Fly-tipping is on the rise - so what can we learn from government statistics?

| 4th April 2018
Wikimedia Commons
Reported incidents of fly-tipping in England have increased over the past five years - which some reports have attributed to decreases in the frequency of local authority residual waste collections. PETER JONES examines the available data to see if there really is evidence of a connection

Whatever we conclude about the impact of three weekly collections, it does not appear that collection frequency is the driver for an increase in reported fly-tips.

The number of fly-tipping incidents recorded by councils in England has gone up every year since April 2012.  In 2017, the total number of fly-tips exceeded a million for the first time or almost a decade.

Around two thirds of incidents are classed as involving household waste - the number of such cases has increased by around 41 percent since 2013, so it’s natural to ask what changes might underlie this dramatic rise. 

As the numbers have gone up, the issue has regularly made headlines. The conclusion generally drawn by journalists is that an increase in fly-tips of household waste is probably something to do with councils offering less frequent residual waste collections.

Public land

It seems obvious – faced with more waste than they can fit in the bin, people go off and dump the excess in an alley or lane. But does the data back this idea up? 

In this article I focus on just two classes of fly-tip: “household black bag” and “other household”, as these are the ones likely to be affected by household waste collections.

Before trying to draw any conclusions from the data, it’s worth noting that it comes thickly hedged with disclaimers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The department’s report on the latest stats notes a number of important limitations. For example, the statistics generally relate only to fly-tips on public land, as these are the incidents that local authorities are responsible for clearing. Most fly-tips on private land go unreported.

So – it is possible that a change in the figures has nothing to do with any real change in fly-tipping. It’s also worth noting that, despite recent rises, the number of recorded incidents is still less than it was a decade ago, when weekly residual waste collections were more prevalent than they are now. But for the sake of argument, let’s take the stats at face value, and see what they tell us.

Weekly collections

While most areas of England have seen an increase in incidents, not all have. London reports the greatest number of incidents, and has seen the greatest increase since 2013, both in absolute terms - 102,000 additional incidents - and in percentage terms - a 67 percent increase.

The South West has seen only a 9.5 percent increase, while the North East has registered a 23 percent (9,500 incidents) decline. While the North East was the region with the third highest number of incidents in 2013, it had the lowest number in 2017.

Whatever we conclude about the impact of three weekly collections, it does not appear that collection frequency is the driver for an increase in reported fly-tips.

So, what’s different about the North East? Well, one third of the twelve local authorities in the area had retained weekly residual bin collections as of 1 April 2016, the second highest proportion of any region.

But the greatest proportion of weekly bin collections councils is in London, where the biggest rise in incidents occurred.

Of course, London can be seen as a special case – but in the South East, where almost 33 percent of councils retained weekly bin collections, the number of incidents rose by 22 percent (8,639).

Reduced collections

I’ve not been able to find any other policies or waste measures that explain why the North East should be performing better than the rest of the country.

So far, we have been looking at just the absolute numbers, and ignoring the number of people in each area.

To remove differences in population between regions and local authority areas, I have divided the number of incidents by the adult population - assuming that children don’t fly-tip - to allow comparisons to be made.

This reveals a good deal of up and down variation each year, but shows the same overall pattern of increase from 2013 to 2016, with London showing the greatest increase and only the North East showing a decrease – although incidents per capita have risen there since a low point in 2014.

Is there evidence here to support the idea that there’s a correlation between increased incidence of fly-tipping and reduced waste collection frequency?

Excess waste

One place we might look would be the few English local authorities that had moved to three weekly residual waste collections well before the end of 2017: Bury, Rochdale and Oldham. 

Sure enough, the number of incidents per thousand adults has risen in each since they went three weekly. It would appear that both Bury and Rochdale have seen an increase in household waste fly-tips per 1,000 adults of more than 100 percent, while Oldham is well on the way to a similar increase.

That said, Bury’s figure dropped a good deal in the second full year of reporting; and Rochdale’s 2014 figure seems to have been unusually low, perhaps exaggerating the increase that followed the introduction of three weekly collections in 2015.

I haven’t been able to establish whether these authorities introduced new reporting policies at the same time as they changed their collection frequencies, or what the increase means.

Some authorities class waste that householders leave next to their bin as a fly-tip, so it’s plausible that, while three weekly collections are bedding in, such cases might increase temporarily. Or it may be that people were dumping excess waste in other locations – the figures just don’t tell us.

Less deprived

It’s important also to set the figures for the three-weekly authorities in context. Surprisingly, the increase reported by the small number of three weekly authorities is little different from that found in the ~85 that collect weekly, while the 200+ fortnightly authorities have seen a much smaller increase. 

The biggest change by far was seen in the 20 or so authorities that Eunomia’s records indicate operate a mixture of weekly and fortnightly collections for different property types.

So, whatever we conclude about the impact of three weekly collections, it does not appear that collection frequency is the driver for an increase in reported fly-tips. 

If collection frequency isn’t the reason, what other factors could be in play? I looked at the increase in the number of fly-tipping incidents over the last five years and divided it between local authorities classified by whether they are rural, urban or mixed; and whether they rank higher or lower in terms of deprivation.

The results are striking: 59 percent of the increase has taken place in more deprived urban areas, and a further 18 percent in less deprived urban areas. 

Common definitions

The cities were already where the greatest number of fly-tips were reported, the gap has increased over the last five years. However, we cannot be sure whether this is because more fly-tips in rural and mixed areas are on private land and go unrecorded.

Leaving that to one side, if we disaggregate the issues of “deprivation” and “predominantly urban”, both are associated with a 35 percent increase in reported incidents over the last five years, although the number of fly-tips recorded per 1,000 adults is higher in urban areas than in higher deprivation areas.

Most striking of all is that the figure for London authorities went up by far more than that for urban areas generally, and to a far higher absolute level. Perhaps that helps explain why it’s an issue that exercises the minds of national journalists! But even this intuitively appealing result masks a huge variation. 

  • Enfield Council, for example, reported 256 incidents per 1,000 adults in 2016/17 – a five year increase of over 270 percent. 
  • Wandsworth, by contrast, reported just 2.7 incidents per 1,000 adults, an increase of only 4 percent, and 
  • Barking and Dagenham, both urban and deprived, recorded just 4.8 incidents per 1,000 adults, a decrease of 65 percent over five years.  

In truth, the more closely I have looked at these figures, the more convinced I have become that anyone who claims to be able to use them to draw conclusions about what’s really going on simply hasn’t looked hard enough.

That’s pretty unsatisfactory for a national data set, especially one that people have a real interest in understanding. But unless guidance is tightened to give greater assurance that councils use common definitions – or at least explain when an apparent change is due to a new local policy – that seems to be the most reasonable conclusion to draw. 

This Author

Peter Jones is an expert on waste legislation, strategy development and waste services procurement at Bristol-based, independent environmental consultancy Eunomia Research & Consulting. He is also the editor of Eunomia’s environmental blog Isonomia.

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