HL Deb 23 January 1964 vol 254 cc1062-76

4.53 p.m.

LORD HAWKE rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware that an increasing quantity of unwanted bedding, furniture, motor cars, et cetera, is being dumped on the verges of country roads near large towns, for instance near Crawley New Town, and whether they are satisfied that the local authorities' refuse collection systems are adequate to discourage this nuisance. The noble Lord said: My Lords, in assessing the dimensions of the problem with which my Question deals, one is obviously dependent to a large extent on personal observation and inquiry. For that reason, though I have worded my Question to cover the whole country, by mentioning a locality I have narrowed it down for the benefit of my noble friend who is to reply so that he may have some idea about which particular locality I was mainly thinking.

In this Question I emphasise that I am not concerned with the smaller items of rubbish. I am not concerned with beer bottles, cigarette cartons and the like, but entirely with the larger impedimenta, such as furniture, mattresses, bedding, and so on. Later I hope to deal with motor cars, but at this point in my speech I will leave them out. I deal with such a situation as walking round the Sussex lanes the other day, peering over the hedge of my friend and, at the bottom of a deep gully, seeing two perfectly good armchairs. I called his attention to them and he had some engineering difficulty in extracting them from this situation, the ultimate choice being to take tins of petrol and burn them up, and ultimately to clear up the springs as well. But that is happening everywhere. This sort of stuff is put by the roadside, it is popped over the hedges anywhere where there is woodland, and common land is particularly bad. I would emphasise that in the course of my remarks I have no criticism whatsoever of the valiant attempts by the local authority officials in attempting to deal with the situation. If there is any criticism of local authorities to be read into my remarks, it is a criticism or a questioning as to whether they have their policy right.

Who are these people who do the dumping? First of all, in this particular locality there was a considerable band of gypsies who, strangely enough, held their nice bit of freehold land in the forest, since when I understand the freehold has been bought from them. That is a special case, shall we say. Then it is believed that the junk dealers are culprits. I use the words "junk dealers" because I want to cover all sorts, not only the rag and bone men, but the people who deal in metal scrap, and so on. Then, too, there are the shops, factories and tradesmen. Shops and factories are not believed to be guilty very often, but the tradesmen are, particularly the small tradesmen in the building industry. Lastly, there are householders, and they are an unknown quantity.

Why do all these people do this? First of all, the gypsies. They act as junk dealers, and after having extracted every form of value out of the material they collect they are left with the residue and they have to get rid of that somehow. Then there are the junk dealers themselves, who are in precisely the same situation. Judging by the rather low frequency of their visits at the moment as compared with a few years ago, one is inclined to believe that the prices of a great deal of their material must be pretty low and, therefore, it is highly probable that they have rather a larger residue at the moment than they had some time ago. Why they do this, of course, is to save themselves trouble and to avoid charges by the local authority for disposal.

Then there are the tradesmen, who are believed to be generally people like small builders who occasionally have odd lots of old wash basins, paint tins and the like to get rid of. Here again. they dump to avoid charges. It is not quite certain to what extent householders do it, but if they do it it is probably to avoid the long wait they may have before they can arrange for a special collection by the local authorities.

Now what is the law? Under Section 1 of the Litter Act, 1958, it is illegal to deposit litter in any place in the open air to which the public have access. That would, of course, cover all the roadsides, and the local authority can prosecute anybody for depositing it there. But one local authority I know firmly believes that it has no chance of succeeding in a prosecution unless the prosecution is undertaken on the evidence of a police officer, a special constable, or a litter warden sworn in as a special constable, and that he has to catch the person actually in the act. There is the Public Health Act, 1961. Section 34 of this allows the local authority to remove litter from vacant sites in built-up areas. That covers towns to a great extent. Then, again, there is the Town and Country Planning Act, 1961, Section 36, which is in respect of gardens, vacant sites and other open land, and it allows the local authority to serve notices on the owner to clear them up. The roadside is covered by the Litter Act and, as I understand it, the local authority is ultimately bound to clear up the roadside.

What are the local authorities doing? First of all, there is their general refuse collection, about which we all know, which is free and efficient but very often not as frequent as people would like. Secondly, there is a special collection to be organised by arrangement, for householders who have some large article to get rid of. But in the smaller authorities, at any rate—and I must emphasise that there always tends to be a labour difficulty in this matter—it has to be fitted in with the ordinary rounds of the general refuse collection, and it can take up to one month before the special collection can be arranged. To householders this is free of charge.

Also, special points of receipt are appointed. They may be the council tip or a sewage works, but sometimes an authority from a surveyor is required by anybody arriving at these places with junk before the guardian of the tip or deposit or sewage works is willing to accept the load. These things are arranged for traders, too, but on charges; and sometimes at certain factories, shops, and so on, large quantities are taken direct to the tips by arrangement, perhaps by the transport of the tradesmen. One can say, generally speaking, that the large and reputable people pay their charges for the regular clearing arrangements. It is the small people with occasional loads of junk who are tempted to dump it.

Then there is the question of clearing up the countryside. From time to time the local authorities send out special lorries to clear up the roadside, and indeed they do not mind going over the hedge on to private land if necessary. But, of course, all this means double handling, because not only has somebody driven the stuff out into the country to dump it, but then the local authority has to drive out into the country to pick it up again—which is not very economic. In all this there is not much inducement to the cantankerous sort of individual to keep the law, especially when it is so easy to break it with absolutely no chance of being caught.

Is all this enough and, if not, why not? If we are to rely on the law, I think it is really quite useless because these are the types of law which Parliament loves passing, but, short of a Police State in which the police force was increased tenfold, the chances of being caught are very slim. Dumping on a dark night is a perfectly safe procedure for anybody and, in fact, the country is kept free only by voluntary compliance with an unenforceable law: in other words, by public spirit, on the one side, and by the fact that it may be convenient for the public to do what we want and what the law says. The vast majority of people obviously have public spirit and they are clean and tidy by nature. But it is the rest with whom we are concerned, and the rest are quite sufficient in numbers to foul the whole of England in no time if they are given half a chance. For these people, when it is easier to dump than to comply with the law, they dump.

Just consider what compliance means. It means that they have to arrange for collection, and pay if they are a trader or wait if they are a private householder; or, alternatively, they have to take the rubbish to a deposit and go through the channels of getting an authority to get the deposit to accept their load. Then if they are a trader they have to pay, though a householder will get the acceptance free. What is the small trader going to think about this? His rates have gone up enormously and he will think, if he has an occasional load of stuff to dump, why on earth should he have to pay. He is paying enough, in all conscience, to the local authorities, so why, particularly if he supplies his own transport, should he have to pay for an occasional load?

The scrap dealers in particular ought to be able to hand some of their unsaleable residue to the local authority to dispose of, possibly without payment, but with the minimum of formality. One must not forget that the scrap dealers have already saved the local authorities a great deal of time and money in collecting the stuff. If they did not take it from the householder the local authority would have to do so instead. The local authority will not like the idea of taking the trade waste free, but, if they do not, some will find its way on to the countryside and they will have to send out lorries to collect it. At least, the other way, it should come to them. When I say "free", I do not refer to the people who have large and regular loads to take away, but am referring to the man who has the odd load and who, just because he is called a trader, has to pay, although if he were a householder he would not.

Finally, my Lords, I come to the special problem of the old motor car. This problem is getting worse and looks like getting still worse. Some of your Lordships may have seen a picture in the Observer last Sunday of a beautiful orchard in Wrotham, in the Garden of England, which is just one mass of old motor cars. The owners abandon them. Scrap dealers sometimes buy them, take out the useful parts and then abandon the rest. They are expensive to get rid of and, moreover, the price of getting rid of them fluctuates with the scrap price. I suspect that at the moment it is rather low.

Of course, the removal of these is the expense of the local authority, as is the removal of everything else. On the other hand, the county council are the people who have had the licence fees, so why should we not make the county council run a county-wide service for the removal of old motor cars in consideration of the fact that they have had the licence fees all these years? Let them provide the funeral expenses, because it takes a big authority to run vehicles of the necessary size. After all, such a vehicle has to have something like a crane to hoist the old car on to the back, and the ordinary occasional lorry from the local council finds difficulty in handling these things. A county council service with a few vehicles and a central breaking-up yard seems to be a good idea. I know that some local authorities are thinking on those lines. At any rate, this is an increasing problem that requires solution.

I do not know what the Minister will say; and of course I have no right of reply. I hope that he will not rely on the unenforceable law, and that he will not express complacency with the existing arrangements, which must be inadequate, otherwise there would not be any dumping. Perhaps he will suggest improved services plus publicity, and it is true that many people do not know what steps they can take to have a load removed. It is not of course, a Government responsibility; it is a local authority responsibility. But the trouble is that the waste products of one local authority become the burden of the next local authority, so that the more inefficient the one is, the greater the burden placed on the other. To that extent Her Majesty's Government have some sort or moral responsibility to encourage a universal standard of excellence and to inspire any innovation to deal with this great problem of the discarded motor cars, and all the rest. We all hope that Her Majesty's Government will have some positive ideas on ways in which to give a lead to the local authorities on this increasingly difficult problem.


My Lords, before the noble Lord concludes this fascinating account of his researches into this matter, may I ask him now, as he has no right of reply, whether he discovered what remedy the owner of a piece of land has if he finds a large quantity of junk thrown over his hedge in the night? Can he call on the local authority to move it, or what can he do?


My Lords, I have not myself looked up the law on this particular matter. I can only cite the law as told me by the gentleman concerned with the two armchairs. He was in the fortunate position of being able to find tucked inside some addressed envelopes, whereupon he passed those over to the police; but nothing could be done on the subject. He is of opinion that it is necessary to catch the man in the act.

5.13 p.m.


My Lords my noble friend Lord Hawke has performed an extremely useful service in raising this matter this afternoon. It is the kind of matter which, with the vast amounts of legislation before Parliament these days, it is not easy to find time to discuss, certainly in the other place: and it is very fitting that we should discuss it here to-day.

I propose primarily to deal with the matter from a slightly different point of view from that adopted by my noble friend, with whose views I, and I think the whole House, will be in almost complete agreement. I should like to say a few words on the subject of safety. I know that this is not directly a matter for my noble friend on the Front Bench who is to reply, but I hope that he will convey any relevant comments to his noble friend at the Ministry of Transport. I have contacted the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents on this matter, because it is the fact that very often these old cars, washing machines and other large objects are dumped on the verges of country roads, where frequently children come and play. There may be council estates or housing estates in those areas where there are a number of young children. They come and play in these dumps, particularly boys. These vehicles after a time, naturally, being exposed to all weathers, tend to rust. Children play with them, get in them or on them. They probably cut themselves, and this means that the hospitals, which are already overworked, have more and more work to do; and the family doctors, general practitioners, are in a similar position.

Moreover, some of these country roads have a great deal of traffic on them, and this dumping encourages children to run out into the roads, thereby leading to an increase in road accidents. I have no personal proof that many road accidents are caused directly by this nuisance, but it seems that it would be worth while for the Government to give consideration to this aspect of the problem. Only last Saturday I was walking near the very attractive Surrey village of Headley, and I came across one of these dumps which my noble friend has mentioned. It was by the side of a country road which carries a good deal of traffic, because there are the Headley Downs; there is the road to the Epsom Downs, and it makes a very attractive run, either in a car or on foot. At this dump I saw at least two settees and a large washing mangle. I did not see any cars, but there were objects perhaps somewhat smaller than some of the things my noble friend mentioned, though they would come into the same category. There are a number of houses in that area from which children would come and play. possibly causing themselves and other people nasty accidents.

My noble friend has made mention of the Litter Act, 1958. Of course there are difficulties of enforcement, but it becomes more and more clear, when prosecutions are made under the Act, that the penalties prescribed are by no means sufficiently severe; and it is only by making the penalty fit the situation, so to speak, that some relief will be given to the general public from those who deliberately dump these objects. I do not think blame can entirely he placed on those who commit these acts, for reasons which my noble friend gave. Small traders are already very heavily rated and taxed, and they have to get rid of these objects somehow. So far as cars are concerned, I should have thought that: some of these "old crocks", still contain number plates, so that, at least in some cases it might be possible to trace the owners; and if insufficient excuse is given for dumping the vehicles, prosecution could follow.

By and large, the local authorities are doing their job to the best of their ability in removing this rubbish; but not in every case. I would point out to the House that householders and others have had and will have in the future rate increases, so that in some cases local authorities can provide better services for the removal of these things. Even so, almost the only real remedy to stop these people doing this is to increase penalties under the Litter Act. The fact is, that quite apart from the things which I have mentioned, all these nuisances are despoiling the countryside of which we, as a nation, are proud, and which in many cases is already being crammed up with junk. I have mentioned only one locality, as has my noble friend; but this sort of thing is going on all over the country, not only with small bits of litter but with the larger things that have been mentioned. Unless something is done by the Government soon to help local authorities in their collections, the situation will rapidly worsen.

5.22 p.m.


My Lords, I am glad the noble Lord has drawn attention to this particular nuisance which is being inflicted upon the countryside, as it enables me to explain the present situation and also how the Government intend to cope with this problem. We have received a number of complaints recently about this nuisance from the National Farmers' Union and the Country Landowners' Association, as well as from some Members of Parliament and other people. The noble Lord will understand that we do not have any figures to show whether dumping of this sort is actually on the increase, but it may be that growing prosperity has in fact led to an increase in the quantities of household chattels which are being discarded. As for motor cars, of course we all know that the numbers of these are increasing very rapidly, but this is really a separate subject to which I shall refer a little later.

I think your Lordships may like to be reminded of the present state of the law affecting refuse collection. The noble Lord made some reference to it, but I think I can fill in a few gaps. Section 72 of the Public Health Act 1936, which concerns local authorities outside London, gives local authorities the power to undertake the removal of house refuse and the cleansing of earth closets, ash-pits, et cetera, and they may be required to do so by the Minister.

There can be very few authorities who do not run a refuse collection service, and certainly none where the collection of house refuse presents a serious problem. If the local authority collect more frequently than they have undertaken to do, they can then make a charge for the service under Section 74. Under this section they can also remove, at the request of the owner or occupier of the premises, any refuse which they are under no obligation to remove, and they can charge for this if they wish. This power could cover the collection of unwanted motor vehicles.

The Act does not actually define house refuse, but the Ministry's legal advisers are of the opinion that this expression would include unwanted household articles such as bedding and furniture. This advice has frequently been given when asked for.

In London, the Public Health (London) Act, 1936, makes it an absolute duty to collect house refuse which is defined in the Act as "ashes, cinders, breeze, rubbish, night-soil or filth". This duty is preserved for Inner London authorities by the London Government Act, 1963, but the definition of house refuse is not reproduced, so that London authorities will now be brought into line with the rest of the country in that respect. I should also mention the Public Health Act, 1961, which gives local authorities power to clear any serious accumulations of rubbish on vacant sites in built-up areas. That is a power which has a direct bearing upon the habit of dumping, but it is true that it does not help the problem of dumping in rural areas.

There is, however, a new power under the Local Government (Financial Provisions) Act, 1963, which enables local authorities to incur extra expenditure up to a penny rate for a purpose for which no other power exists, and that could help to cope with this particular problem, if it is a question of expense. There is, of course, power to deal with motor cars abandoned on highways. These can be removed by local authorities or by the police after procedure devised to safeguard the owners under the Removal of Vehicles (England and Wales) Regulations, 1961.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether "highway" includes the verge, or only the highway itself?


Speaking off the cuff, I should think it must almost certainly includes the verge, but I will check on that point.


From hedge to hedge.


Yes; it is from hedge to hedge.

In general, therefore, the Government are satisfied that local authorities have the necessary powers to collect bulky refuse, but we do know, of course, that practice is not uniform. Many authorities remove this sort of refuse at the request of householders, and many of them do it entirely free. The Minister of Housing and Local Government has in the past asked local authorities by circular to give more publicity to their readiness to collect old iron and other bulky material. The noble Lord referred to publicity, to the fact that people do not always seem to know of the facilities. Yet even those authorities who exercise their powers to the full and advertise their willingness to accept bulky refuse free of charge are not always successful in preventing dumping. There still seem to be people who will not take the trouble to ask for their refuse to be collected.

At Crawley, which the noble Lord has specially mentioned, all bulky refuse is taken by the Urban District Council free of charge by special collections. This even includes pianos. These collections are publicised in the newspapers. Yet dumping is still taking place. As for cars, this same Council will put owners in touch with a scrap dealer who will remove a car for £5 or so. Other local authorities in the area will accept cars for disposal at their tips. This information about facilities may cause the noble Lord to wring his hands in despair, in view of the continued practice indulged in by some people of dumping on the roadside, and in fields and ditches near Crawley.

May I turn for a moment to certain points that the noble Lord made in his speech? He mentioned particularly the problem of gypsies and junk, or scrap dealers, and in general this relates to itinerant caravan dwellers. Of course, these people can be prosecuted for contravening the Litter Act, but the difficulty is, as we all know, to catch them. But I am informed that it should not be necessary actually to catch the person in the act of leaving the litter in order to prosecute him—I believe it is true to say that there have been successful prosecutions where he has been traced after he has left the spot.

The noble Lord, Lord Auckland, asked for higher penalties. The maximum penalty is, in fact, £10 and I understand that it is seldom imposed by magistrates. It is felt perhaps that more prosecutions would act as a greater deterrent than the increased penalty. Here, again, there is the difficulty of identifying the offenders.

That brings me to a point which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Wilmot of Selmeston (who has now left the Chamber), about the question of dumping on private land. That is a problem, for such behaviour is not covered by the Litter Act, I understand, since the Act refers to litter deposited in places to which the public have access. In regard to the itinerant caravan dwellers, I believe that some people have suggested special licensing, and there is the possibility of increasing the penalties for the offence of depositing rubbish or camping on highways. Those matters are the business of my right honourable friends the Home Secretary and the Minister of Transport, and I understand that they are aware of this problem.

The noble Lord, Lord Hawke, also referred to trade refuse and to the fact that it is necessary for the local authorities to charge traders for removing their refuse. The idea behind this is that the removal and disposal of trade refuse, which naturally increase the local authority's rates, is or should be considered a business expense to be borne by the trader. That is the answer to that particular criticism.

I do not think there were any more detailed points in the noble Lord's speech which I need take up, but he may well ask—although he has clearly stated that this is not the direct responsibility of the Government—whether the Government are aware of this problem and whether they are going to do anything about it. The answer is that my right honourable friend is already doing something about it.

In May, 1963, he appointed a Working Party on Refuse Collection with the following terms of reference: To examine the facts of refuse collection; to what extent it is unsatisfactory; what the difficulties are, and which methods are proving most successful; and to consider what advice can be given to local authorities on how to obtain the best results. The Working Party are making a most thorough examination of the whole problem of refuse collection, and eighteen organisations have been invited to submit memoranda evidence. The Working Party have made a number of visits to various local authorities of all types to study the problem, and a questionnaire addressed to all local authorities should be sent out before the end of this month. There will be no avoidable delays, but we feel that this kind of investigation is one in which thoroughness is more important than speed.

The question of unwanted motor 'vehicles is really a separate and a special problem, and local authorities tackle it in different ways. At Bristol, for instance, the council have plant which compresses sections of motor car bodies bought from scrap dealers, and then they sell the compressed metal. Others pay scrap merchants a small fee for every abandoned car accepted by the merchant. Consultations are already in progress between the Departments concerned, the local authority associations and the London County Council about the disposal of unwanted cars.

My Lords, I hope that what I have been able to tell the noble Lord will have given him a clear picture of the present state of affairs, and at the same time will have served to reassure him that this problem is one of which Her Majesty's Government are well aware and which they certainly will not neglect. As I have said, in the case of motor vehicles they are already tackling the problem. The general question of collection of bulky refuse will be reviewed when the Working Party have submitted their Report.

House adjourned at twenty-five minutes before six o'clock.