Fly-tipping is continuing to drop in Somerset, a welcome trend that looks set to continue as local councils step up coordinated action and a meeting today debates expanding the opening hours of the county's busiest recycling sites.
Action against this antisocial crime has come from a new liaison group of council officers tackling fly-tipping – enforcement, legal, communications – in Somerset's five districts, Exmoor National Park, areas of outstanding beauty and the police, Environment Agency and Somerset Waste Partnership (SWP).
This aims to ensure a uniformly high county-wide response, from discovery to legal action, and Somerset County Council support has enabled investment in new resources, including training and extra surveillance equipment. To deter fly-tipping, the group has produced new warning notices, press advertising and leaflets, while also developing harmonised legal procedures.
As everywhere in Britain, Somerset has long suffered from fly-tipping, with careless individuals and organised criminals ripping off us all by leaving council tax payers to foot the clear-up bill. As well as being a health risk, wildlife hazard, countryside blight, pollution source and crime, fly-tipping hampers legitimate waste firms when unscrupulous operators undercut those who follow the rules.
One new Somerset approach has been to help residents and businesses not just deter fly-tipping but also fulfil their waste duty of care, even after it leaves their premises, and save themselves a possible fine of up to £5,000, simply by refusing to use unscrupulous waste carriers without the right licence.
In a move to curb the fly-tipping "supply", consumers and companies are urged to insist on seeing the correct waste carrier licence before paying any traders or man-and-van operators to remove their waste, including rubbish from gardening, carpet laying and building work of any kind.
Anyone can also check to see if a business is registered to carry waste with the Environment Agency by phoning 03708 506 506 or going online; click on "search the public registers" at www.environment-agency.gov.uk/research/library/publicregisters/default.aspx.
Next month, duty of care is key to a court case in which a Somerset defendant is accused of not checking that the person they paid to take rubbish away – later found dumped – had a waste carrier licence. Last month, a simpler case of dumped rubbish saw a fine and costs totalling £397.
At the same time, apologists for fly-tippers excuse their criminality and greed on the grounds that Somerset Waste Partnership reluctantly took tough decisions in 2011 to meet a county council reduction of £1.9 million a year in its contribution to SWP's budget, which maintains a better recycling sites network per household than almost any other county. Recycling site opening times were cut back, charges began for non-household materials and £2 entry fees were introduced at four redesignated Community Recycling Sites.
Incidents increased in the first year after the changes but dropped in 2012/13 and have continued to fall through this year.
At a meeting today, in a move that promises to reduce fly-tipping still further, I hope to see the hours of Somerset's busiest recycling sites expanded with seven-day opening. Regrettably, continued funding pressure could bring the first steps to close underused sites in Coleford and Middlezoy from next April. Some suggest that those visitors who may not be able to use the Coleford and Middlezoy sites in future will become fly-tippers, surely improbable for such committed recyclers, willing to pay today's £2 entry fee. It seems far more likely they will use the next most convenient site, ideally while travelling for other reasons and – as many people already do to save time and money – go less often, taking more each trip.
Meanwhile, we must continue to drive down fly-tipping. To stop criminals sullying our beautiful county and sending us the clear-up bill, everyone in Somerset should be on alert, reporting fly-tippers to their district council while taking care to stay safe, and being willing to give evidence against them.
For the county's liaison group, its next step will be a formal agreement with the police that is expected to help councils identify, arrest and convict more fly-tippers. And the growing flow of warning letters, fixed penalty notices and prosecutions of fly-tippers is proving effective; a quick check with enforcement officers suggests that, so far, Somerset's councils have never had to deal with the same offender twice.
Councillor Derek Yeomans is chairman of Somerset Waste Board, which oversees the work of Somerset Waste Partnership in managing waste and recycling services on behalf of all local authorities in Somerset. How to fight fly-tipping: www.somersetwaste.gov.uk/more/fight-fly-tipping.