When is fly-tipping not fly-tipping? I think I can explain, now the pile of rubble has finally moved from the hedgerow after a most unusual conversation with the local council.
After weeks of trying to get to the bottom of why one householder in Surrey was being allowed to chuck his building refuse into the lane outside his house, I got through to a chap at the local authority who told me he had gone to have a look at the mess and could see nothing wrong with it.
‘You mean you didn’t see the pile of broken drains heaped up outside his house in the hedgerow, by the black and white warning chevron on the bend?’
He said that he had not seen anything that broke the law. ‘We must be talking about two different places,’ he said. I went over the address with him and confirmed that we were both looking at the same place. Yes, he had just gone there, he said, and had seen nothing that required the council to take action.
‘Well, I just drove past and he’s still storing rubble, building firm signs and heaps of old drains in the hedgerow, and there’s a smaller pile thrown into the road outside his drive, forcing cars and cyclists to swerve round it.’
‘I didn’t see anything like that,’ said the man from the council that is normally very hot on such things. So hot, in fact, that if you leave so much as an incorrectly placed wheelie bin or one with a lid that isn’t closed properly outside your house you risk being slapped with a fine.
‘So you saw nothing?’ I said. ‘Nothing at all. Thin air.’ ‘Ahh,’ he said, sighing heavily, ‘I mean, that bit of stuff is just related to the works in progress. I’m sure it will be moving soon, when the work is finished.’
I explained that the rubble has been there for more than six months, the work has been finished for about a month, and if you ask me, either the building firm has fly-tipped it there for ever because they don’t have a waste licence or the man has asked them to leave it there to stop people parking outside his house. ‘But leaving all that aside and assuming it is just stored there while the job is ongoing, let’s go over this one more time: what you’re telling me is that what you saw in that hedgerow was legitimate storage of private building materials, was it?’
‘Well, yes, it’s related to the works in progress.’
‘Right, ‘ I said. ‘Then if you don’t mind, I’m starting some work on my house tomorrow and the skip is ever so expensive so what I’m going to do, now that you’ve confirmed it’s all right, is I’m going to get my builders to tip all the rubble into the nearest hedgerow and into the lane outside my house on the basis we are just storing it there until the end of the job — probably be about six months.’
‘You can’t do that,’ said the man from the council, quick as a flash and without a hint of irony. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because that would be fly-tipping,’ he said.
I allowed a silence to develop, hoping that the contradiction would become so obvious that he would have to address it. But he showed no sign of embarrassment.
‘So he can put his rubble in a hedgerow and it’s not fly-tipping, but if I do, it is fly-tipping?’ I asked.
An awkward silence persisted, in which I half expected him to find a way of defending his position. But he didn’t. I suspect this was because the only way of explaining it would involve revealing the identity of the householder with diplomatic fly-tipping immunity.
He let out an almighty sigh, like the weariness of 100 years of institutionalised minor corruption was pouring out of him. ‘Ugh,’ he exhaled. ‘That means I’m going to have to go back there now.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘I suppose I’m going to have to go back there and make him move his rubbish.’ He sounded like a broken man.
‘Yes, you are rather. Either that or you are going to have to let me tip my rubbish into the street. And would you please update me when you’ve done it, so I know for sure not to start chucking broken drains in the way of cars?’
A few hours later, I got a call. ‘The rubbish has been moved,’ he said. I don’t know whether it was my imagination, but he sounded brighter.
All things considered, I didn’t think gratitude was the right response, more like: ‘Do you see, when we all do the right thing, how much better it feels?’ But I decided to just say thank you.