Landowners’ liability for occupiers’ abandoned waste
An unsuccessful appeal by a landowner against a conviction for knowingly permitting an unauthorised waste operation on its land has highlighted the risks to landowners of incurring criminal liability if former occupiers abandon waste on their land.
The High Court has recently clarified the circumstances in which landowners can face criminal liability for waste abandoned on their land by former occupiers. Commercial landlords need to be aware of the risks and consider how they might be minimised, because the judgment imposes virtually strict liability on landowners in circumstances where occupiers cease trading and abandon waste on their land.
Salhouse Norwich Ltd owned a site in Norwich, which it leased to a mattress recycling business. The business did not have an environmental permit or a waste exemption. In August 2015, the Environment Agency served an enforcement notice on the tenant, requiring it to remove the mattresses. The tenant didn’t comply, and ceased trading, abandoning over 20,000 mattresses (weighing 471 tonnes).
The mattresses remained on the site after the tenant ceased trading. Salhouse Norwich proposed a remedial plan to attempt to clear the site, but the Environment Agency rejected it and charged Salhouse Norwich with the offence of knowingly permitting the storage of waste without an environmental permit. One of Salhouse Norwich’s directors was also charged in a personal capacity, because the company was said to have acted with his consent or connivance, or the offence was attributable to his neglect.
Both Salhouse Norwich and the director were convicted in the Magistrates’ Court, receiving a fine and 150 hours of unpaid community work respectively. They both appealed.
On appeal, the High Court upheld the convictions and found that Salhouse Norwich and the director were guilty because:
- the continued presence of the mattresses on the land after the tenant abandoned them amounted to a waste storage operation; and
- they had known that the mattresses were present on the land, but had failed to ensure their removal.
All the Environment Agency therefore needed to prove was that Salhouse Norwich and the director knew that the mattresses were present on the land and had done nothing to prevent them being there. There was no need to prove any positive act by them.
What does the case mean for landowners?
The judgment is a harsh outcome for landowners, as it seems to require them to take positive action to clean up their land if former occupiers abandon waste on it. Once they are aware of the presence of a former occupier’s waste on their land, they are guilty of knowingly permitting an illegal waste storage operation if they do nothing to remove it.
In addition to or instead of prosecuting for carrying out illegal waste operations without a permit, the Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales and local authorities have powers to serve notices on landowners requiring the removal of waste when it has been illegally deposited or illegally stored on land. Failing to comply with such a notice is also an offence. As highlighted in our March 2018 update ‘Imminent changes to waste rules – it’s not all rubbish‘, these powers have recently been extended significantly, and the position now is that a landowner can also be served with a notice requiring it to remove waste when the waste was deposited with legal authority but where that authority has expired, when the occupier cannot be found, or when the occupier was served with a notice but didn’t comply with it. Landowners can also be charged landfill tax if they knowingly permit the illegal deposit of waste on their land.
Our experience is that, where possible and practicable, regulators will pursue occupiers in preference to landowners. However, regulators will look to landowners to make up the shortfall where an occupier has disappeared or become insolvent.
Before allowing a third party such as a tenant or licensee to occupy its land, a landowner should carefully consider the nature of the occupier’s business and whether it involves waste. If it does, the landowner should ask:
- Are the necessary environmental permits and planning permissions in place for the occupier’s proposed use of the land?;
- Is the occupier’s business established and reputable?;
- Is the occupier’s business financially solvent?
If the answer to all of these questions is yes, then the risk of the occupier disappearing and abandoning waste is reduced. Prevention in these circumstances in better than a cure.