According to the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)1 UK households generate 21.5 million tonnes of waste every year. That’s the equivalent weight of 3 million double decker buses — a queue that would stretch from London to Sydney (Australia) and back! DEFRA figures suggest that over 50% of the waste generated in the UK goes to landfill and this has the potential to seriously impact the environment and cause health issues. The impacts of landfilling range from air and ground water pollution to unpleasant odours, vegetation damage and a decline in the visual appeal of an area. Furthermore, methane gas -released during the decomposition of waste – can create an on-site fire hazard and underground migration of this gas can lead to explosions in nearby buildings. Poorly managed and unregulated landfilling can also have a huge impact on property prices in the surrounding areas. Although many landfills are carefully managed and monitored to reduce the potential impacts, unregulated landfilling and waste disposal is still a current problem across the UK.
The 18,000 tonne elephant in the back garden
Historic mapping identifies that there has been a waste transfer station at the end of Cornwall Drive, “Bromley” since 1974. Waste4Fuel Limited appears to have taken over the site in around 2011. The road is a quiet residential cul-de-sac consisting of seven detached and semi-detached houses. Recent estimates for the area value a detached property at £611k with a semi-detached property expected to reach £375k (Zoopla)2. The site is located adjacent to the Ruxley Gravel Pits Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on Green Belt land that contains trees protected under a Tree Preservation Order. In addition, a public footpath runs around the site and the River Cray is less than 10 metres away from the site boundary.
The waste transfer station was to be used for the temporary storage of waste whilst it was being sorted and processed. From there, the waste was to be removed and transported to the point of disposal, for example landfill or incineration. A wide variety of materials were present at the site, including tyres, metals, cardboard and paper. The site had a permit for waste transfer which was issued by the Environment Agency (EA, 2011)3.
Enforcement notices against the use of the land as a waste transfer station were issued by the Local Authority, the London Borough of Bromley4 in 2001 but they were quashed (2014, London Borough of Bromley)5. However, by the end of 2012, the site had become poorly maintained and the piles of waste grew to unmanageable heights. In April 2013, the EA suspended Waste4Fuel Limited’s permit, based on the quantity of waste on the site and the sensitivity of the environmental surroundings (Environmental Regulation and Information Centre)6. When Waste4Fuel continued to store large amounts of waste on site, the EA took the case to the High Court7. The boundary of the site had been breached by 65 feet and the height of the waste pile was ever increasing. In November 2013 Waste4Fuel were warned that all combustible waste was to be removed from the site by 1st May 2014. However, the case was dismissed by the High Court and the waste pile continued to grow.
Life on Cornwall Drive was becoming miserable. Reports claimed that the rubbish piles were over 40 foot high and 60 foot wide, and that residents were plagued by the ‘stinky, putrid smells’ (ITV News)8. The mound of rubbish was estimated to weigh over 18,000 tonnes and towered over properties in the cul-de-sac. Residents complained about the dust, flies and rats along with the frequent visits from the fire brigade for fires ignited by hot weather and fuelled by the build-up of methane gas from the decomposition of the waste.
In February 2014 the London Fire Brigade prosecuted Waste4Fuel for the 12 visits the Fire Brigade made to the site in one year, with fines and costs totalling £9k (London Fire Brigade)9. Residents complained that lorries were accessing the site between midnight and 6am, causing huge disturbances to the usually quiet street. Families living on the street said that they were no longer able to sit in their gardens or even open their windows, stating that the overpowering smells made them violently sick (ITV News)8. Fears began to rise that home owners on Cornwall Drive would not be able to escape as interest in properties on the street waned. When one home owner was interviewed he said he despaired that he would never be able to move house because no one would buy his property. Another resident noted that his neighbours had to knock £25,000 off the price to even attract interest in the property (ITV News)8.
Unfortunately for the residents of Cornwall Drive, it looks like the mound of rubbish is there to stay, as Waste4Fuel have stated that they will be unable to finance the clearance of the site without accepting more waste to generate cash flow to remove the existing waste. The most recent company accounts filed before the company entered into a voluntary arrangement showed the company to have a net worth of -£478,318, and £425,794 of liabilities.10 Given the parlous nature of these finances, it appears the problem may persist for some time to come.
The abandoned elephant
In July 2014 London Borough of Bromley Council recommended that an injunction be served for the Waste4Fuel Limited Site.13 The land use was identified as harmful and inappropriate for the Green Belt and it was concluded that the site posed the potential to cause significant risk of harm to the environment and human health. The injunction aimed to force Waste4Fuel Limited to cease the unlicensed tipping, remove the waste and reinstate the area to its former state. Residents of Cornwall Drive breathed a sigh of relief, but this was short lived. In August the injunction was dismissed, based on a lack of clarity in the wording of the document.
In the meantime, the Environment Agency, having lost their case in the High Court, made a last ditch effort to halt the environmental destruction by issuing an enforcement notice. This meant that it was a punishable offense to deposit any waste at the Cornwall Drive site. By mid-August the site was abandoned, leaving behind 18,000 tonnes of waste. Waste4Fuel are reported to have claimed insolvency and the Environment Agency have fenced off the site. If an individual or corporation cannot be traced to claim responsibility for the remediation then the costs are likely to fall to the Local Authority and tax payers.
Sadly the case of Cornwall Drive is not unique. Early in 2014 a landowner was sentenced and fined for illegally dumping waste over a 14 month period in South Cornelly, Wales.12 The waste pile reached 30 metres high and 40 metres wide. The landowner was reported to have made £227k from allowing waste to be dumped at the site which was just 500 yards from a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The waste was reported to have changed the landscape, affecting house prices and bringing misery to local residents (BBC News).12
It’s not all doom and gloom
Landfills and waste transfer stations can have a minimal impact on the environment and human health if managed correctly. For instance, Sovereign Harbour in Eastbourne — North Europe’s largest marina complex — is built on a historical landfill site.13 Port Solent Marina, with its cinema, restaurants and luxury housing estate, sits adjacent to a historical landfill which has a recently closed landfill on top.14 The landfill at Sovereign Harbour was remediated prior to construction to ensure the site was suitable for residential use. Development at Port Solent is constantly monitored with gas vents situated around the edge of the site to prevent the build-up of methane gas and reduce the potential for fires or explosions. All buildings constructed around Port Solent have gas protection measures installed, such as gas membranes and ground ventilation measures. Under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 15 and National Planning Policy Framework 2012,16 it is the developer’s responsibility to ensure that these measures are installed in new properties.
Whilst the Environment Agency and Local Authority are working together to reduce the amount of waste at the Waste4Fuel Limited site on Cornwall Drive in Bromley, relief seems to be a long way off for residents. The Local Authority will need to decide on suitable remediation actions which could essentially be a lengthy process and put any hopes of house sales on Cornwall Drive on hold.
During any residential property transaction the purchaser is advised to carry out an environmental risk assessment for mortgage security, to identify the likelihood that the land will be investigated and designated as contaminated under Part 2A of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.17 A GroundSure HomeBuyers report can help purchasers identify any potential risk and GroundSure environmental consultants can provide guidance to purchasers with regard to contamination queries.
Walton, N.R.G. and Higgins, A. (1998), ‘The legacy of contaminated land in Portsmouth: its identification and remediation within a socio-political context’. Geological Society, London, Engineering Geology Special Publications, 14:29-36.
El-Fadel, Mutasem, Findikakis, A.N and Leckie, J.O (1997), ‘Environmental Impacts of Solid Waste Landfilling’. Journal of Environmental Management, 50:1-15.
4. Cited in: http://cds.bromley.gov.uk/documents/s50019560/LAND%20ADJACENT%20TO%20TINTAGEL%20WASTE4FUEL%20SITE%20CORNWALL%20DRIVE%20ORPINGTON%20BR5%203JB.pdf— “The Waste4Fuel site is currently in use as a waste transfer station and the majority of the site is taken up with substantial amounts of waste. To the northern boundary of the site various machinery for sorting waste is located, and at the entrance onto Cornwall Drive is a weighbridge and portable offices. The Waste4Fuel site benefits from an Environment Agency permit as a waste transfer station. That area now includes the area shown cross hatched black. The Waste4Fuel site (excluding the cross hatched area) has been the subject of two planning appeal decisions determined together in 2001 against the Council’s refusal to grant certificates of lawfulness for existing uses and the issue of an enforcement notice against the use of the land as a waste transfer station. The appeals were allowed and certificates granted and enforcement notice quashed.”
15. Town and Country Planning Act (1990) http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1990/8/contents
17. Environmental Protection Act (1990) http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1990/43/contents
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