1.Mechanical vehicle washes arrived in the UK in the 1970s and by the 1990s were seen on most petrol forecourts across the UK. In the last 15 years they have faced competition from cheap hand car washes that have sprung up at the side of the road, on disused forecourts and in car parks, often relying on migrant labour. Hand car washes have seen rapid growth over the past decade and now make up approximately 80% of the UK car wash sector by volume, according to the Petrol Retailers Association. This increase has been at the expense of the Automatic Car Wash (ACW) sector, which has seen its site numbers drop by over 1,100 in the decade up to 2016.
2.Estimates of as many as 10,000 to 20,000 hand car washes operating in the UK were repeated in many of our submissions. The Government said that it was not aware of any robust figure for the number of car washes and therefore could not verify these estimates. We believe the higher figure may be an over estimate, but extrapolating from the numbers found in individual cities, we would suggest that the figure is at least several thousand. Data collected by the Church of England’s Safer Car Washes app may provide a more accurate figure in the coming months.
3.The Petrol Retailers Association (PRA) and Car Wash Association have stated that the move from ACWs towards hand car washes represents:
… a significant shift in the industry towards what the World Bank has termed the “informal economy” or […] the “cash-in-hand economy”, where there is no record of the VAT, national insurance and tax that is being paid and passed on.
4.Hand car washes have also been linked to non-compliance on environmental, health and safety regulations, non-payment of tax (VAT, income tax and business rates), lack of appropriate planning permission, poor accommodation for workers and modern slavery. Car washes are one of the most commonly reported sites of labour exploitation according to the Modern Slavery Helpline run by the NGO Unseen.
5.There is no data to indicate what proportion of the UK’s hand car washes may be evading tax or in breach of environmental, employment, and health and safety laws. However, we heard it claimed that it could be as high as 90%. Researchers at Nottingham Trent University said that:
…in terms of owner, landlord and regulator responsibilities our research found a confused and permissive picture where many blind eyes were turned.
6.It is important to note that not all hand car washes violate labour, employment, health and safety and environmental regulations. There are legitimate regulated hand car wash brands as well as examples of good practice by independent outlets. In October, the Responsible Car Wash Scheme was launched to enable consumers to identify compliant operators. This was developed by the Downstream Fuel Association in conjunction with the GLAA, five major supermarkets, the police, the Health and Safety Executive, Environment Agency, HMRC, anti-slavery charity Unseen, and national car wash operator Waves.
7.We heard concerns that hand car washes sometimes set up and operate without planning permission. When hand car washes are established on the forecourts of former petrol stations or other sites, they may require planning permission for a change of use of the site. The legal framework in the Town & Country Planning Act 1990 and supporting Government guidance states that any material change of use of land (as well as buildings) can constitute development that would require planning permission. However, the Local Government Association point out there is no statutory definition of ‘material change of use’. Therefore, whether a new hand car wash would require planning permission would be determined by the individual circumstances of the case and in particular the significance of the change and impact on the use of the land, if there is one. For example, while a HCW operating from the site of a former public house might constitute a change of use for the site, a HCW operating from the site of a former petrol station (perhaps previously incorporating a car wash) might not.
8.The Car Wash Advisory Service alleged that hand car washes:
… will very often start trading prior to any planning being sought. Our research also shows a significant lack of understanding in many planning departments regarding hand car washing, with many simply allowing land, warehouses and old forecourts to be used simply as a change of use and without any concern for the environmental impact as it is “not their job”. […]Our investigations further show that many water companies have either no idea that a car wash has connected to their system without consent, or that again consent has been given without visiting the wash site to establish if a sludge trap/separator has been installed.
9.The Car Wash Advisory Service said that of 400 sites it investigated:
10.When taking planning decisions, local authorities are directed by the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to take into account any ‘material considerations’. This is not defined further in the Act, but the courts have held that “in principle … any consideration which relates to the use and development of land is capable of being a planning consideration”. There are several material considerations–such as noise and disturbance, capacity of the water system, and pollution impacts–which might be raised when a car wash business operates in a residential area.
11.The Environment Agency is a statutory consultee for some planning applications, such as development in flood zones or where developments potentially pose environmental risks, for example cemeteries or intensive farming. However, the Environment Agency does not currently need to be consulted regarding a hand car wash development unless it is in a sensitive environmental location, e.g. in an area with critical drainage problems, in a groundwater source protection zone or likely to affect such a zone.
12.Anglian Water suggested that the planning system could be utilised to minimise the environmental impacts of hand car wash businesses. It said that the planning process provides an opportunity to ensure the impacts of proposals are considered before they are put in place. However, it argued that it would not be proportionate for water companies to be consulted on every application.
13.Alastair Chisholm from the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management raised concerns about how well planning conditions are enforced in practice. Professor Clark said that in their latest research, his team was looking at planning permission applications on hand car wash sites and that this highlighted issues of poor enforcement and compliance:
Often the operatives put in a claim for permission to have certain things, including storm drains and things like that, but when you look they have put the signage and the awning up but have not done the heavy construction work. There is also a question in terms of licensing that some of the hoops people have to go through already exist, they are just not being enforced effectively. Therefore it could be a combination of things coming together to get more regulatory compliance.
14.Local Authorities have the responsibility to ensure any planning conditions are complied with. Councillor Rhodes representing the Local Government Association said that resource constraints limited Local Authorities ability to enforce planning regulations:
Where permission has been approved and the conditions are not being met then clearly it is a matter for planning enforcement to take place. I do not want to play the fiddle for local authorities but they are under an awful lot of pressure at the moment in terms of funding and capacity. That has undoubtedly had an impact on the ability of local authorities to respond effectively in many cases, although there are also some excellent examples of good practice up and down country.
15.We were told that in some northern European nations there is better enforcement of regulations and hand car washes are not found in the same number as they are in the UK. Professor Clark from Nottingham Trent University provided anecdotal evidence that:
Unregulated hand car washes do not exist in the same way as in the UK and Ireland in other EU nations. In German [sic] and Austria, this is the case because of a strong adherence to bio issues and the green lobby. Academic colleagues at conferences suggest that these operations would be closed down within days in Germany and moreover the public would not use them in the same numbers as in the UK; the latter point may or may not be true. In summary in many northern European EU nations there is better enforcement of regulations of all types.
16.The Chairman of the Petrol Retailers Association Brian Madderson argued that the failure to enforce compliance with regulations had contributed to the growth of hand car washes in the UK:
It is extraordinary that we are virtually the only EU country where illegal hand car washing has proliferated over the last 10 years to the extent seen across the UK. This must result from the failure of key agencies to enforce their own regulations.
17.In the following two chapters we will examine concerns about water pollution from hand car washes and scrutinise the Environment Agency’s record in dealing with this. We will also look at the evidence on labour exploitation and modern slavery at hand car washes and the role of the relevant regulators in enforcing labour market and tax law.
1 The Petrol Retailers Association and the Car Wash Association (HCW0012)
2 Petrol Retailers Association (HCW0012)
3 DEFRA (HCW0019)
4 The Petrol Retailers Association and the Car Wash Association (HCW0012)
5 Director of Labour Market Enforcement, (May 2018)
8 Nottingham Business School (HCW0005)
9 Anglian Water (HCW0010)
10 Letter from Local Government Association to committee (28 July 2018)
11 Car Wash Advisory Service (HCW0013)
12 Car Wash Advisory Service (HCW0013)
13 Stringer v MHLG 1971
15 Email from the Environment Agency to committee staff (5 Oct 2018)
16 Anglian Water (HCW0010)
21 Nottingham Trent University (HCW0005)
22 Nottingham Trent University (HCW0005)
23 Local Government Association (HCW0016)
Published: 15 November 2018