Bumper crop

The ELV Directive threatens to increase the number of abandoned cars littering our streets. Peter McCrum finds out what can be done to tackle the problem

The number of vehicles left abandoned on Britain’s streets is soaring, according to research by the Local Government Association. Between 2000 and 2003 the number of illegally dumped cars rose by 28% – an average of 22% for each council. Not surprisingly, the worst hit areas are urban communities. London boroughs suffered the most with an average, per borough, of 6,589 abandoned cars littering the city’s streets. The cost of dealing with abandoned vehicles rose by a quarter in the same period – from £27.2m to £33.9m. The vast majority of abandoned cars are unlicensed, making it virtually impossible for local authorities to track down and prosecute those that dump them.

Now for the bad news; the LGA predicts that the problem will get worse, due to increased treatment and disposal costs brought about by the EU Directive on End of Life Vehicles. Ken Manton, chair of the LGA’s waste and environmental management executive, says: “The pest of abandoned vehicles in our local communities is threatening to become a plague. Increases in disposal costs for unwanted vehicles will provide a serious challenge for local authorities and councils could find themselves battling to stay ahead of a wave of old bangers littering our estates and neighbourhoods.” Manton worries that the significant additional budget pressure will have to be accounted for in government funding allocations or else the cost will have to be passed on to council tax payers, in a climate where council tax rises are already a highly contentious issue.

And the problems don’t end there. The LGA survey found that one in five councils in England and Wales do not have abandoned vehicle contractors in place that are ready for the new regulations and a further one in four don’t even know if their contractors comply with the new standards.

Facing a minor crisis

The directive stipulates that ELVs are subject to de-pollution prior to dismantling, recycling or disposal. Hazardous chemicals and materials have to be removed and the metals should be recycled by registered treatment facilities operating to approved environmental standards. It also makes requirements on producers to make dismantling information available and mark vehicle components to aid recycling. Vehicles should be issued with a certificate of destruction and recycling and recovery targets have been put in place.

With the UK already facing a minor crisis with regard to abandoned vehicles, the new directive and the stringent demands it places on those responsible for the disposal of ELVs will inevitably exasperate an already significant problem and have severe cost implications for local authorities.

So apart from these concerns, there remains the question of whether the UK is in a position to handle the requirements of the ELV Directive`. Is the infrastructure in place to cope with the increased levels of vehicle waste that the directive will generate?


Duncan Wemyss, association secretary for the Motor Vehicle Dismantlers Association, has some concerns. Because the directive places the onus on the last owner to meet the disposal costs (until January 2007 when it will be up to the manufacturers to pay all, or a significant part, of the cost of treating negative or nil value vehicles), Wemyss believes that this will inevitably lead to the increases in abandoned cars the LGA has warned of. “There are varying views with regards to the potential cost to the final owner of end-of-life vehicles, but it could well be in the area of £50. Given that the last owner may have only paid £250 for the vehicle, and will have to pay for it to be towed away, they will be encouraged to abandon it.”

Wemyss says that although the treatment and recycling facilities are in place, and have been in place for some time, the problem is that the Environment Agency has been swamped with license applications. “Licensing has taken a lot longer than anticipated,” he says. So the problem rests not with the dismantlers, who have the machinery and capability and are awaiting accreditation and permits, it is the regulator that is, as yet, unable to meet demand.

Potential pitfalls

Wemyss foresees other potential pitfalls with regards to the implementation of the directive: “We don’t yet know whether it will be economically viable. If our members have to spend tens of thousands of pounds on new equipment to meet the requirements of the directive, they, and their bank managers, have to be assured that there is going to be sufficient money in it to make it worthwhile. Many people have decided that there will not be a significant enough return on investment.”
The Environment Agency initially estimated that there would be a need for around 2,500 operators to handle ELVs. The real figure is around half that number. This is due to operators deciding that the financial returns are not attractive enough and are getting out of the business.

Wemyss is keen to point out that the success or failure of the ELV Directive might rely on the price of scrap metal. Earlier this year the Chinese were very active in buying scrap metal and the price shot up. However, they have since pulled out of the market and the price has plummeted, demonstrating the economic vulnerability of the market and thus the workability of the directive. “The work that we are going to have to do to meet the requirements is at a cost. That cost has to be met somehow. We can try to convince the last owner of the vehicle, until 2007, to pay for this cost, but if they don’t then we have to make the money elsewhere – especially if the price of scrap is such that it is not worth our while to treat these vehicles.”

Good news

Despite the generally gloomy outlook for local authorities already struggling with increases in abandoned vehicles, there are authorities out there providing a lead and examples of effective ways of dealing with the burgeoning problem.

Bexley Council has been able to reduce the number of abandoned vehicles by nearly 45% over the past two years following the introduction of a series of robust measures. Following guidelines drawn up under the guise of Operation Cubit and a pilot scheme in Medway, Kent, Bexley Council adopted a multi-agency approach to the problem. Analysis was carried out to estimate the number and location of abandoned vehicles and an abandoned vehicle task force was set up, comprising local authority officers, police, the fire brigade, DVLA, housing associations and a local clamping and removal firm.

Prevention is the solution

Janet Glander, principal enforcement officer at Bexley says: “We are aware of the potential increase in the number of abandoned vehicles following the implementation of the ELV Directive, but the success of Operation Cubit has shown that we are able to cope. Through rigorous enforcement we are drastically reducing the number of abandoned cars on our streets and we will continue to do so.”

The message from boroughs like Bexley is that prevention is the solution to the problem. If there is a powerful enough deterrent in place that persuades people to dispose of vehicles responsibly, and providing incentives to do so – like free take back schemes, then, as we have seen, this problem can be tackled effectively.

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