more than £58 million a year. There is nothing more infuriatingly selfish — and the problem is getting worse, with offences rising by more than 7 per cent a year.
It carries the threat of a fixed-penalty fine of up to £400, or a prison sentence for repeat offenders. But fly-tippers have become increasingly sophisticated and, to those trying to stop them, most get away scot-free.
Sometimes eyesores can be dealt with by altruistic community clean-up crews, such as the 200,000-plus members of the public and school volunteers taking part in the Mail-backed Great British Spring Clean, which runs from March 22 to April 23 (see below left for how to sign up).
Fly-tipping is a blight on our countryside, a serious risk to wildlife and human health, and costs the taxpayer more than £58 million a year
But catching fly-tippers is the job of community enforcement officers, who are working harder than ever in the face of government cutbacks.
Here, Alastair Jenkins, an enforcement officer with Walsall Council, in the West Midlands, shares the diary of his daily battles to bring the perpetrators of this shameful crime to justice.
MONDAY: A GAME OF CAT AND MOUSE
It has been another busy weekend for fly-tippers and I arrive to work to find an inbox full of complaints.
Our four-strong enforcement team handle antisocial behaviour, environmental crime, licensing, statutory nuisance and ‘unauthorised encampments’. Fly-tipping is just part of my job — but it’s taking up more and more time and becoming an obsession.
I took this job 11 years ago after 15 years in the police, as I wanted to make a visible difference to the beautiful countryside around here — but it is immensely frustrating.
Walsall spends £750,000 a year on clearing up fly-tipping, and we have hidden cameras at hotspots such as lay-bys, dead-end roads and patches of wasteland. The cameras are triggered by activity or movement, and most weeks we get about five bits of clear footage. You’d be surprised how many people are oblivious to the bright yellow ‘CCTV in operation’ signs we are obliged by law to put up.
Some of the footage is comical. You see young lads pulling washing machines out of a van straight onto their feet, then hopping around nursing their toes, or builders dumping waste willy-nilly on a layby, then meticulous folding their sacks and stacking buckets to put back in their vans.
Alastair Jenkins (pictured), an enforcement officer with Walsall Council, in the West Midlands, shares the diary of his daily battles to bring the perpetrators of this shameful crime to justice. He is seen sifting through rubbish for evidence
One memorable conviction was of a gang of serial fly-tippers who had been operating right under our noses. CCTV showed them emptying their bags of waste, furniture and mattresses in such a rush that one of them was hit on the head by a bag thrown by his mate. The courts sent him to prison for six months, with a two-year driving ban.
But sadly, successful convictions are few and far between.
In one unsolved case, residents of an affluent suburb heard clattering noises in the night. In the morning they were appalled to see their immaculate verges strewn with bits of broken furniture and old carpets spread across the entire length and breadth of their estate.
At 2am, a pick-up truck had turned in off the main road, dropped its tailgate and lurched through the crescent, scattering its full load of rubbish before speeding off into the night. The driver couldn’t be identified.
Often, number plates are obscured (some fly-tippers remove them, empty their load, then drive out of camera range and replace them) or doctored. It is common to see tape stuck on a letter F to make it look like an E, for instance, or to find that the plates are false.
If we identify a fly-tipper, we have to write inviting them to come in for an interview. When we don’t hear from them, we’ll do a door-knock and try to personally invite them for interview. That rarely works, either.
We have been able to gather enough evidence to issue about 20 fixed penalty fines in the past 18 months. Three still haven’t paid and we will be taking those cases to court. We are continually frustrated by our lack of ‘teeth’ and it is disheartening when the community criticises us for ‘doing nothing’.
To try to get on top of the problem, we are trialling initiatives such as extending the opening hours at local tips and offering free skips in designated locations to try to encourage people to get rid of their waste more responsibly.
We will soon also have the right to immediately seize a vehicle we suspect of being involved in fly-tipping. We just tell them, if you want the vehicle back, you have to talk to us.
We’d love to be able to get these people convicted but in taking a case to court, our hands are often tied. Every piece of evidence has to be absolutely watertight, and ensuring that is the case can cost up to £1,000.
TUESDAY: WALSALL’S MOST WANTED
I get a call about a fresh dump of rubbish at our most notorious spot — the open space in a run-down part of town called Goscote Lodge Crescent. It’s a fly-tipper’s paradise — easy access, loads of space and no one around to see what you’re up to.
Even though there are cameras in the area, virtually every morning there is a fresh fly-tipping incident there. Yesterday it was fridges — 20 of them. Today it’s huge wooden reels that must have once spooled copper cable.
The council clean-up crew are always on the lookout and usually arrive within 24 hours with a grabber on the back of a truck to cart the rubbish away before opportunists can add to the pile.
I drive out quickly to sift for evidence (receipts, bills or prescriptions that might hint where the tippers came from). You have to be quick before wind and rain scatters or ruins paperwork. By law, the person named on anything found is culpable but they are rarely responsible for the actual fly-tipping.
There is a Birmingham address on a receipt, so I run it through the police team when I get back to the office. Fly-tipping is very often bundled up with a whole raft of criminal activity.
Fly-tippers have become increasingly sophisticated and, to those trying to stop them, most get away scot-free. Alistair is pictured searching through rubbish
The giant reels dumped at Goscote Lodge Crescent probably held cabling that has been stolen, so fly-tipping is merely the grubby end of the process.
Sometimes we are told to back down or warned not to attempt a door-knock without police back-up — none of us wants to walk right into a snake pit.
WEDNESDAY: THE WHITE VAN MEN
We head for a car park in Willenhall for one of our monthly community protection events with the local police.
Over the years we have built up a profile of the classic fly-tipper’s vehicle: a white Transit-type van, 12-15 years old, usually in a scruffy state, with no branding or livery. So today we’ve got the police flagging down any vans that fit that brief and directing them towards us. Of the 12 pulled over, 11 are carrying house clearance and scrap and none of the drivers will say where they got it from or where they are taking it.
Obviously we can’t convict anyone merely for carrying scrap, but this is an opportunity to warn the drivers about our CCTV cameras and tell them what they should be doing with rubbish. It means we have their details on file and if the number plates come up later, they can’t claim innocence if caught.
Some local authorities slap stickers that read ‘illegally dumped rubbish under investigation’ on abandoned fridges, or swathe them in crime-scene tape. It can act as a deterrent and be quite a shock to someone who has pushed a fridge to the end of their drive, hoping the ‘scrap collector’ will take it away.
Mostly these abandoned white goods get picked up, stripped of metal parts, then fly-tipped.
Until recently, one of our worst sites in Walsall was a pretty arched bridge over the Wyrley and Essington Canal. Fly-tippers would reverse their vans up to the bridge and tip their load onto the road, where it spilled into the canal.
Last summer there was so much rubbish — the soil and bags from cannabis farms, fridges, old sofas, supermarket trolleys — you couldn’t see the water. Our clean-up teams were removing ten tons of rubbish from the site every week.
Then the Leader of the Council managed to get our highways colleagues to close the road and put massive concrete blocks in front of the bridge to block access. The fly-tippers had to go elsewhere.
THURSDAY: EMAILS COME TO NOTHING
This week’s report from our fly-tipping hotline shows 76 cases in the past three days alone.
My inbox is peppered with emails from residents who send me pictures of vans with their back doors open, number plates clearly visible, and people taking rubbish out and dumping it. That should be gold-standard evidence but it counts for nothing if the sender insists on remaining anonymous.
Yes, I understand they don’t want their tyres slashed or windows broken in recrimination. But without incontrovertible CCTV footage or a witness willing to go to court if necessary, we can’t build a case.
I am buzzed down to the reception area of our building, where a man proudly hands me a photo he has taken of a neighbour dumping building rubbish. It is crystal-clear but you can’t see any faces, and he mutters: ‘You didn’t get this from me’ as he rushes away.
Enforcement officer Alastair Jenkins reviews footage of fly-tipping in the Walsall area
I walk sadly back to my desk and file the photo with the 67 other cases I’m working on that seem to be going nowhere. I take a drive to Birmingham to find the owner of the rubbish tipped a few days ago. It’s a tidy, middle-class house with a well-kept lawn and the owner is horrified to hear why I’m there.
Industrial action in Birmingham meant the household rubbish hadn’t been collected for weeks, so she had employed a man who came to her door brandishing a business card extolling his waste disposal services and fraudulently stamped with a charity logo.
She said she felt betrayed because she put her trust in him, paid £1 a bag, then he dumped it all less than two miles from her house.
Thankfully, she is happy to support our enquiries and we’ve got the business card as evidence.
FRIDAY: IT’S HIGH FIVES ALL ROUND
I head straight to the address on the business card and find, parked outside, the grey van clearly recognisable from the CCTV footage. This is exciting but, as always, there are complications.
We are authorised to invite the registered owner of the vehicle in for interview, but it’s clear when he opens the door that the owner is at least 30 years older than the figure captured on CCTV. We are now forced to try to identify the suspect in other ways — I’m hoping we’ll be allowed to seize the vehicle, as it might speed the process a bit.
Back at the office, the team is waiting for five suspected fly-tippers who have been invited in for interview. Some are of Eastern European descent, so we have employed a translator to join us.
An hour later, and two hours into the translator’s £27-an-hour time, only one has turned up.
He gets an £80 fine, which doesn’t even come close to covering the amount of money that will have been spent on his case alone.
The translator tells us it’s accepted among this tight-knit immigrant community that any rubbish that doesn’t fit in your bin can be left in car parks or by the road for the council to remove.
Sometimes eyesores can be dealt with by altruistic community clean-up crews, such as the 200,000-plus members of the public and school volunteers taking part in the Mail-backed Great British Spring Clean, which runs from March 22 to April 23 (see below left for how to sign up)
There are pockets of rubbish-strewn land like this all over town, which we have spent thousands trying to clear. We could send a clean-up crew there every day and still make no dent in the mess.
As we are packing up for the evening, the desk phone rings and my colleague Kirsty picks it up. I hear her saying ‘yes… yes… ’ then she squeals, punching the air.
Last month our covert cameras had revealed an amazingly clear bit of footage of a man emptying car tyres from his van onto a verge. We got the number plate but needed to identify the man. With cases like these we have started to post the footage on our new ‘Walsall’s Most Wanted’ web pages and social media, and offer a reward for information leading to conviction.
The council recently hiked the reward money offered from £100 to £500 and, incredibly, it has worked. Someone saw that video, recognised the man and called us to give his name. I run downstairs to the police (in the same building) to see if they have a photo of the person with that name. It’s a match.
Maybe, just maybe, this one can get to court.