Local authorities may have to rethink their rubbish clearance strategies in the light of a new Court of Appeal ruling. The decision in the case of Leeds City Council v Gordon Hoyland Spencer last month (May) centred on the right of local authorities to refuse to clear uncontained rubbish.
However, the Court’s decision appears to leave little doubt that councils, while they may be in a position to put pressure on landlords and tenants not to leave uncontained rubbish lying around, and may in some cases be in a position to launch magistrates’ court proceedings, are nevertheless under a statutory duty to clear all rubbish – contained or uncontained.
The new ruling was described by Lord Justice Brooke, who was sitting with Lord Justice Evans, as one of “general importance”, even though the amount of money involved was small. The Court quashed a district judge’s order that a Leeds landlord should pay Leeds City Council £352.54 for rubbish clearance from bin areas used by his properties.
The decision is good news for landlords. But from the point of view of local authorities, it is likely to make the policing of rubbish accumulation in “bin yards” which come under their control more difficult and more expensive. The case showed that they have wider duties than many of them have realised.
Leeds Council moved in and cleared the rubbish after the landlord – who owns a number of properties in the city which are let to tenants, many of them students – refused to comply with a rubbish clearance notice issued to him by the council under Section 4 of the 1949 Prevention of Damage by Pests Act. It then sued him for the cost of the work.
The landlord, however, argued that it was the council’s duty, not his, to ensure that uncontained rubbish – which was said to have accumulated to a depth of up to a foot in the yard – was cleared. Now the Court of Appeal has backed him in his view. Lord Justice Brooke said the accumulation of rubbish in the bin yard had arisen because of the council’s breach of its public duty under the provisions of the Environment Protection Act 1990.
He considered that by serving the Section 4 notice on the landlord, the council had sought to hive off performance of a duty which statute had placed on it. It had sought to shift on to the landlord’s shoulders the expense and trouble of bagging up uncontained waste in the bin yard.
After the case solicitor Richard Jones of Leeds firm Bury who represented the landlord, said he considered that it was implicit in the judgement that local authorities were under a duty to remove all household waste.
Jones says: “The facts in the case were not greatly in issue. It started life as small claims arbitration and went on there over three days.
“Leeds City Council had constructed their refuse collection contract on the basis of two bags per household. But, unfortunately, the sort of properties involved in this action tend to generate a lot of rubbish beyond that level. The contract was not constructed to deal with this. This was why the rubbish at the centre of the case had accumulated. Rubbish left out in bags had either not been collected or the bags had split open.
“This is a running sore in some areas, particularly where ’wheelie bin’ collection is used, and the council operatives refuse to collect bags of waste put by the side of the bins. Under this decision, I believe they are now under a statutory duty to clear that waste as well.
“The judges have upheld the rights of local authorities, where there is an accumulation of rubbish, to serve clearance notices on occupiers of property under Section 46 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Court proceeding can follow if such notices are not complied with. However, that still doesn’t enable a local authority to avoid its statutory duty under the Act – and under this ruling that appears to be to clear all household refuse, whether it is contained or not.
“The case is one which could well result in a number of local authorities round the country having to rethink their refuse clearance strategies.”