Environmental prosecutions have been declining since 2007 in the UK and are currently at an all-time low. However, waste management has been the least affected sector, as it has not seen such a stark fall in the number of prosecutions.
Emma Tattersdill, partner in Freeths’ specialist environment team, says one of the reasons for the decrease of prosecutions is awareness. She says: “Businesses have become more aware of the need to comply with environmental regulation.”
Despite this, waste management has seen the least decrease in prosecutions. It saw a decline of 71% of cases since 2007, whereas all other prosecutions decreased by 98%.
Anne Brosnan, Chief Prosecutor at the Environment Agency, says: “We continue to see high levels of criminal activity in the waste sector which it remains appropriate to deal with by formal interventions such as prosecution.”
Emma says: “The waste sector has been a real hot topic for environmental regulation over recent years. The reason for that is, it’s one sector that has been identified in the past as having a financial incentive to non-compliance.”
One of the costs in this sector is permit fees. This involves paying a permit fee, an annual fee, and the costs to ensure the business complies with the permit.
Nearly 80% of the waste management prosecutions that took place last year was because of non-compliance with these permit fees.
Last year, Winters Haulage, a waste management company, was fined £480,000 for storing thousands of tonnes of combustible waste without a permit. This was the fourth largest environmental fine that year.
Emma says: “The regulators have been keen to demonstrate that they are really hot on taking enforcement action against people in the waste sector who weren’t properly compliant.”
Changes to the landfill tax in 2018 saw regulators having greater legal powers when dealing with offenders not paying the tax. According to Emma, it introduced a penalty for those depositing waste illegally.
Waste management prosecutions have been declining since 2016, two years before these new laws. Although not as sharp as other sectors, it has seen a decrease of 67% of cases between 2016 and 2019.
Louise Smail, a corporate risk consultant, says: “Prosecutions are only the tip of the iceberg.”
She says that undertakings are one of the reasons for this fall. Instead of being prosecuted, undertakings allow companies to pay towards an environmental project, organisation, or charity.
In 2019, Whitehouse Centre, a farm in Northhumberland, was found breaking the permit regulations. They agreed to donate £1,500 to the local wildlife trust.
Undertakings may not be the only reason for this decrease. An Unearthed investigation last year revealed department cuts to the Environment Agency. Since July 2016, nearly 1,000 of their staff had been transferred to other departments to help with Brexit.
They also revealed the number of site inspections by the Environment Agency decreased by over a third in the past four years, which correlates with the decline of waste management prosecutions.
With law changes to landfill tax, the increase of environmental fines and companies utilising enforcement undertakings, both Emma and Louise are unsure of how this will affect the future of waste management prosecutions. This uncertainty coincides with the environment agency experiencing unprecedented cuts.