Clearing up litter is integral to regaining our civic pride

30 Jun

Perhaps it is a question of political allegiance. Would a Conservative drop litter? It is hard to conceive of such a thing. When the Countryside Alliance held huge demos in London, the streets of the capital were famously cleaner after proceedings than beforehand. Contrast this with the more regular occurrence of left wing protests – including those from supposed eco-friendly outfits such as Extinction Rebellion. They leave a huge mess for the rest of us to clear up.

On the other hand, Sir Roger Scruton thought it was our choice of drink. He wrote, in I DrinkTherefore I Am:

“I blame the drinks as much as those who jettison their containers. There’s something about those fizzy-solutions, with their childish flavours and logo branded bottles, that elicits the ‘me’ response in otherwise grown-up people. The quick-fix at the plastic udder. The exhilaration of bubbles in the throat, and the burp of satisfaction as the liquid settles, all narrow the drinker’s perspective, and work to obliterate the thought of a world beyond me and mine. And the self-styled gesture as the bottle is tossed from the window of the car – the gesture which says I am the king of the space through which this body travels, and f*** the rest of you, is exactly what we must expect, when childish appetites are indulged in private at every moment of the day.”

Scruton added that along his verge he had seen “beer cans, water bottle, whisky halves and soda cartons” but “never once a bottle of wine.” Enough said.

Apart from how we vote and what we drink is the issue of age and class. Peter Franklin has written for this site that males are more likely to be guilty than females, the young more than the old, the poor more than the rich, urban dwellers more than those in the countryside. He put the matter in the context of other ways that we have spoiled the environment – where it is richer older people who are the culprits:

“Small litter consists of objects like beer cans, cigarette butts, plastic carrier bags and fast-food packaging. Big litter, on the other hand, consists of hideous buildings, garish shop frontages and unnecessary street ‘furniture’ – such as the ubiquitous roadside railings supposedly required to stop us from playing with the traffic.

“If small litter is mostly generated by badly-educated youths, then big litter is generated by well-paid architects, bureaucrats and politicians who make it their job to fill our lives with ugliness.”

The most uncomfortable truth that Franklin raised was that the problem is worse here than other countries – France and Japan being mentioned as examples. What does it say for our national pride that so many of our fellow citizens are literally rubbishing our country? People talk of Singapore as being terribly extreme. But it’s about right. The fine for a first offence is $300 equivalent to £175 – though it is higher if it goes to court. Bright Blue suggested the fine in the UK should be £500. The current figure is £150. The main point is that the law is enforced.

The recent periods of sunshine and the easing of the lockdown have once again highlighted the issue – with many concluding it is worse than ever. Clare Foges writes in The Times:

“Last week’s plastic carnage was not some aberration but confirmation that Britain’s litter problem is truly dire. According to the Hygiene Council, ours is the dirtiest developed country in the world. About 122 tonnes of cigarette-related litter are dropped every day. Councils spend hundreds of millions a year clearing it all up — too late for the creatures who die as a result of the pollution. The RSPCA receives about 5,000 calls a year about litter-related injuries to animals. Our rivers, lakes and seas have become a soup of plastic particles; at the last count there were an average of 358 items of litter per square kilometre of seabed.”

Rubbish attracts more rubbish. Fly-tipping is especially serious. When I wrote about this a couple of years ago there were 936,000 recorded incidents on the most recent annual statistics. It is now 1,072,000. Higher fines and enforcement is needed. For the Government to rely on the Environment Agency, that most useless of Quangos, sends out a message of official indifference.

Far more community service orders should involve supervised groups picking up litter. Councils and environmental charities should work with the probation service to ensure that this work is carried out effectively. The guidance for the number of hours should be increased. Why should 300 hours be the maximum? Community payback sentencing for fly-tippers should be introduced. But we rely on local authorities to take enforcement action. The extent that they do so varies greatly. So we can see that my council, Hammersmith and Fulham, issued 20 Fixed Penalty Notices for fly-tipping last year. Across the River, in Wandsworth, it was 160.

Then there is the question of litter bins. In too many of our parks the contents of these receptacles are overflowing during good weather. We need more bins and/or more frequent bin collections. Sometimes this is rejected on grounds of cost. Surely emptying bins must be less work than picking up litter strewn all over the parks and streets. Of course, I am not defending those who leave the remains of their picnics on the grass even if the bins are full. But it helps to encourage people to do the right thing.

Due to coronavirus, some council tips have been closed. Simon Clarke, the Local Government Minister, and Rebecca Powe, the Environment Minister, have sent a letter calling on them to reopen them:

“While the majority of councils have opened tips, there is evidence that some have applied excessively tight restrictions on public access. Of course, it is important to maintain social distancing measures and ensure the health and safety of both the workforce and householders. Councils must also consider the harm to public health and local amenity from fly-tipping which is unfortunately fuelled by lack of access to responsible disposal of waste, and the harm from rubbish piling up in or near people’s homes. Therefore, councils should avoid unnecessarily tight restrictions like a limited number of pre-booked slots. Where there are opportunities to improve access and to help householders dispose of waste responsibly then we would encourage you to keep measures under review and to extend access where this can be done safely.”

We can see that Kingston Council – where you have to book and often find a slot isn’t available. While at neighbouring Surrey Council you just turn up.

So decay and decline are not inevitable. It depends on our personal and political choices.  Our national shame at our streets, parks, and beaches, being covered with plastic detritus needs to be harnessed into resolving to achieve the higher standards that other countries manage. It means the courts and the police, the politicians locally and nationally, taking the matter seriously. The growing sense is that the great majority of the public already does. The indignation is increasing and our elected representatives would do well to catch up.