Richard North, 05/01/2020  

Once we finally leave the European Union and clear the transition period, the focus will undoubtedly turn to securing the so-called Brexit dividend, as promised by our beloved leader, the sainted Johnson of Mustique.

Those looking for a quick fix need look no further than the cause of the current epidemic of fly-tipping affecting this nation – none other than Directive (EU) 2018/851 amending Directive 2008/98/EC on waste, and its previous iterations. If Johnson is intent on repealing EU law, this is the place to start, delivering an early and tangible benefit from leaving the EU.

Sadly, so divorced is the media from making any rational analysis that even the rabid Daily Express, famed for its anti-EU rhetoric, is missing the point. Along with most others, it is falling for the rhetoric of the Local Government Association which is calling for "tougher penalties" to curb this modern menace.

Even Johnson's fanboys in the Sunday Telegraph have missed a trick. Recruiting former BBC Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman to have a bitch about the government "incentivising" fly tipping by allowing councils to charge for waste disposal, it fails completely to get to the root cause of the problem.

Instead, it has Paxman – of cucumber fame - whingeing that waste charges mean that "your local cowboy builder prefers to chuck the skirting boards, old loos, and broken winders he's torn out of your house on a cash-in-hand job, instead of paying the charge which would be levied at the local dump".

Complaining that the Environment Agency managed to prosecute one solitary fly-tipper in the whole of last year (although this is primarily a local authority function), he suggests that instead of spending millions cleaning up after fly-tippers, the government stops incentivising them to dump their rubbish by making it free to use waste disposal centres, and funds local councils properly so they can provide this service.

As always with our sanctimonious media and our ignorant commentariat, in multiple media reports, national and local, there is not a single mention of the real cause of the problem which has increased by more than half over the last six years.

It is not as if this problem is new, or that there has been a failure to predict that it was going to get worse. Back in 2007, the same Sunday Telegraph was on the case, retailing that environmental crime officials had warned about a rise in organised crime gangs which were profiting from collecting household and business waste before dumping it illegally.

At the time, gangs were setting up "front" companies to collect waste before leaving it in unauthorised landfill sites, littering the countryside, or sending it abroad. And back then, twelve years ago, officials were expressing fears that "the introduction of fortnightly rubbish collections, complicated recycling schemes and charges for waste collection" would "increase the unlawful dumping by the bogus companies".

Even then, though, this supposedly Eurosceptic newspaper framed the problem in terms of the government's "new waste strategy", with "plans to overhaul the country's rubbish collection and recycling schemes proposed by David Miliband, the Environment Secretary", omitting to state that the government was then preparing for Directive 2008/98/EC on waste. Since 1975, and increasingly so, the national waste strategy has been subordinate to EU policy, implemented by successive EU laws.

The centrepiece of the EU policy rests on disincentivising the disposal of waste and encouraging recycling and (latterly) re-use. Within that, it has set up what is known as the "waste hierarchy". When it comes to disposal options, the emphasis is on incineration and the reduction of landfill, with the eventual intention of banning landfill altogether.

As far as costs go, waste disposal has been hit by a double whammy which has escalated costs to quite extraordinary proportions. The first is the substitution of the cheapest form of disposal (landfill) with incineration, which is the most expensive.

Back in 2006, I was writing about this, citing Peter Jones, a director of the waste disposal firm Biffa. "Instead of chucking 75 percent of everything we have finished with down a hole for about £12 a ton, within a few years very little will be landfilled and that will cost two or three times what it costs now," he said. "We expect it to cost Britain £5-8 billion to deliver an 80 percent diversion from landfill. Everyone is in for a rude shock".

And "rude shock" there was, but that was only one element. In October 1996, specifically to "encourage" implementation of EU law, the government introduced a "landfill tax", imposed on "municipal waste" collected by councils, and other waste, which was disposed of in landfill.

In 1996, the tax started off at £7 per tonne, by 2008 it had escalated to £32 and currently, it stands at £91.35 per tonne. On 1 April, it increases to £94.15. Unsurprisingly, it is not only "your local cowboy builder" who is out of pocket. Reputable traders are finding it more and more difficult to come in with competitive quotes, when householders – unaware of escalating costs of waste disposal – are unwilling to pay the extra fees.

But this is only the start of the problem. Trade waste is mostly excluded from the amenity and recycling sites set up for domestic council tax payers. As the number of authorised landfill sites shrinks, traders are finding they are having to make journeys of 20-30 miles (or more) to dispose of their waste.

Small wonder that, as costs have escalated and inconveniences multiplied, organised crime has moved in, finding waste "disposal" in some cases proving more lucrative than the illicit drug business.

A favourite tactic is to take out a short-term lease on a warehouse or farmers' land, dump the waste and then disappear, leaving the owner with the responsibility (and cost) of arranging legal disposal. This is a growing problem, with clean-up costs in excess of £200,000 a site. Furthermore, it is a Europe-wide issue, and not just confined to the UK.

On the other hand, the costs of enforcement and other disutilities might just be tolerable if the EU policy was actually working. But, by introducing what amounts to a producer-led policy on recycling, the price of most recycled materials has fallen so much that many schemes are no longer economic.

Instead of recycling, we are seeing the export of municipal and other waste, in enormous quantities, to third world countries. Ostensibly for recycling, much of this material ends up in landfill, or is dumped in rivers or the sea, causing massive environmental damage.

At the heart of this, though, is an almost evangelical hatred of landfill, despite its cheapness and its major role in reclaiming spent quarries and other land. Perhaps if landfill had been renamed "land recycling", we wouldn't have had such a problem.

However, if the media reporting on the current fly-tipping epidemic are not even properly (or at all) identifying the root cause, it is hard to see how there will be much pressure to repeal EU-originated law. But, to deal with this scourge, Brexit has presented us with an opportunity, if we care to use it. Then we can dump the landfill tax, reopen the landfill sites and slash the costs of disposal.

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