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Survival on the Wirral

A Third World scene. Young men picking over the scraps in a Birkenhead landfill. By Tony Bell
Two figures appear from behind a grass mound. Stooping low, they run towards a six-foot high chain-link fence on which sheets of torn polythene and paper flap in the wind. It hasn't been easy to get here. They have had to cross a railway line and a derelict site where the vigilant guards might have seen them. Scaling the fence without difficulty, the pair pause to check they haven't been spotted. They know they have a limited amount of time before they are caught, so they must move quickly.

The chain-link does not protect some important government establishment, bank or military installation. This is Bidston Moss rubbish tip in the north end of Birkenhead, and the men breaking in are, in local parlance, totters. They come every day to comb through 600 tons of rubbish. At least 20 others - all male, all long-term unemployed, usually in their thirties - forage alongside the thousands of seagulls on the landfill site for anything of value.

Although the tip has been in operation since the Thirties it was only five years ago that Merseyside Waste Disposalbegan to employ security guards - such has been the increase in the numbers scavenging.

At the household waste skips, a man stands by, bemused as the ancient vacuum cleaner he has just thrown away is retrieved. He points out that it is useless - "It's at least 25 years old" - but the remark is ignored by the totter. His clothes are shabby, his hands and face ingrained with dirt, and he appears not to notice the sickly-sweet smell that hangs in the air. These men are regarded with distaste by those who live outside Birkenhead's north end - home to most of those who work the tip. This part of the town has many problems - drugs and prostitution among them; yet less than one mile away is another world. Bidston Hill, a pleasant wooded area, is dotted with executive homes and mansions.

At the tip, lorries trundle up to the summit of the landfill to deposit their loads, chased by the totters, who race to reach it before the bulldozers. Billy, who first came here as a 13-year-old, explains the haste: "You find a lot of stuff on the surface but once the tractors have been there you've got to dig it out. I find all kinds: clothes, toys, perfume, but it's copper and lead I'm looking for. I found a gold watch once. I had it valued and it's worth five hundred quid. I've just got to get an hour- finger put on it."

At home, says Billy, he and his girlfriend listen to music from a stereo retrieved from the tip, and their three-year-old son plays with toys found there - "We give them a good wash first, though." Anything that can be salvaged is carried away in commandeered supermarket trolleys or rusting prams. On a good day, a column of these vehicles can be seen heading for the scrap dealers.

John Holden, Merseyside Waste Disposal's spokesman, explains why security is necessary: "It was becoming impossible for the tip to function. There were between 30 and 50 people digging and it just wasn't safe for them or our operators." Although Holden points out the "illegality of stealing rubbish and tampering with refuse", there are rarely prosecutions. Merseyside Police spokesman Jim Blucher says they would only become involved "if a specific complaint was received that something has been stolen from the tip". A spokesman for Wirral Borough Council says they just have to accept what happens at the tip. "There isn't a great deal going for them, so at least they are doing something about it themselves."

The town's job centre has on average 300 vacancies each week, 65 per cent of which are either part time or temporary. The remainder are a mixture of opportunities that demand high qualifications and those that pay around £2 an hour.

"The site is on the edge of an extremely deprived area," says Holden. "We do all we can to keep them out, with three miles of fencing, dogs and security patrols, but they are always there." Brian Evans, a lorry driver who works on tips all over the North-west, agrees: "You just don't see it anywhere else, but here you can see up to 30 blokes all digging away."

Today is not a good one for the totters. The security guards have been alerted and have chased them off. "There's always tomorrow," one of them shouts as he leaves, pushing a Kwik Save trolley. But there are not many tomorrows left.The tip is scheduled to close in the next two years and they will have to find other ways to earn a living. In Birkenhead, that will be no easy task. "For a lot of people here, the tip is the only thing they've got," says Billy. "I don't know what I'll do. I suppose I'll have to take any old job instead."