Set in rolling countryside with a charming pub, an annual fete and a history dating back to the 11th Century Domesday Book, the people of Barston have every reason to feel proud.
At the heart of the Warwickshire village sits a Memorial Hall commemorating the 74 men who fought in the Great War, and it’s here that the parish council and the Women’s Institute hold regular meetings.
There is plenty to discuss. For today there is a new enemy at the gates – an army of flytippers filling fields and hedgerows with rusting fridges, builders’ rubble, filthy mattresses and even abandoned equipment from an illegal cannabis farm.
Jeremy Emmett and children, centre, with Barston villagers whose system foiled a gang that dumped cannabis waste
Dumping has risen by a depressing 76 per cent in England and Wales since the start of lockdown, when council tips closed and households spent their days decluttering.
But in Barston the villagers are fighting back, with round-the-clock vigils and a £40,000 network of motion-activated CCTV surveillance cameras.
It is a huge investment for residents, many of them pensioners, but it’s certainly driving away the dumpers, with incidents dropping from one a day to roughly one a week.
The flytipping epidemic has affected every part of Britain, from inner cities to the remotest of beauty spots. Many videos of angry confrontations between residents and criminals caught in the act have been posted on social media. Some tippers have been shamed into taking their rubbish home, while others have been arrested and fined.
One popular YouTube clip shows a group of Essex farmers tackling dumpers and wrestling one to the ground. It has been viewed more than a million times. Another, with over 250,000 views, shows a man piling black bin bags full of waste on to a railway track from the boot of his car and appeals to viewers: ‘Can you name this man?’
Cannabis growing waste is seen dumped above
Wigan farmer Stuart Baldwin was filmed returning more than 400 tyres to the doorstep of a man he blamed for tipping them on his land near Haydock Park Racecourse.
‘Revenge is a dish best served cold, isn’t it?’ he said.
‘I got sick of it. People in the community have called me a legend and a hero. Hopefully people will think twice now about dumping on our land.’
Criminals are certainly thinking twice about flytipping in Barston, although some persist despite the security measures. Broken vacuum cleaners, gas tanks and a discarded children’s scooter are among recent items to be dumped.
‘We knew we had to do something,’ says sheep farmer and businessman Jeremy Emmett, who is co-ordinating the fightback.
It was his idea that Barston should install high-tech cameras with number-plate recognition software. And with the police seemingly powerless against flytippers, the villagers agreed. This was despite the huge cost and the ugly yellow signs warning visitors about the cameras that they’ve had to erect in their picturesque village to comply with the Data Protection Act.
‘Obviously it’s a huge amount of money, but quite a few of us chipped in and I’m in the fortunate position that I could help with the bulk of it,’ he says. ‘In the long run, it’s going to be worth it for all of us.’
The impact was immediate, with footage of all suspicious incidents broadcast on the village Facebook site. So successful were the cameras that within six months, local criminals had located and destroyed several of them, but the villagers put their hands in their pockets once again. The replacement cameras are now well hidden and mounted out of reach.
But just as important is Barston’s 163-strong WhatsApp group, which shares messages, pictures and videos of anything suspicious within minutes of an alert being raised. ‘It’s all a bit Big Brother,’ admits Mr Emmett, opening his laptop in his kitchen – effectively campaign HQ – to reveal a multi-screen view from the eight digital ‘eyes’ located around the village.
‘But we can only look at it for the reasons intended – if there’s tipping, burglary or suspicious behaviour. I can’t watch it to see what time Mrs Smith from down the road goes to get her nails done.’
It’s effective, all the same. This was how the villagers caught a van dumping heat-lamps, plants and compost from an illegal cannabis factory on two separate occasions.
Spotted: Waste from a cannabis farm being flytipped
Thanks to the footage, police were able to track down the driver. Two people have since been arrested. On another occasion, three employees of a construction firm were given fixed-penalty notices, £400 fines and lost their jobs after they were caught on the Barston CCTV dumping a truck-full of asbestos in a country lane.
‘Some flytippers assume we have just put up the warning signs and nothing else,’ says Mr Emmett, ‘so they get quite a surprise when the police show up.’
Robert Cooke, a 72-year-old farmer whose family has been in Barston since 1947, adds: ‘The police are duty-bound to respond when we give them so much information. They can’t duck out and say they haven’t got time or couldn’t find it.
‘And as well as checking the footage for suspicious vehicles, we can search specific number plates and “blacklist” them, meaning we’ll be alerted any time they enter the village. Then we can respond immediately.’
The cameras have helped prevent other crimes, too. Just a few weeks ago, the WhatsApp group was alerted to a gang of men in hoods spotted snooping around a house. A large crowd of villagers rushed to the scene to stop the burglars in their tracks and see them arrested.
‘It was an army,’ says Mr Cooke. ‘All of a sudden they were surrounded by 50 angry villagers – men and women of all ages. I think it was a big surprise to them.’
On another occasion, Mr Emmett received a 3am alert that a suspicious van had just entered the village.
Spotting it on the cameras parked outside the home of an elderly resident, he and a friend rushed over and blocked the van with their cars, let down its tyres and called the police. The driver was arrested on suspicion of planning a burglary.
Caught in the act: In one case, the Barston CCTV system records a tipper van entering the village laden with asbestos and other rubbish, which was dumped. The camera captured the empty van’s number plate and the driver was arrested
There have been a few mishaps, including the time when residents targeted a slow-moving vehicle whose driver was peering into houses. It turned out he was simply trying to find the right address to deliver a takeaway curry.
However, the plague of flytipping is particularly serious for farmers, who usually have to foot the bill for clearing up the mess on their land. Often, to prevent intruders, they surround their fields with dykes, earthworks or old farm machinery.
‘The frequency and severity of flytipping incidents has dramatically increased in the past year,’ says Chris Walsh, a farm insurance specialist at the National Farmers’ Union. ‘It is happening on a larger, organised scale – as much as 40 tons being dumped in a single visit. Some people are seeing it as a way to make money, by charging to remove rubbish.
‘It costs the farmers a fortune to remove and poses a real threat to livestock and the environment.
‘However, rural communities are now fighting back. We have seen successful prosecutions against flytippers where villagers have installed security cameras or farmers have gone through waste to gather evidence so police can track down the perpetrators.’
Such measures are hard work and, where technology is involved, can be hugely expensive. But they seem to be effective.
‘The word is getting round now,’ says Mr Cooke.
‘Criminals know not to mess with Barston.’