Someone else’s problem

Mattresses, in the right place, are wonderful things. The best ones guarantee a good night’s sleep. Over recent years, however, the ones in the wrong places have caused some of Greenford’s residents sleepless nights. Worn and stained, they began to appear in pedestrian subways, in the entrances to alleyways, propped up against fences and walls, as an ever growing number of residents and landlords discovered how much it now costs to get rid of unwanted household items the official way. Fly-tipping of large items or quantities of rubbish in places where it isn’t wanted, has been a problem for years across the UK. The dumping of building site waste on agricultural land has been common in some rural areas but the ubiquity of abandoned mattresses is a more recent suburban trend.

The term “fly-tipping” seems to have evolved in the 1960s, something “done on the fly” is done quickly or in passing. From what I’ve seen for myself it does seem in many cases that the rubbish that appears in fly-tipping hotspots has been thrown there from passing vehicles or ones that have stopped very briefly (with the exception of a large red sofa that turned up by the Grand Union canal – that could only have arrived by narrowboat). It’s hardly surprising that the dumping of rubbish is done so furtively. In theory those responsible for leaving mattresses, fridges, and a range of worn out and unwanted household items can be fined thousands of pounds. The reality is that they are hard to catch because it can take minutes to dump rubbish that it takes other people considerably longer to remove, often leaving it under signs that state how much they will be fined, put there because it keeps happening in the same place. It must be profoundly irritating to live opposite a hotspot, such as the one towards the Oldfield Lane North end of Birkbeck Avenue where you can see piles of sodden fly-tipped rubbish under a sign advising fly-tippers of the consequences of fly-tipping. Rain soaked mattresses slump and sag against railings, along with assorted pieces of wood and other items that someone can’t find a use for. Further up the road, at the junction with Stanley Avenue, a redundant phone booth is surrounded by decaying bedroom furniture and boxes of empty bottles. Cleared away, more appears again almost immediately, spilling across the pavement where you have to step over it.

Efforts to encourage recycling haven’t kept up with how much we want to throw away. The small things aren’t a problem. In our household we automatically clean and sort recyclable items throughout the week ahead of the regular collection and we now have a much emptier bin bag by Friday. It’s far harder to tackle the large items, such as white goods, when they are beyond repair or no longer useful. In our hallway the space usually occupied by a basket of shoes and boots is now filled by our old washing machine. My partner has already extended its life more than once by identifying the fault via the internet, ordering new parts and learning how, again online, to carry out repairs. The most recent breakdown defeated him so we replaced it and began to wonder how to get rid of it in the most responsible way. The last time we found that the company we bought the new one from could take the old one away for £7. On the day of the delivery we put it outside, only to see it removed a short time later by someone scavenging for metal. Fortunately we were given a refund. This time there was no offer to remove the old item so, having installed the new washing machine, we looked for the best way to dispose of it.

The cost came as a shock. The quotation given by an award winning, socially responsible recycling service was £52 plus VAT. They are willing to enter the house to remove it. The service offered by Ealing Council costs £40 for up to eight large items, including washing machines, but they are not willing to enter the house. Given our previous experience I called the council, to ask if we would be entitled to a refund if the washing machine had been removed by someone else by the time they came to collect it. The answer was “no”. I tried offering it to a local company that sells reconditioned white goods who weren’t interested and had clearly turned down many similar offers. It crossed our minds that we could simply heave it outside and ignore its disappearance, should that happen. The trouble is that scrap metal collectors are never around when you need them and, even if they solved our problem, we’re concerned that whatever bits of it they can’t sell will be fly-tipped. It would just about fit into the boot of the car, ready to be driven to the dump but it’s too heavy for us to lift it that far at either end of the journey. Ideally we would like to give it to someone able to repair and use it but we haven’t the knowledge to work out whether it would be worth anyone’s while to do so. For the moment it’s an unwanted hall table.

Fairly or unfairly, I associate the increase in incidents of fly-tipping with the increase in the number of the buy to let properties in Greenford. High rents mean they are often shared, becoming HMOs (houses in multiple occupation), with a high turnover of tenants. This can mean that mattresses have to be replaced and at £9.60 a time the costs would soon mount up for anyone renting out several properties if they used the service provided for businessess by Ealing Council. Abandoned mattresses have come to represent fly-tipping but of course it could be anything. Most residents, even those passing through, would make an effort to pass on their unwanted personal belongings to one of the many charity shops in the area. When I see black bin bags spilling open to reveal CDs, clothes and books alongside some of these mattresses my first thought is “What a waste.” Landlords who aim to maximise what they make from each of their properties regard this stuff as a nuisance, to be disposed of as quickly and cheaply as possible. Few of them seem to be able to influence the level of recycling that goes on in their properties or willing to accept that the cost of disposing of waste is a burden they should expect to bear.

HMOs are easily identified by the number of rubbish bags that appear outside them on collection days. It is clear that many of these households find it easier to send all their waste to landfill rather than sorting it out for the green box. In some cases they produce so much household waste that landlords redistribute it amongst their other properties. On the way home from work I used to walk past a large detached house which, judging by the number of people who sat on the doorstep smoking, was being shared. One evening I watched a man, presumably the landlord, empty rubbish bags from the boot of his car and add it to the pile stacked around a wheelie bin outside it, watched by some of his tenants. Over time the mound grew until the fifteen or so bags I could distinguish crushed several others under their weight. The council were obviously not willing to remove that much during the weekly collection. This festering mess, along with its memorable smell, was eventually cleared away and the HMO closed down. On that occasion the household waste remained within the boundary of the property. Other residents aren’t so lucky. We opened the curtains one morning to find that clusters of black bin bags had appeared in the blank, unowned spaces favoured by fly-tippers, piled up against trees and the fence of an electricity substation. We suspect they were put there by the owner of two HMOs in the street, and probably other properties, who was struggling to cope. He eventually sold them on and their occupants are now far more responsible. Support needs to be given to members of such households to help them organise their recycling. If more of these properties fell into the category of HMO that requires licensing it would be easy to approach their owners and occupants to advise them. Unfortunately there probably isn’t the funding, and therefore the manpower, to identify smaller informal ones.

The same applies to garden waste, grass clippings, hedge trimmings, weeds and fallen leaves, once collected by Ealing Council as part of the recycling service. There is now an annual charge of £60, with discounts for pensioners and those receiving means tested benefits. The charge was unpopular with residents when it was introduced at £40 and led to the dumping of material that could have been composted. I’ve seen the layby on the westbound slip road at Greenford Flyover edged with bags of grass, left there by someone unwilling to pay for the service. An increase of fifty per cent can only exacerbate the problem and mean the disappearance of more front and back gardens under paving or concrete. No garden, no garden waste, no maintenance costs, particularly important if you want to make money from a property.

When it comes to homeowners I wonder if the fact they are prepared to spoil someone else’s street or property in order to keep their own personal space in good order reveals something about the erosion of a sense of community and the rise of a mindset I always refer to as “compound culture”. If you, your friends and relatives rely on cars to travel from door to doors, parking it right up against the entrance behind a higher wall or fence than would have been acceptable even a few years ago, those concerned lose sight of, quite literally, and interest in what goes on beyond that boundary. If you have that attitude and, influenced by home makeover programmes, you want your house to look like something from an interior design magazine, you might be willing to dump the empty paint cans, worn curtains and broken bannisters on someone else’s patch. Whether the cause is greed or pride it is still a selfish act, impacting the whole community. The decorating left overs that I see thrown into hedges and across the grass at the end of Bennetts Avenue aren’t all down to the many builders who now live in Greenford. It’s sad that there are householders in Greenford who are so proud of their homes but are unable to feel the same way about the wider environment and community.

I asked the #GE2015 candidates for the constituency of Ealing North how they would approach the problem of fly-tipping:
Steve Pound (Labour, MP for Ealing North since 1997): “Flytipping is well addressed by Ealing council and I have a great deal of admiration for Susan Parsonage and the Anti-social Behaviour Team who have successfully tracked down and prosecuted many people responsible for this local scourge. I have been working with the Police locally and London wide and urging that they stop loaded lorries on the A40 to ensure that they have a licence and legal destination. The huge dumps of soil and rubble have pretty much been eliminated from our part of the world but the problem of domestic and builders’ waste is certainly increasing and I will continue to work with and support Susan and her team.”

Kevin McNamara (Liberal Democrat): “Liberal Democrats have promised we will double fines for companies that use fly-tipping as a cheap way to dispose of rubbish, making it uneconomical for them to do so. We realise that it’s tricky to catch fly-tippers but I’d like to work with bodies such as the LGA and our group on the Borough Council to find a solution to catching offenders.”

Meena Hans (Green): “Not only does fly-tipping spoil the aesthetic look of many areas but sometimes the items dumped can be dangerous to both wildlife and humans. I believe more should be done to discourage fly-tipping by educating people, finding those who fly-tip and not only fining them but implementing community service as part of their punishment. This should include cleaning up rubbish dumped by other fly-tippers.”

David Hofman (TUSC): “Our local environment has deteriorated markedly in recent years, primarily due to cuts in local authority spending. In turn this has resulted in poorer quality public services, including the increasing use of private contractors, shedding of the council workforce and increased workload of those who are still in post. Unfortunately, the Labour-controlled Ealing Council, despite having increased its Labour majority at last year’s local elections, have continued to make cuts. Indeed, the Council website informs us that £87 million has been cut from the budget over the last 5 years, but that a further £96 million needs to be cut in the future. In other words, the council is not even half way through its cuts programme! A Labour council should not be meekly implementing cuts proposed by the millionaire ConDem administration, but should demand the funding necessary to maintain and improve local services. All services that have been contracted out should be brought back in-house, so that residents can expect properly managed refuse collection and disposal systems, for example. Residents must have real powers to make their voices heard and their views implemented. This would include the prosecution of fly-tippers, especially once a proper, accessible service has been set up.” See TUSC policies here.

The UKIP candidate was too busy to respond. There was no response at all from the Conservative candidate.

I’d like to see more done to support those who live in fly-tipping hotspots, including studies into why certain places attract it. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that alleys, street corners and boundaries that aren’t overlooked are magnets for rubbish, but how does anyone avoid being noticed when they leave bags of rubbish against trees in busy streets? A tree in Uneeda Drive, a heavily used pedestrian route to and from Greenford Station, recently hosted a teetering stack of floor tiles, a bucket and a packet of filler. Another, at the junction of Bennetts Avenue and Greenford Road is almost always circled by burst black bin bags, with cans spilling from them. It’s a busy corner, with residents walking past it even in the early hours, so whoever dumped it risked being noticed whenever they left it there. Is it that witnesses are too afraid to report them and regular offenders know it? In its publication,“Tackling Fly-tipping – A guide for landowners and land managers” (2006) (there’s also a guide for the public), the charity Keep Britain Tidy recommends caution when recording information: “Remember fly-tippers are doing something illegal – they are unlikely to welcome people observing them or taking notes or photographs.” Unfortunately, if no one passes on details such as car registrations or physical descriptions the problem will never go away, and perhaps even worsen as those causing it grow in confidence with each incident.

CCTV can be used where it exists and has helped to catch fly-tippers around the borough. It is, however, very expensive and the end would really have to justify the means if it were to be installed simply to catch them out. Someone would have to pay for it and I doubt whether any ward budget could take that kind of hit long term just to keep residents in one street happy. It may take a strategy that combines temporary CCTV with incentives to encourage householders to cut back shrubs that have been allowed to obscure a regular dumping ground or guarantee a police presence should witnesses feel they need it. It could involve lending a resident a camera and showing that person how to use it discreetly or installing shatter proof mirrors at angles to prevent illegal activity taking place just out of sight of main roads. Encouraging local residents to create and maintain small gardens could make unowned spaces seem owned. The fact is the threat of substantial fines have failed to prevent behaviour that makes life miserable for a lot of people and we need to take a more intelligent, creative approach, providing tailor made solutions for each hotspot.

I’d like to see those successfully prosecuted named and shamed. Potential perpetrators need to be certain that almost everyone in their area will find out what they’ve been up to. Another preventative measure might be to confiscate any vehicles involved which would shut down any operators who take money for rubbish removal but actually dump it. At the same I feel we do have to make it easier for individuals to recycle or find someone who will reuse what they no longer want. The Freecycle movement developed because some people feel that their “rubbish” is too good to go to landfill and that someone else might find it valuable. Ealing Council could take the lead in encouraging residents to “make do and mend” or learn how to repair things safely and provide the venues and resources to support such efforts. Ealing Transition, part of a global movement to reduce our dependence on oil, is already doing this with its annual reskilling event. We could have carried on using our old washing machine if we had been able to diagnose and fix the problem. Even so there would have come a time when we really couldn’t continue using it and, unless I take to washing our clothes at the village pump, we will need more, newer washing machines, as well as fridges, freezers and ovens. There have to be more options than a prohibitively expensive recycling service or illegal disposal.

I have no doubt that such a project would be expensive but it costs so much to deal with the problem that it would be a sensible investment. Fly-tipping is known to have a considerable impact on the quality of life of those coping with it. Even if those engaged in this kind of activity never display violent behaviour it reinforces a fear of crime that can devalue property and undermine local prosperity. A report commissioned by Buckinghamshire County Council in 2004 (Best Value Review – Community Safety, Reducing Fear of Crime in Older People Draft Report, March 2004) found that “the gradual degrading of a community can lead to higher levels of crime and disorder. If an area becomes increasingly untended for example with abandoned vehicles or left rubbish, it undermines the willingness and ability of local residents to enforce social order. A perception is then created that crime in general is on the increase, and as a consequence people will be less inclined to use public places. With fewer people using public places, there is less deterrence to crime, which may then rise. Hence the perception of rising crime becomes a reality. For the future, recording the time the districts take to remove abandoned vehicles and fly tipping incidents may give a broader picture when monitoring the fear of crime.” (p. 13, 7.ix) It also found that “Fear can affect the functioning and viability of urban centres perceived as unsafe, and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy as the streets become abandoned.” (p. 18, 9.x)

That sense of fear and of a loss of control by residents over their environment can be profound and I understand why some are caused such distress by it. A shocking lack of empathy (or local knowledge) was displayed by those who left an old mattress metres away from the alley where eighty-five year old Paula Castle was murdered shortly after it happened. I was left speechless when I turned a corner into the footpath between Rothesay Avenue and Hadden Way and found several mattresses, a sofa and other rubbish, including broken glass, strewn along it, alongside the entrance to a childrens’ playground. If I was the parent of small children I might think twice before walking them through such a mess. It felt hostile and threatening – I probably wouldn’t want to visit it without being accompanied by other parents. The speedy removal of fly-tipped rubbish is recommended by the Buckinghamshire County Council report and Keep Britain Tidy so it would be well worth promoting websites like Fix My Street, Facebook pages such as the one for Greenford Middlesex and Twitter accounts like Greenford Today so that residents could report dumping using their smartphones.

Fly-tipping costs all of us a small fortune, money that could be better spent at a time when money is so tight. It may take a combined effort by all of us to stop it from blighting Greenford, and the rest of the UK, in the future.

Images and text © Albertina McNeill 2015 except for quotes. Do not reproduce without written permission on each occasion. All rights reserved. Do not add text or images to Pinterest or similar sites as this will be regarded as a violation of copyright.

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