Tacking the scourge of waste crime

Government should introduce an intermediate tax band to bridge the gap between standard and lower rates of landfill tax, reducing the incentive for misclassification of waste, says Jonathan Werran.

Hiding in plain sight is, according to GK Chesterton, the Father Brown author, the best way to avoid detection.   Indeed, this was a ruse Michael Collins successfully adopted (from Chesterton's novel ‘The man who was Thursday'. to stealthy effect during the aftermath of the Easter Rising and Irish Civil War.

With the scourges of fly-tipping and associated waste crime, we have destructive activity taking place in open view, that for unfathomable reasons doesn't engage us. Compare and contrast how by enlisting public outrage former Undertones' lead singer Fergal Sharkey has been able to command attention on the pollution of our rivers.

Out there in plain sight, the everyday despoilation of our streets and fields by organised waste criminals comes at such a cost of £1bn to the public purse while depleting the public realm and polluting the environment.

In a new report out today and entitled Cleaning up our act - reforming landfill tax for place resilience and best local outcomes Localis argues that the massive gap between standard levels of landfill tax at £102.10 per tonne for ‘active' and lower levels at £3.25 per tonne for ‘inactive' material, has led to an escalation of waste crime, in the form of illegal dumping and fly-tipping.

While the costs of waste crime have burgeoned by 55% since 2015 in England, our study found enforcement is disjointed, with organised criminals exploiting loopholes or absorbing paltry fines as running costs to the detriment of honest waste brokers.

Getting fiscal, it is estimated that the tax gap for landfill tax is 22.7% or £200m, a figure suggesting high levels of tax evasion and avoidance by criminal operators who either misclassify active waste, underreport waste volumes or resort to illegal dumping.

To fix this gap, our report recommends government should introduce an intermediate tax band to bridge the gap between standard and lower rates, reducing the incentive for misclassification of waste and promoting fairer taxation.

Building on positive recent steps, we say government must continue to increase transparency and efficiency in tax collection to combat high levels of tax evasion and avoidance, through stricter enforcement measures and improved monitoring technologies.

Ultimately, waste crime is toxic in that it despoils our natural environment, imposes costs on already cash-strapped councils and robs the Treasury of tax revenue that could be put to improving public services.

Any serious attempt at place-based reform must look to addressing the iniquities and imbalances of how we tax it and then move to rigorous enforcement and prosecution of organised gangs.

Reform of the landfill tax should seek to incorporate the waste hierarchy to ensure only the right waste materials end up in landfill.  We think this can be done by implementing variable tax rates or other policy mechanisms based on the environmental impact of waste types and the necessity of landfill, to incentivise sustainable disposal choices for non-hazardous and biodegradable waste.

As a means to this end, an intermediate tax band bridging the gap between standard and lower rates would reduce the incentive for misclassification of waste and promoting fairer taxation.

There is also a need to allocate a portion of landfill tax revenues to fund research and development aimed at advancing technologies for waste recovery, reuse, and recycling, as well as for legacy chemical cleanup, as wells as a portion allocated to funding the prevention of waste crime.

At central level, the situation demands the Environment Agency receive an expanded dedicated budget, and associated targets, for prosecuting waste criminals.  What is needed is on-the-ground enforcement of a scale to match recent increases in attention to the financial aspect of waste crime.

At the level of place and place-leadership, government must enhance local authority powers to enforce waste regulations. This would mean permitting increased fines and penalties for fly-tipping, with revenues to support local clean-up efforts and landfill site development.

And when it comes to clearing up waste crime, councils must also be given the responsibility – with associated funding – to assist private landowners who are the victims of fly-tipping in safe, responsible disposal.

Waste crime is an issue we cannot tolerate hiding in plain sight any longer.

Jonathan Werran is chief executive, Localis


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