Behind the scenes with Leeds council's new serious environmental crime unit as they tackle 'big, bad and nasty' offences

Just a short walk out the back of a motorway service station and onto a quiet footpath flanked by trees and nature, an ugly sight is revealed.

By David Spereall, Local Democracy Reporting Service
Tuesday, 5th July 2022, 12:15 pm

A huge heap of ripped bin bags, old carpet and battered wooden furniture lies carelessly strewn across a patch of grass in full view of dog walkers and long-distance drivers enjoying a break.

Read More

Read More
Armley man jailed after being caught fly-tipping in Pudsey while working as a wa...

Fly-tipping is one of the nastiest blights you can see on any cul-de-sac or country lane. The scene here at Skelton Lake in east Leeds, though unusual for this location in particular, is sadly typical of many green spots across the city.

Coun Mohammed Rafique, right, with members of Leeds City Council's new serious environmental crime unit. Picture: Local Democracy Reporting Service

Leeds’ new serious environmental crime unit, however, have found evidence among the junk that they hope will lead them to the perpetrator.

The council team, which was established this year, is thought to be the only one of its kind in Yorkshire dedicated to tackling more organised and industrial-scale offences.

While day-to-day fly-tipping cases are still dealt with by local neighbourhood staff, the new unit is focused on building intelligence on repeat offenders and ensnaring the dodgy unlicensed “waste carriers” responsible for so much dumped rubbish across Leeds.

“We look at the more complicated, complex and commercial aspect of fly-tipping,” area team manager Chris Chamberlain explains. “Anything big, bad and nasty really.

The team found evidence among the junk dumped at Skelton Lake that they hope will lead them to the perpetrator. Picture: Local Democracy Reporting Service

“We take more robust action in the sense we don’t necessarily look for quick wins. We build cases and we spend time gathering evidence and intelligence so that we can build a stronger case for when we go to court.

“It’s about linking cases as well, rather than dealing with them individually. We’ll follow an evidence trail and maybe hold back before taking action so we can link cases together.”

Among the powers now available to local authorities in the war against waste-dumping is stop and search.

Chris’ five-strong team regularly go out with the police and can halt vehicles they suspect might be carrying rubbish illegally.

“The condition of the vehicle will tell you quite a lot,” Chris explains, when asked what kind of tell-tale signs he’ll look for on these patrols.

“Certain marks on the vehicles as well. Some readily advertise (what they’re doing), which is helpful.

“There are cage type vehicles that have nets on too – anything like that we might stop.”

Any vehicle involved in fly-tipping can be seized and crushed by the authorities, while offenders can receive prison sentences of up to five years and unlimited fines.

Such punishments should act as a deterrent and yet nearly 17,000 fly-tips were still reported across Leeds between April 2020 and March 2021, according to government statistics.

“We need to get on top of this and this is a national problem,” Coun Mohammed Rafique, Leeds’ executive member for environment, says.

“Over last 12 to 18 months, the numbers in Leeds are coming down, which is somewhat against the national trajectory, with numbers in some core cities having gone up.

“It’s a big issue but I think we’re going in the right direction.”

Among the other tools that the serious environmental crime team is planning to use is test purchases, where undercover officers will ask fly-tipping suspects to take their waste.

Covert trackers placed in among rubbish heaps will also help them trace offenders.

But as always, the biggest source of intelligence is the people who witness these acts of environmental vandalism.

“We want our public to be our eyes and ears,” Coun Rafique says.

“That’s the only way we can tackle this problem. Take a photo, take a video and send it in to us.

“We can’t have cameras everywhere - it’s impossible - so we need that co-operation from our residents.

“Without any proof or evidence, it’s very hard to prosecute people and that’s the only way we can take these people to court and eradicate this very serious problem.”

Observing the waste at Skelton Lake, Coun Rafique makes the point that it would probably have been cheaper for the owner of the rubbish to just pay for a skip, rather than bunging an unlicensed waste carrier to get rid of it.

And far from being a victimless crime, fly-tipped waste has to be cleared by the landowner if it’s on private property.

Chris says the council is sometimes met with resistance from landowners when this is explained to them, though a conviction can eventually lead to the costs of the clean-up being covered.

Dumping waste at beauty spots is an age-old problem which infuriates us all and costs taxpayers millions every year.

But with councils getting more powers from central government and specialist units like this one emerging to tackle the most sophisticated crimes, perhaps the battle against the litter louts is finally being won.

How to report fly-tipping to Leeds City Council

Fly-tipping is the illegal dumping of waste. If someone fly tips they may receive a fine, criminal record or in serious cases a prison sentence.

You can also be fined and get a criminal record if you pay an unlicensed person to remove your rubbish and it is fly-tipped

If someone has dumped rubbish onto public land, you can report it to the council.

The council will collect any rubbish fly-tipped on alleyways, roads, pavements, parks and council land.

If you know who dumped the waste, then you can also report this to the council and they may be able to give them a fine or prosecute them.