A new report from the National Audit Office (NAO) has found that the number of active illegal waste sites in England known to the Environment Agency has reduced from 685 in 2018-19 to 470 in 2020-21.

However, the number of fly-tipping incidents reported by local authorities has risen most years since 2012-13 and reached 1.13 million in 2020-21 – at a cost of £11.6m to clear large-scale incidents.

The Environment Agency also believes, based on a 2015 estimate, that there is widespread abuse of exemptions from environmental permits for certain waste operations. It also admits that it does not know the scale of the illegal export of waste that may cause serious harm in the countries it is sent to.

The large rise in the standard rate of landfill tax has increased the returns criminals can potentially make from certain types of waste crime, according to the NAO.

The rise in landfill tax saw the amount of waste sent to landfill reduce by 75% between 2010-11 and 2020-21, and HM Revenue & Customs estimates that in 2019-20, £200m of landfill tax was not paid through non-compliance.

The NAO also found that the most common actions that the Environment Agency takes in relation to illegal waste sites are issuing advice and guidance (52%) and sending warning letters (37%).

The number of times the Agency has prosecuted organisations for waste incidents has dropped from a 2007-08 peak of almost 800, to around 50 per year in the period running up to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘Defra and the Environment Agency agree that their data significantly understates the scale of some types of waste crime. The evidence available shows that waste crime is increasing, and organised criminals are becoming more involved,’ said head of the NAO Gareth Davies.

‘Government needs to target resources effectively and understand what progress it is making towards its aim of eliminating waste crime by 2043. To do so, it will need a robust set of performance measures to identify when actions are off-track.’

Resources and waste minister Jo Churchill said: ‘We are cracking down on waste crime, which is estimated to cost the economy an astonishing £924m per year in England.

‘That is why we are reforming the licencing system, introducing mandatory digital waste tracking, investing to tackle fly tipping, and supporting people to do the right thing by disposing of their waste correctly.’

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