How hand car washes became fronts for organised crime

Experts say a lack of regulation has led to the UK becoming Europe's capital for rogue car washes
Experts say a lack of regulation has led to the UK becoming Europe's capital for rogue car washes

Washing the car is no one’s favourite chore. So, not surprisingly, most of us outsource the task to hand car washes.

But experts claim these mostly unregulated businesses have resulted in the UK becoming Europe’s capital for rogue car washes – with costs in terms of human exploitation, illegal employment, unpaid taxes and environmental concerns.

While some hand car washes are perfectly legitimate, others can be a front for organised crime. And Philip Dunne MP, who chairs the Environmental Audit Committee, said: “The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse associations identified hand car washes as the biggest single source of illegal employment of men in the UK.”

Two thirds of all car washing in the UK is now carried out by hand car washes, often on disused garage forecourts. In addition to many exploiting their workforce, the lack of any regulation means the businesses may also poison the environment by illegally disposing of harmful chemicals.

Gordon Balmer, executive director of the Car Wash Association (CWA), said: “On top of the human cost, illegal businesses aren’t paying taxes and VAT to the HMRC, they’re not paying water companies and most have no planning permission. It’s as if they’re hiding in plain sight.”

How many hand car washes are there?

Nottingham Trent University (NTU) estimates there are now about 5,500 in the UK while research for the CWA, part of the Retail Motor Industry Federation, says 67 per cent of car washing in the UK is now done by hand car washes.

Slightly fewer than one in 10 of us (9 per cent) now wash our cars ourselves.

Why are so many hand car washes ‘rogue’?

“The lack of regulation means the barriers for anyone to enter are very low,” Gordon Balmer said.

A Parliamentary report by the Environmental Audit Committee on hand car washes claimed: Not all hand car washes violate labour, employment, taxation, health and safety and environmental regulations. Nevertheless, there appears to be widespread and flagrant rule breaking taking place at hand car washes across the country.”

Following extensive research into the sector, Nottingham Trent University (NTU) believes many operate on the fringes of, or outside, the law. NTU’s Nottingham Civic Exchange manager Rich Pickford told us: “Wage theft is endemic in this sector. Frequently the workforce has little power over their employer; they’re paid a day rate. If it’s raining, they might not get paid at all and there’s no holiday, sick pay or pension.

“We visited one site in Slough and there were five workers getting £2.50 per car – 50p each per car. They’d have to wash about 18 cars an hour to earn the living wage.”

In addition to poor pay, employees frequently work in appalling conditions with no protective equipment. “We heard one story of two car wash workers being hospitalised because the hydrochloric acid in their cleaning solution had fused their flip flops to their feet,” CWA chairman Brian Madderson said.

Aren’t hand car washes cheaper?

The hand car wash industry really got going after 2004 when eastern European countries such as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia joined the European Union and workers could come to the UK with no restrictions.

Madderson revealed: “To establish themselves these businesses initially charged very low prices like £3 per car. One of our members ran a hand car wash at the same time and had to charge around three times that to cover their costs. We think about 15 per cent, or 500 legitimate car washes have gone as a result of being undercut by unregulated hand car washes.”

With reducing competition, hand car washes have been able to hike their prices. The CWA claims hand car washes now account for 90 per cent of car washing revenue.

“We believe there’s an element of price collusion, so they’ll charge around £15 to wash a medium-sized car with £10 to vacuum the interior,” Balmer said. “Automatic car washes are now cheaper in most cases.”

How bad can hand car washes be for the environment?

As some hand car washes operate without any planning permission, they don’t care how they dispose of their dirty water. The Environmental Audit report stated: “Car wash waste water can contain phosphates, detergents, surfactants, oils, silts/sediments, traffic film remover, rubber, copper and other metals.

“These pollutants can have a range of direct and indirect impacts… For example, the phosphates in detergents can ‘overfertilise’ the water with nutrients leading to excessive algae growth, consuming oxygen and killing animals and plants in large numbers.”

Film maker Louis Melville and his partner Julia Stavrietsky have a hand car wash right behind their Grade 2* listed property in a Dover conservation area. Julia told us: “Since the car wash opened in 2020, I can only describe it as living in a torture chamber. The noise from the pressure washers penetrates every room of the house.”

Louis added: “We can’t open any windows because of the noise and the spray. We had the spray analysed and it has carcinogens and mutagens in it. They work every day apart from Christmas Day. It’s made our life hell.”

Why is the problem so bad in the UK?

Many other European countries strictly regulate car washing, so operators came to the UK. The 2019 Conservative party manifesto pledged to create a Single Enforcement Body that would bring together various agencies to tackle problems like hand car washes. This was abandoned in 2022.

Working with business, the CWA’s Responsible Car Wash Scheme has already done away with independent hand car washes in supermarket car parks. Now, with NTU, it’s been working on how a licensing scheme could operate.

Pickford said. “The government doesn’t seem to believe in regulation. But this market has had plenty of time to work itself out, and it’s worked out that it doesn’t need to comply with any rules.”

Madderson added: “We’ve done a report on how a code of practice for the industry might work. We submitted it and, although the Home Office paid £500,000 towards it, as far as we can tell, no one has read it.”

If you suspect a hand car wash of criminal activity, the Safe Car Wash phone app from the Church of England’s anti-slavery arm will let you report it anonymously.