A [not so] green and pleasant land – what more can be done to tackle fly-tipping?

While the vast majority of householders dispose of their waste responsibly, very sadly a minority do not. In 2017-2018 Local Authorities in England responded to just under 1 million (998,000) fly-tipping incidents; a slight decrease of 1% from the 1,011,000 reported in 2016-2017. Two-thirds (66%) of fly-tips involve household waste. In January 2019 new financial penalties came into force meaning any householder failing to pass their waste to a licensed carrier, and whose waste is then found to be fly-tipped, could face a fine of up to £400. Government also issued guidance to Local Authorities about how to use these new powers. What is fly-tipping, what are the costs of dealing with incidents of illegally deposited waste, and what more can be done to prevent the countryside from becoming a dumping ground? Jessica Sellick investigates.

What is fly-tipping? The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) define fly-tipping as the ‘illegal dumping of liquid or solid waste on land or in water. The waste is usually dumped to avoid disposal costs.’ This illegal dumping can consist of household, industrial, commercial and other 'controlled' waste without a waste management licence (e.g. garden refuse, domestic items such as fridges or mattresses). Fly-tipping is a criminal offence under Section 33 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 which states:

A person shall not… deposit controlled waste, or knowingly cause or knowingly permit controlled waste to be deposited in or on any land unless a waste management licence authorising the deposit is in force and the deposit is in accordance with the licence. 

Under section 75 of the Act householders must ensure that their household waste is properly disposed of. In order to comply, this means taking steps to ensure that the person who takes control of your waste is licensed to do so; preventing the waste from escaping your control; storing waste safely and securely; preventing waste from causing pollution or harm; and providing a written note if you intend to pass the waste on to someone else. If you collect waste from others you must be authorised under the law to collect and receive waste; get a description of the collected waste in writing; and complete and retain a transfer note.

According to Defra, fly-tipping is a significant blight on local environments; a source of pollution; a potential danger to public health; a hazard to wildlife and a nuisance. It further undermines legitimate waste businesses where unscrupulous operators undercut those operating within the law.

Fly-tipping is different from littering. While there is no official or statutory definition of litter, it is most commonly assumed to include materials that are improperly discarded. Some of the most commonly discarded items in 2017-2018 included food and food packaging, alcoholic drinks, non-alcoholic drinks, general items (such as tissues)  and smoking materials.

How big is the problem? The latest statistical release, published in November 2018 and covering the period 2017-2018, reveals how:

  • Local Authorities in England dealt with just under 1 million fly-tipping incidents (some 998,000 incidents), a slight decrease of 1% from the previous year.
  • Two thirds (67%) of fly-tips involved household waste – with total incidents involving household waste decreasing by 4% compared to 2016-2017. 
  • The most common place for fly-tipping was on highways, which accounted for almost half (47%) of total incidents. However, the number of incidents on highways decreased by 7% compared to 2016-2017.
  • The most common size category for fly-tipping incidents was equivalent to a ‘small van load’ (33% of total incidents), followed by that equivalent to a ‘car boot or less’ (28%). 
  • 34,000 or 4% of total incidents were ‘tipper lorry load’ size or larger – with the cost of clearance to Local Authorities £12.2 million compared with £9.9 million in 2016-2017.
  • Local Authorities carried out 494,000 enforcement actions – an increase of 18,000 actions (or 4%) from 2016-2017.
  • The number of fixed penalty notices issued increased by 20% to 69,000. This is now the second most common enforcement action (after investigations), and accounted for 14% of all enforcement actions.
  • For the period 2017-2018 some Local Authorities provided a more detailed breakdown of fixed penalty notices – with 11% issued specifically for small scale fly-tipping, 52% for littering and 37% for other offences.
  • Clearance costs were based on standard unit costs produced 10-years ago and do not fully represent the current costs of fly-tipping enforcement to Local Authorities. While the costs for ‘prosecution’ and ‘injunction’ continue to be published, Defra is currently looking into updating the standard unit costs for clearance.

All of the figures published above are based upon fly-tipping incidents reported by Local Authorities in England and do not include incidents on private land. While fly-tipping on private land is thought to be a major and widespread problem, very little data is available. Back in 2009, for example, the Environment Agency (EA) launched a pilot with eight UK landowners to identify the extent of the problem. The research revealed 94% of private landowners had suffered from the illegal dumping of waste – with some experiencing more than 100 separate incidents a year and clearance costs averaging some £809 per removal.

Why do householders/organisations fly-tip? In 2018 Defra commissioned research to understand the most effective means for Local Authorities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to increase awareness, understanding and engagement with the Household Waste Duty of Care (HWDC). The research involved a rapid evidence review of available literature; telephone interviews with 5 Local Authority representatives; and discussion groups involving 60 people. Within the discussion groups, participants had low levels of awareness the HWDC (i.e., that waste carriers must be licenced); questioned the fairness of the HWDC– and whether they should be held responsible for the wrong-doing of others (especially when they were not aware of the rules); queried what was considered ‘household waste’; expressed some resentment towards the cost of council removal services; expressed their dislike for fly-tipping – however for some participants this was still ‘out of sight, out of mind’; and struggled to make the link between their own household waste disposal and the act of fly-tipping. The research recommended providing information about licensed waste carriers in a salient and simple way; targeting future messaging at the individual and in a personalised way; framing the HWDC as a collaborative effort between councils and the public; and to communicate messages where participants would be most receptive to receiving them. The final report was accompanied by a supplementary report to assist Local Authorities and NGOs to develop communications and campaigns.

An evidence review and survey of public attitudes and experiences of fly-tipping in Scotland found that while people perceived fly-tipping as unacceptable (particularly where the act was seen as premeditated, such as dumping waste in the countryside), other people were more accepting of fly-tipping in particular contexts. For example: where the public felt they were being charged for something they viewed should be a free service such as waste disposal at recycling centres or bulky uplifts. People and small businesses fly-tipping were found to be motivated by specific conditions relating to local waste services (i.e., convenience, charges), the local environment (how urban or rural the area is, levels of economic deprivation); and attitudes and knowledge of the HWDC.  ‘Organised’ offenders were found to be motivated by conditions relating to economic pressures; convenience; perception of peer behaviour; perception of risk of punishment; and attitudes and knowledge about the HWDC.

Many of these themes chime with research on the triggers and barriers that lead to fly-tipping in London. The study found residents lacked awareness of what constituted fly-tipping; certain types of fly-tipping were seen as more socially acceptable; fly-tipping was seen as low impact and as not having implications for the broader community; some of the methods used by Councils to collect waste were seen as unintentionally increasing fly-tipping (e.g. some residents were running out of room in their bins before collection day); there was a low perceived threat of enforcement; and people overall felt a lack of personal responsibility for their own waste. 

Who is responsible for cleaning up? In England, Local Authorities are responsible for investigating, clearing and taking appropriate enforcement action in relation to small scale fly-tipping on public land. The EA is responsible for dealing with larger-scale fly-tipping [i.e., more than a lorry load], hazardous waste and fly-tipping carried out by organised gangs.

On private land it is the responsibility of the landowner to remove the waste and dispose of it legally. Local Authorities and the EA each have legal powers to require landowners to clear fly-tipped waste – contained in Sections 59, 79 and 80 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990; Section 215 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990; and Section 108 of the Environment Act 1995. Local Authorities and the EA also have powers to enter the land and clear it and can seek reimbursement for their costs of doing so.  

How much of a problem is it in rural England? While the statistics provide information about the type, enforcement and costs resulting from fly-tipping; the data is not broken down according to the Rural Urban Classification or form part of the Statistical Digest of Rural England.

Back in July 2015, a House of Lords debate on tackling litter in urban and rural areas picked up on fly-tipping. Parliamentarians discussed the impact of fly-tipping on farming communities, the nocturnal frequency of incidents, the low conviction rates of fly-tippers, the cost of clearance and the need for tougher penalties (e.g. confiscation of vehicles used for fly-tipping). More recently, in April 2018, there was a debate in the House of Commons on reducing fly-tipping. This included discussions around: 

  • Local Authorities: Council charges for disposing of waste [and whether lowering charges leads to a reduction in local fly-tipping]; the reduced frequency of rubbish collections in some areas [and whether it is cost effective for Local Authorities to do offer more collections versus clearance costs]; and how authorities require more support and funding/resources for Government to tackle the problem.
  • Residents: the potential of setting up a voluntary scheme of accreditation for people to use – with those choosing not to use an accredited carrier being liable if their waste ever turns up somewhere it is not meant to be; and the need for more anti fly-tipping education.
  • Landowners: the unfairness around becoming responsible for somebody else’s crime and having to clean up; the prohibitive cost of insurance; and how landowners are trying to reduce the opportunity for fly-tipping (e.g. installing gates or physical barriers such as tree trunks or boulders). 
  • Fly-tippers/illegal dumpers: the need to capture and fine people who have fly-tipped – and take away their means to do it again (e.g. vehicles); whether to change the liability towards the people who produce the waste in the first place rather than lying with the landowner; and a need to review the evidence to look again at what is reasonable to enable a conviction. 

Results from the National Rural Crime Network (NRCN) 2018 Rural Crime Survey found fly-tipping and speeding dominated the list of concerns – with 57% of the 20,000 respondents seeing evidence of fly-tipping and 32% evidence of speeding in their communities in the last 12 months. Compared to the results of the 2015 survey, fly-tipping has risen by 6% and speeding reduced by 21%. While fly-tipping is not solely a policing issue – with responsibility shared with Local Authorities and the EA – respondents described how not enough was being done to tackle the issue. The 2018 survey revealed the average financial impact to a business owner was £1,000 per fly-tipping incident – with that cost falling to the owner alone – with 6 in 10 of businesses responding to the survey falling victim. The NRCN also highlighted the need to ensure that victims of fly-tipping are not left to pay the price of others’ actions.

In January 2019 the Woodland Trust revealed it had spent some £1 million clearing up fly-tipping from woodlands over the past five years. In 2018 alone there were some 1,290 separate incidents of which 998 occurred in English woodlands. Darren Moorcroft, director of estate and woodland outreach, described how: “reaching over £1 million spent in the last five years on clearing up mess in our woods is clearly not a milestone to celebrate…This money could have helped us plant many trees or protect woods that are in desperate need of help…Although not condoning people’s behaviour in dumping this mess, one contributing fact could be the closure of council refuse sites and extra charges placed on the likes of green bins, certainly when it comes to garden waste mess such as grass clippings.”

More recently, NFU Mutual’s 2018 Rural Crime Report reveals a trend of how what was once the odd mattress being left at a farm gate has grown into a whole business of bogus waste companies dumping lorry-loads of rubbish in farmers’ fields. The report describes how, on every scale, fly-tipping is a serious threat – to the health of grazing animals, to the environment, and especially to farmers who are often left to deal with the aftermath themselves.

What is being done to tackle the problem?  At a national level, and shortly after the Commons debate in April 2018, Defra hosted a roundtable which looked at the concerns of those living and working in rural areas and some potential solutions (e.g. a fly-tipping hotline so people have one place to report issues; extending the responsibility to other parties for removing fly-tipped waste on private land; increasing the severity of sentences).

In December 2018 the Government published a Resources and Waste Strategy for England. This includes proposals to reform the Packaging Waste Regulations to ensure producers fund the management of packaging at the end of its life (which may include fly-tipping); a streamlined system of recycling (so it is clearer for individuals and organisations to know the correct bin for disposing of items); reviewing charges and seeing whether to set minimum service standards for Household Waste Recycling Centres (e.g. that centres/services are accessible and delivering value-for-money). The strategy further recommended that Government work with the Judicial Office, magistrates and the Sentencing Council so fines are higher and crimes attract prison sentences. Defra has also committed to developing a ‘fly-tipping toolkit’, a web-based tool hosted by the National Fly-tipping Prevention Group (NFTPG) to help tackle the issue. The toolkit will cover:

  • How local authorities can set up and run an effective fly-tipping partnership.
  • How to use new technology to report fly-tipping.
  • Examples of existing good practice to prevent fly-tipping.
  • How to deal with fly-tipping associated with unauthorised encampments.
  • How to best share intelligence within a partnership and with other partnerships.
  • How to present robust cases to the courts to ensure tougher penalties.
  • How to best promote the duty of care for individuals and businesses.

The toolkit will build upon the ‘national framework for England for tackling fly-tipping through local partnerships.’ Published in 2014 this contains principals, options for action, best practice and case studies that can be used by local partnerships to tackle fly-tipping in a local area. 

At a local level, tackling fly-tipping and waste crime is a key priority at many Local Authorities. Successful approaches include Hertfordshire Council’s ‘let’s SCRAP fly tipping’ platform. This is a one-stop portal for residents to report fly-tipping and check the waste carrier register. The website describes what fly-tipping is, how to prevent it, what else you can do with household waste and how businesses can dispose of waste correctly. The WasteAware Hertfordshire Partnership brings together 11 Councils to take a common approach to tackling fly-tipping and sharing intelligence. Work streams funded by both Hertfordshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner and a number of authorities (e.g. investing in mobile enforcement cameras and CCTV cameras; the roll-out of communications campaigns; and introducing bin sensors) led to a 17.9% reduction in recorded fly-tipping incidents (some 2,731 incidents) in 2017-2018 compared to 2016-2017. In addition to providing residents and business with information online, Buckinghamshire County Council has published a dedicated enforcement policy in respect of fly-tipping and ancillary offences. A consistent policy of ‘Zero Tolerance’ against fly-tipping has applied in Buckinghamshire for over ten years and robust enforcement is pursued. For example, in the last three years (2015-2018) 182 fly-tipping cases have been prosecuted – resulting in total fines and costs imposed at court of £315,000. Operation flyswat is a multi-agency initiative to tackle fly-tipping in Boston. The initiative, which uses manpower from an open prison located on the Lincolnshire marshes, initially covered the area administered by Boston Borough Council but now covers the local authority area of neighbouring South Holland District Council.

From a business perspective, the Environmental Services Association (ESA) has created the ‘right waste right place’ campaign. In highlighting research which indicates 90% of organisations breaking the law are SMEs [with 0-50 employees], often because they do not know what they need to do to comply with the HWDC obligations; the website is intended to help organisations put the right waste in the right place, so as to comply with the minimum of fuss. The information is designed to be practical and useful and includes simple ‘need to know’ cards on common items discarded as waste, giving at a glance advice on how to dispose of them.

For the public, the EA has a register of waste carers that you can check through their registration number or business name. The ClearWaste website and app provides a link to every Local Authority in England so that the location of a fly-tipping incident can be instantly sent to the right Council along with the details and photographs. A businessman, Martin Montague, came up with the idea and has spent £250,000 of his own money to launch the free service – which includes a social media ad starring John Challis (who played Boycie in Only Fools and Horses), Emily Head (The Inbetweeners) and Frankie Oatway (Discovery series ‘Strippers: For Cash’). Mr Montague describes how “there’s no need to go to council websites and find the right place to report it to or phone a helpline and sit waiting in a queue for your call to be answered. You don’t even need to know where you are as you can use your location settings on your phone to do that automatically if you want to. The app also aims to boost recycling rates by linking consumers who have waste items with those who can use them.”  

The House of Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy’s ‘time for a rural strategy’ report published in April 2019 states that fly-tipping was raised by several witnesses as a challenge in rural areas. While new Government initiatives (e.g. the serious and organised waste crime review in November 2018 and new financial penalties introduced in January 2019) were welcomed by the Committee; two issues raised by witnesses concerning (i) how existing laws and penalties were not being applied and (ii) that the cost of clean-up for rubbish dumped on private property falls to the land owner, were not seen as being fully addressed. The report calls for new measures to be introduced to ensure that landowners do not have to pay for the cost of the clean-up of rubbish that is dumped on their land.

In a rural context, there have been some campaigns and initiatives to raise awareness of the extent and costs of fly-tipping. The CLA, for example, has developed a fly-tipping action plan and the NFU is collating data on the extent of fly-tipping on farmland. 

Taken as a collective these initiatives highlight the importance of:

  • Partnership approaches at a local level – within a national policy context.
  • Awareness raising – providing accessible platforms and means for the public and businesses to find out more about fly-tipping, how to notify their Local Authority of an incident and/or how to find and use a registered waste carrier.
  • Enforcement and penalties on fly-tippers/illegal waste dumpers – recognising the seriousness of the crime within current sentencing and looking at other options such as seizing vehicles used to fly-tip. Analysis by the Local Government Association reveals that no-one convicted of fly-tipping since the Government introduced guidelines in 2014 has received the maximum £50,000 fine or 12 months in prison by the courts.
  • Ensuring Local Authorities and partners have the funding and resources needed to deter and prevent fly-tipping.

There is no single, simple or one-size-fits-all solution to prevent or reduce fly-tipping. What works in some places may not necessarily work in others. For me, this means improving the data we have about where, how and when rural incidents are occurring and how these incidents are being reported. This mapping could be overlaid with information about what local waste infrastructure is in place and the characteristics of the local community and economy. It also means understanding how much clearance costs – to Local Authorities, the EA and individual landowners, through the development of updated unit costs – and looking at how these clearance costs vary according to type of incident and type of rural area. This could then be used to design interventions to prevent and reduce fly-tipping – with Local Authorities, the EA, landowners, communities, businesses, the police and courts working together.  It would also be useful to better understand what works and share lessons and practice with others – which interventions work well in rural areas that could be replicated, scaled up and delivered elsewhere? How much do the most successful interventions cost and who/how can this be funded? For if we better understand the scale, nature, frequency, causes, impact and costs of fly-tipping on the countryside then we will be better able to look at what more can be done to tackle it.


Jessica is also a researcher/project manager at Rose Regeneration. Her current work includes evaluating two veteran support projects (in Cornwall and North Yorkshire); supporting public sector bodies to measure social value; and evaluating a series of community safety and crime reduction projects. She is also a senior research fellow at The National Centre for Rural Health and Care (NCRHC). In her spare time Jessica sits on the board of a housing association.
She can be contacted by email jessica.sellick@roseregeneration.co.uk, Telephone 01522 521211, Website -  http://roseregeneration.co.uk , Blog - http://ruralwords.co.uk, Twitter - @RoseRegen

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