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Abandoned Vehicles

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]

10 pm

Barbara Follett (Stevenage): I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak on a problem that has been causing me, my constituents and many other hon. Members great concern in the past three years—abandoned vehicles, or more accurately, abandoned cars. No one living in Britain today can have failed to notice the number of burned out and rusting hulks that are being dumped on the streets of our towns, in the playgrounds of our schools, in the car parks of our businesses and on the verges of our country lanes. Some of those cars stay in place for months. They provide a dangerously unsafe playground for our children and amusement for our vandals, who occasionally set them on fire.

In the past two years in my constituency, the number of cars removed and scrapped has increased by 67 per cent. However, it is a countrywide problem. Last year, in Birmingham, 10,000 cars were dumped and scrapped; in Dagenham more than 4,000 cars were dumped and scrapped, which is a 41 per cent. increase; and in Glasgow 2,000 cars were dumped and scrapped.

The reason behind the sudden proliferation of abandoned vehicles is simple. Scrap metal dealers used to pay drivers about £50 for their old cars; now drivers have to pay scrap metal dealers £50 to get rid of their cars. The change is due to a decline in the global market for scrap metal since 1998. Three years ago, scrap metal was worth £60 a tonne, but now it is worth only £3 a tonne. The worldwide decline in the price of scrap metal has led to a countrywide increase in the number of abandoned cars, costing councils such as mine and those of my hon. Friends a great deal of time and money.

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems with abandoned cars is the length of time they have to be stored? Councils such as my own London borough of Merton have to pay to store such cars, so that a car's value is soon exceeded by the cost to the council of storing it.

Barbara Follett: That is precisely right. As many councils like mine have nowhere to store abandoned cars, the cars tend to be stored on our streets and in our lanes.

Contractors charge local councils a minimum of £25 per vehicle to remove cars, and many staff hours have to be worked before local councils can be legally rid of cars. Local authorities have the power to recover the costs of disposing of dumped cars from their owners, but as ownership is almost impossible to prove or incredibly expensive to prove, that power is more theoretical than practical. Currently, Stevenage borough council, like most other councils in the United Kingdom, is providing an almost free service to car owners who cannot or will not pay for their vehicles to be scrapped.

Depending on how it is implemented, the European Union end-of-life vehicles directive, which comes into force in April 2002, could make matters significantly more difficult and expensive for councils in the short term. The directive will impose strict controls on the hazardous components of end-of-life vehicles. It will also

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make the recycling of batteries, tyres and oil a priority. Under the European end-of-life vehicles directive, recycling can be done only after the vehicle has been transferred to an authorised treatment facility. How many councils have such a facility? I know that my council does not have one. Although all that is highly commendable and very desirable, it will significantly add to the cost, the complexity and, even worse, the time required to dispose of those vehicles.

Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley): Does my hon. Friend agree that the current long-winded process of removing abandoned and burned out cars is completely incomprehensible to our constituents who suffer that degradation in their neighbourhood?

Barbara Follett: I could not agree more. The way in which this problem brings down neighbourhoods is terrible. In one neighbourhood in my constituency, 10 or 12 cars are parked to a street. They are removed, but a week later they are back.

I am here tonight to ask the Government to act now to reduce the financial and administrative burden on local authorities. It is expected that when the directive comes into place in April, local councils could be charged anything between 50 per cent. and 250 per cent. more per vehicle than they are now.

There are four ways in which we can help. First and foremost we can shorten the period of notice required before councils can legally remove and scrap a vehicle. At present, the length of time is seven days. In my opinion, those are seven wasted days, as drivers almost never reclaim their vehicles. In a recent pilot scheme in Medway, around 600 abandoned vehicles were removed without notice and scrapped. I believe that only one driver came forward to reclaim his vehicle.

Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): One of the reasons why the scheme was so successful was that the DVLA and the local authority were operating together. If we allowed local authority officers to use DVLA legislation, they could react much quicker. The current legislation is the Refuse Disposal (Amenity) Act 1978, which many of us—particularly my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment—will remember was not Labour's finest year in terms of collecting rubbish. We need to bring the two powers together.

Barbara Follett: I could not agree more. Indeed, my second point is that we should ensure that all local authorities have an electronic link to the DVLA. This would enable them to trace the last registered owner swiftly. My borough council has such a link, but unlike the local police, they have to pay for it. Could Ministers consider providing local councils with such a link free of charge, as they do for the police?

Thirdly, we could make the DVLA's registration process more effective so that the final owner of a vehicle can be accurately identified and action taken if they abandon their car. Fourthly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Mr. Shaw) said, we can encourage the DVLA and the police to work in partnership with local councils to speed up the disposal of abandoned vehicles. For example, a 12-week partnership called Cube It was launched at the beginning of the month

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in Gravesham. Council officers there are working with the police and posting untaxed cars with notices. The DVLA's contractors come in immediately and remove them for scrapping. They then fold them into cubes, which is why the scheme is called Cube It.

Finally, it might be helpful if drivers of cars that are over three years old were obliged to display their MOT certificates on the windscreens of their cars. If a car was neither taxed nor had its MOT certificate—in other words, if it were deemed unroadworthy—and appeared to be abandoned, local authorities could be given the right to remove it and scrap it at once.

I know that the measures I have outlined are short term and do not address all the problems caused by the increase in abandoned vehicles and the introduction of the European directive. However, something has to be done urgently to prevent the proliferation of rusting hulks across our once green and pleasant land. Local authorities need national Government help now to tackle this problem. This is what I and other hon. Members are seeking tonight.

10.8 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): With the leave of my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) and my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, I will make a brief contribution.

You will know, Mr. Speaker, that hundreds of Members of all parties have asked you for debates on this issue, which is a matter of concern across the country and across all parties. You will know also that the Prime Minister raised the issue in a speech on 26 April this year. One might not think that this was an issue worthy of prime ministerial speeches, but it is of great concern—a quality of life issue—for people in towns and cities throughout the land. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage on raising the issue tonight.

I have taken the liberty of talking to a large number of Members, and I want to distil briefly what colleagues have told me are their priorities, which are shared by Nottingham city council and Nottinghamshire constabulary.

First, notices to remove vehicles under the Amenities Act 1978 should have immediate effect rather than being implemented only after seven days; otherwise, those vehicles are joyridden, abandoned and smashed in, and then another group of youngsters may set fire to them.

Secondly, we should extend to police and local authorities the powers that my hon. Friend mentioned, in line with those of the DVLA, to remove untaxed vehicles within one day, which would require amendments to the Road Traffic Act 1988.

Thirdly, we should provide greater resources to the DVLA to increase countrywide coverage for checking untaxed vehicles. At present, one contractor is employed to cover the whole country and has to move around from area to area.

Fourthly, there must be a greater use of police discretion in removing hazardous or obstructing vehicles. Again, a simple, cost-free guidance note from the Home Secretary to all local authorities and police would enable that to happen.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): Does my hon. Friend agree that nearly all abandoned vehicles are hazardous,

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because they are potential bombs? In Slough, the average abandoned vehicle—there are plenty to choose from—is burned out in short order, and is very dangerous because young children are involved.

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