A vision of automotive carnage

Thomas Sutcliffe's Notebook
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The Independent Online

At first glance the board on the wall of Haringey's Parking Control Base is a little ominous. It is signposted "Quality Initiatives" and, barring a few expectant drawing pins, it is empty. For anyone who has come ­ as I have ­ to find out why there are so many abandoned cars on the streets these days it would seem to offer a ready metaphor for council haplessness. It doesn't take very long, though, to realise that it might be a good sign, not a bad one.

At first glance the board on the wall of Haringey's Parking Control Base is a little ominous. It is signposted "Quality Initiatives" and, barring a few expectant drawing pins, it is empty. For anyone who has come ­ as I have ­ to find out why there are so many abandoned cars on the streets these days it would seem to offer a ready metaphor for council haplessness. It doesn't take very long, though, to realise that it might be a good sign, not a bad one.

Over the last three years the number of dumped cars in Haringey has doubled, from around 5,000 a year to more than 10,000. The truth is that the two inspectors and three office staff who have to translate ratepayers' grievances into action simply don't have time for fine abstractions any more. They are working the pumps all day long ­ and the pumps are already well beyond their capacity.

Before taking me on a tour of Tottenham's dumping black spots, Alan Towner, Haringey's Abandoned Car Supervisor, points to the office's "wall of death", a cabinet full of lever-arch files which contain the execution warrants for condemned cars. The system will soon be computerised to help them keep up with the rising tide, but for the moment the logs of removal contracts are all filled in by hand. The bar chart which records monthly figures offers a kind of profile of Haringey's social geography ­ a shallow plain in its smaller and more prosperous postcodes, rising to a steep escarpment in N15 and N17, where there barely seems to be a street without its own monument to built-in obsolescence. The file for last November alone reveals a haul of 1,275 cars removed from Haringey's streets ­ evidence of a pre-Christmas purge on eyesores.

Outside the office it takes us around 25 seconds to find the first green-stickered car, one of several silting up the parking bays on a council estate, and from then on the tour is regularly interrupted by a spotter's mantra ­ "there's one... there's another... that's one there". Legally the council is obliged to wait for seven days after stickering a car for removal­ just in case the lichen-trimmed windows and crumpled panels are signs of driver insouciance rather than abandonment ­ but they can move faster if there's evidence that the vehicle is a risk to public safety. Abandoned cars are sometimes used as shelters by drug addicts, who can resent the removal of their temporary homes. "We find cars with bottles of urine in them and hypodermic needles shoved up through the seats," explains Mr Towner ­ notional deterrents which usually guarantee the instant removal of the vehicle, since the cars act as magnets not only for flytippers but also for curious children.

Once a car has been approved for removal, the contractors can take it away. Redcorns Recovery works as a contractor for several of the North London boroughs, including Haringey, and at their Tottenham base ­ an expanse of oily mud and iridescent puddles ­ Steve Thompson explains the simple economics behind the increasingly littered streets. Two or three years ago he could get £20 a ton for light steel, and could pay a small amount for a car. Now he's lucky to get much more than £2 for a car shell, after the labour of stripping off the tyres and transporting it, and has to charge around £10 for disposal.

The ripple that cascaded down through the second-hand car market after the recent drop in new-car prices has also effectively wiped out the trade in spare parts. Three years ago Mr Thompson would have had 300 cars in his yard waiting for cannibalisation. Now there's a single file of cars that might have some residual value, though even with these it's a forlorn hope. He points to a C-reg Nissan. "Two years ago that would have been worth £700, so if the gearbox went it would be worth someone's while to come along and find a replacement." Now it's cheaper to dump it and buy a new one. Though councils are empowered to auction off vehicles to defray their costs, this hasn't made much of a dent in the ever-growing bill: "We've auctioned off one car in the last five years," says Mr Towner wryly.

Just off the North Circular road lies the only alternative ­ GD Metals, one of the largest metal recycling businesses in the country and the recipient of cars from many North London boroughs. This particular stretch of the Lea Valley is unlovely at the best of times, but it's positively apocalyptic just outside GD's treatment plant ­ a JG Ballard vision of automotive carnage.

Drivers with a vestigial sense of civic responsibility wrongly assume that they are doing the firm a favour by dumping their vehicles outside the gates (they aren't, since the tyres have to be removed first and the cost of disposing of them in effect wipes out the slim profit to be made from what remains). Meanwhile, children who don't even know what the word "civic" means have discovered an endlessly replenished source of combustible materials. They come by at dusk to torch the new arrivals.

Inside, behind the smoke-blackened brickwork of the yard wall, a mechanical claw is busy dismembering a green van, adding it to the pile waiting for the attentions of the "baler" ­ the vast hydraulic press which can reduce car bodies to neat elongated cubes at the rate of one every one-and-a-half minutes. With an average of 200 cars arriving here every day, the baler needs to be able to work that fast. When it stops for maintenance, as it has done today, the stack of car bodies waiting to be processed soon grows unnervingly high.

From here the bales go to a fragmentiser, which reduces them still further so that the metallic elements can be separated for the furnace. Much of it will go abroad ­ until quite recently most of the 9 million tons of scrap processed annually went back into British smelters, but the strong pound and dwindling manufacturing base means that less than half of that tonnage now stays in the country.

At present rendering down cars is relatively simple ­ essentially a matter of chopping and squashing. But a large complication looms on the horizon. In April of next year, End of Life Vehicle regulations begin to be applied ­ a scheme from the European Union designed to ensure that all cars are properly disposed of. This will require the construction of disassembly lines; a huge investment for the scrap processors who are most likely to carry out the task. Even laying the concrete for such installations has been estimated to cost between £400m and £900m ­ an outlay the industry is understandably reluctant to make until they know how the bills will be paid.

For obvious reasons, this particular disposal problem may not be at the top of the Government's agenda right now, but one cannot help hoping that their "Quality Initiative" board is a little more crowded than Haringey's.

sutcliff@globalnet.co.uk

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