Will “Dodgy Waste” be the next big scandal in light touch regulation Britain?

Any of these sites in Devon? – Owl

Filthy business: who will stop Britain’s illegal waste-dumping mafia? 

George Monbiot www.theguardian.com

They made millions from it. They threatened our health and poisoned the land. Among the filth they buried were industrial quantities of syringes, bloody bandages, oily waste from scrapped cars, shredded plastic and asbestos. Fleets of lorries travelled from as far afield as Birmingham to drop their loads at the sites the two men ran in south Wales, to avoid paying landfill tax. Yet these men, though responsible for one of the biggest illegal dumping crimes ever prosecuted, suffered nothing worse last week than suspended sentences, community service and fines and confiscation orders that together amount to around a tenth of the money they are known to have made.

Over the past few months, we have begun to notice the scarcely regulated pollution of our rivers and seas. But hardly anyone is aware of what’s been happening to the land. If anything, it’s even worse. The illegal dumping of waste, much of it hazardous, most of it persistent, is now a massive crisis in the UK, caused by shocking failures of government. Large areas of land and crucial groundwater sources are being contaminated by illegal tipping, and barely anyone in power seems to give a damn.

The disposal of waste in this country relies to a large extent on self-regulation. It’s up to you to check that the person to whom you hand your waste is a registered and responsible carrier. But a study into fly-tipping and unregistered waste carriers in England by Ray Purdy at Oxford University’s law faculty and Mat Crocker, the former deputy director of waste at the Environment Agency, shows that checking is nigh on impossible. Hundreds of different businesses use identical names on the Environment Agency’s official register, which often bear no relation to the names under which they advertise or trade. Many provide false names and false locations, including abandoned buildings, sports venues and, in one case, a Premier Inn. Technical glitches, unfixed after five years, ensure the site is scarcely functional.

Astonishingly, Purdy and Crocker discovered that the Environment Agency had no data for online traffic, and no research into how many people were aware of the register’s existence. There is no facility on the register to report businesses working illegally. Across the past three years, though 140,000 businesses have applied to be listed as waste handlers, the Environment Agency has refused only 19. Despite widespread evidence of fraud and several prosecutions, it subsequently revoked just two registrations. The frequent spelling mistakes in company names and addresses suggest that not even the most basic checks have been conducted.

But this is the least of it. Purdy and Crocker’s research shows that most businesses don’t appear on the list at all. Of the thousands of waste disposers they sampled, they discovered that almost two-thirds were not registered, and therefore operating unlawfully. All together, they estimate, there are over a quarter of a million unregistered waste handlers in England.

Investigating adverts placed by people offering to remove your rubbish, Purdy and Crocker reported that many of those who appeared to be sole traders (“man and van”) in fact belonged to organised networks. Of 10,426 ads on Gumtree they followed, they found that over 4,000 had been bought by just two organisations, which together spend about £300,000 a year advertising on the platform. Yet these ads claim to be promoting small local businesses. Each of the vans in a network, the researchers estimate, could allow the organisation to evade £132,000 of taxes. The return on investment for a company running 100 fake sole traders, they reckon, is somewhere between 40 to 1 and 80 to 1. Here, as in Italy, it seems we have a waste mafia. But unlike the Italian mafia, ours seldom needs to resort to intimidation or violence, because no one stands in its way. All together, the report suggests, between 1m and 6m tonnes of waste in England are handled outside the lawful system every year. Illegally dumped waste contaminates the soil, the water and – when it is deliberately burned or spontaneously combusts – the air with a vast range of toxins, most of which are likely to be unmonitored and unrecorded. The more hazardous the waste, the greater the incentive to cut corners.

We have no idea what the impact on our health and that of the rest of the living world might be, or what the results of this staggering regulatory failure would cost to clean up. During a rare prosecution in 2019, a court was told that a large illegal waste dump in a quarry close to Chew Valley Lake in Somerset might end up costing us as much as £9bn in remediation, if the contaminants leach into the water supplying Bristol and other settlements.

Rusting drums photographed at an illegal dump in Pirbright, Surrey, beside a string of nature reserves, are suspected to contain extremely toxic polychlorinated biphenyls. An unidentified yellow substance has been reported leaking from the site into local streams. If some of this sludge emanates from the barrels, the possible consequences are scarcely calculable. According to the ENDS Report, local campaigners claim that Surrey county council and the Environment Agency have known the identity of the people using this site since 2009, but have failed to take legal action against them.

On the rare occasions when the Environment Agency, or its equivalents elsewhere in the UK, can find the money for a pair of wellington boots and a hi-vis jacket and send someone out to check, they tend to offer repeated warnings before taking action. Even then, the most common punishment is a fixed penalty notice. If a case gets to court, people who might have made a fortune from their illegal activities are fined a few hundred pounds. In a recent prosecution, a man was found to have run an illegal dump that contained over 600 tonnes of waste, and evidence was presented that he had been burning hazardous materials. He was fined £840. The Environment Agency announced, “We hope this case will send a clear message”. It will, but not the one it intends.

It’s a familiar story: of almost total regulatory collapse. The failure of the Environment Agency’s waste register looks similar to the farce of company registration, devastatingly exposed by Oliver Bullough. This story reminds me both of the catastrophic failure to protect elderly and vulnerable people against fraud and of the dumping of raw sewage and farm manure into our rivers and seas.

All these failures are inevitable outcomes of 40 years of “cutting red tape”, of slashing the budgets of regulatory agencies, of outsourcing and self-reporting. We were promised freedom. But the people our governments have set free are criminals. Yet another filthy business is cleaning up.

One rule for us, “no rules” for the Prime Minister 

Boris Johnson ‘failed to wear a mask’ at Macbeth performance

Boris Johnson ‘broke Covid rules by failing to wear a mask’ as he watched theatre performance of Macbeth after week of Tory drama

  • Boris Johnson was apparently spotted maskless watching Macbeth at theatre
  • The PM has been accused of breaching Covid rules at the Almeida in London
  • Mr Johnson’s press secretary insisted that he follows coronavirus rules 


The Conservatives have a problem: their supporters come from different worlds

Who are Conservatives these days? – Owl

Whenever the government faces criticism, one of the first questions commentators ask is whether the latest fiasco will have cut through in the “red wall”. While the red wall does indeed represent one substantial and important element in the Conservative coalition, this focus understates the problem the party faces, by suggesting there is just one restive set of seats they need to keep onside.

Robert Ford www.theguardian.com 

In fact, the Tory coalition incorporates a number of different battlegrounds, with vastly different needs. This makes the government’s task far harder – pleasing the red wall often means provoking anger in other equally important areas.

We can divide Conservative seats into groups based on their electoral context: is the seat marginal? How long has it been marginal? Does it lean towards leave or remain? Who is the local opponent? If we define the red wall seats as newly competitive constituencies with Labour as the local opponent in leave-voting areas, then there are about 70 of these spread across England and Wales.

Traditional swing seats might get less attention but they are just as numerous and count the same towards the outcome. There are at least 50 seats in this category, market towns and “swingy” suburbs whose mixed demographics reflect the nation, and where party control has shifted over many cycles on the ebb and flow of national opinion. They will be as competitive as ever next time.

The Brexit realignment that turned the red wall blue has also had implications elsewhere. There are now about two dozen Conservative seats in remain areas facing a credible Labour challenge, and another 30 also in largely remain areas where the Conservatives need to fend off resurgent Liberal Democrats. This “remain wall” includes many former safe seats where the Tory majority has been slashed since Brexit.

Lost seats in the traditional swing areas are a certainty if the government’s popularity falls. But if these are combined with substantial losses on either of the new fronts, the Conservative majority is immediately at risk. The government therefore cannot afford to alienate either the red wall or the remain wall.

But these seats are poles apart. The red wall is clustered in the Midlands and the north; the remain wall in the south. Red wall seats are working class and graduate light; remain wall seats are middle class and graduate heavy. Red wall seats have low house prices and more voters in council housing; remain wall seats have expensive housing and high home ownership rates.

This divide in outlook and priorities stretches beyond the electoral battleground: many of the 200 or so (currently) safe Conservative seats resemble one of the new battlegrounds, and their MPs will often align with less secure colleagues.

The two new fronts the Conservatives must defend are different worlds, at odds over the government’s domestic policy agenda. Ambitious levelling up investment is what red wall voters want to see; remain wall voters fear higher tax bills will follow. Masses of new, affordable homes are a dream for red wall renters, but a nightmare for remain wall homeowners, for whom the nimby instinct runs deep.

Even the fate of Boris Johnson himself splits the battlegrounds: the prime minister’s distinctive appeal in the red wall would be hard to replace, but Tories in the remain wall would breathe easier with a more traditional figure in charge.

It is no wonder the MPs in these two new battlegrounds object so regularly and loudly to their own government. Their job is to represent their constituents’ interests, and they are emboldened by the knowledge that their leader regularly reverses course under pressure. Johnson has no hope of pleasing MPs on both fronts, yet his constant caving to rebellions brings its own risks, intensifying the perception of a chaotic and rudderless government. Nor can the Conservatives avoid fights by sitting on their hands – the impatient red wall voters, promised “levelling up” and “unleashing Britain’s potential”, have low trust in politics, no inherent love for the Conservative party, and will not accept second best.

Having raised hopes of radical domestic reform, the Conservatives now face a difficult choice: plough ahead and risk defeat on one front, or back off and risk a beating on another. Getting Brexit done, it turns out, was the easy part.

  • Dr Robert Ford is professor of political science at the University of Manchester and co-author of The British General Election of 2019

Hotel ditched as plans to redevelop Exeter Harlequins shopping centre are approved

Harlequin centre: “an unattractive, modern ‘American’ style mall of 32 shops, that is also a carpark. It forms one side of the canyon that is the sad fate of Paul Street. Designed by Bruges Tozer of Bristol at a total cost of £6 million in 1987.”

Creates 380+ “bed spaces for co-living” accommodation, twenty per cent of the units will be classed as ‘affordable’, with priority given to key workers.

As one councillor said “This development doesn’t provide extra homes, it provides accommodation for single people only.”

Looks like more student accommodation to Owl.


Revised plans to redevelop the Harlequins shopping centre in Exeter – minus a previously-agreed hotel – have been given the go-ahead.

City councillors approved altered proposals for ‘co-living’ accommodation at the Paul street site by ten votes to two at their November meeting, writes Local Democracy Reporter Ollie Heptinstall.

Original blueprints for a total of 251 bed-spaces, as well as a 116-room hotel with bar and restaurant, were backed in October last year.

But developer Curlew submitted a new application saying that Covid had caused ‘significant changes to the economy’.

The revised scheme replaced the hotel with a second co-living block – increasing the scheme’s total number of beds by 132.

Passivhaus-standard energy-efficient accommodation will be made up of self-contained studio apartments with ‘kitchenettes’ along with ‘cluster flats’ that will share amenities.

Twenty per cent of the units will be classed as ‘affordable’, with priority given to key workers.

Applicant Chris Dadds said the units would be restricted to single occupancy only and that minimum terms would be for three months.

The development will be car-free except for two disabled spaces and two electric vehicle spaces, with 280 cycle bays will be provided.

A ‘pocket park’ will be created, along with improvements around Paul Street for pedestrians and cyclists, along with a replacement pedestrian bridge.

Both blocks will operate jointly, with one management team, and residents will have access to amenities including lounges, cinemas, a gym, separate yoga studio and spa suite, laundry, co-working area and a games zone.

Exeter City Council leader Phil Bialyk backed the scheme before citing former United States President Franklin D Roosevelt and saying: “The only fear we have is fear itself – that’s all we’ve got to be frightened of here.

“Come on guys, look at what it’s doing for our housing supply….the availability of housing for people in Exeter.

He added: “I think it’s time that that place [Harlequins] was regenerated in this way.

“We have firm commitments that we do not want to build on the hills and the surrounding green land around this city, and so therefore we have to redevelop brownfield sites. We have to – in effect – go up if we are to defend those.

“It’s make your mind up time on which direction we go, and I think we should be going in this direction.”

Cllr Ruth Williams said: “For me, the additional 132 bed space is really important.

“We have 2,200 people on Devon Home Choice [waiting list for housing], so this makes a significant difference to addressing the shortage of accommodation in Exeter.”

However, Cllr Diana Moore voted the bid, expressing concern over the ‘unclear’ proposed rental value of the units and restrictions on who could live there.

She said: “This development doesn’t provide extra homes, it provides accommodation for single people only.”

Cllr Rob Hannaford voted in favour, but admitted there was some uncertainty. He said: “I think we are looking at a bit of an experiment here and some unknowns in terms of how it’s going to work and what the market is…but I hope that it will deliver what we want in terms of key workers and affordable housing.”

He added: “If, once it’s built, a lot of these units go to students rather than key workers, then we’ll see what public opinion says at the time, but let’s hope it does what it says on the tin and we wish it well.”