Tom Richmond: Trash talk on litter ends up in dustbin of history

Cartoon by Graeme Bandeira
Cartoon by Graeme Bandeira
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THE queue at the bus stop outside St James’s Hospital in Leeds was a polite – and patient – one. It was just another routine day as people minded their own business in that quintessentially British way.

Until, that is, one dishevelled and loutish-looking individual aged in his early 20s – I’ll refer to him as Mr Ignorant – tossed his empty packet of cigarettes, and other sundry paraphenalia from his pockets, to the ground.

Yet what stirred the ire of other travellers was the fact that there were two litter bins less than five steps away, and both had been recently emptied. This was too much for one primly-dressed lady, diminutive in stature, who was not going to let the matter pass.

“There’s a bin there,” said Mrs Respectable sternly as she pointed in the direction of the receptacles.

“So?” replied Mr Ignorant with a shoulder shrug.

“They’re for rubbish,” Mrs Respectable pointed out politely.

“What’s the point? You can’t do anything, they won’t fine me or do anything,” retorted Mr Ignorant with a few expletives thrown into the mix for good measure.

As the bus began to pull up, Mrs Respectable picked up the offending cigarette packet and put it in the bin herself as others whispered a quiet “well done”. She then glowered at her nemesis.

Yet, as I reflected on the conversation, I did come to the uncomfortable conclusion that there are some selfish elements of contemporary society so immune to the draconian promises of politicians that such utterances have lost their deterrent value.

It began in March 1988 when Margaret Thatcher, the then Prime Minister, was so concerned about the rise in litter that she took it upon herself to pick up some rubbish in St James’s Park, London, before saying that the Government would introduce new laws if necessary to catch offenders. “Bag it and bin it; that way we’ll win it,” she hectored as she recruited Sir Richard Branson to head an anti-litter blitz which soon withered away.

It continued with Tony Blair’s suggestion at the turn of the millennium that yobs should be frogmarched to the nearest cashpoint to pay on-the-spot fines and the theme was continued when David Cameron suggested in February that jobless youngsters would be forced to pick up litter if they wanted to receive the full slate of state benefits to which they’re entitled.

The talk has been tough, but it has fallen on deaf ears. The cost of cleaning Britain’s streets, roads, railway embankments and other dumping grounds of litter and flytipping now amounts to £1bn a year.

This explains why the Campaign to Protect Rural England is striving to beef up the Environmental Protection Act 1990 – legislation introduced in the wake of Mrs Thatcher’s famous spring clean – so the registered owner of a vehicle is legally responsible for food packaging, bottles, cans and other rubbish thrown from the car, van or lorry in question.

My initial instinct is that those who are law-abiding, and respectful of civic values, have nothing to fear from this, and that new technology should also be utilised to trace those miscreants who have paid for discarded items with a debit or credit card – such offenders will get a nasty shock if they see £50 debited from their account.

However the fact of the matter is that such enforcement – likely to lead to a legal challenge by proponents of civil liberties – will only occur in a tiny handful of headline cases because police, trading standards and environmental health officers simply do not have the time or manpower to devote to this issue when they have far more pressing priorities – such as apprehending those who illegally dump rubbish and waste on an industrial scale.

And, given how such promises have been devalued after Tony Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” was exposed as being little more than a soundbite, perhaps it is time for politicians to be honest with the public, admit to more pressing law and order priorities such as counter-terrorism, put the onus on citizens to pick up litter where possible and make it easier for the most serious occurrences to be reported to the authorities.

This could be backed up by councils being urged to empty overflowing bins more regularly – and increased business rates being levied against those take-away premises and other shops that do not do enough to clean their immediate environment of the wrappings and waste discarded by their customers. Alternatively councils could organise competitions to identify the cleanest shopping district, with the winning area receiving extra funds for regeneration projects. As such, it is time to consign the gesture politics to the rubbish bin and start to champion the importance of personal responsibility which once went to the core of David Cameron’s much-vaunted “Big Society”.

For, to paraphrase Mr Cameron, this is one policy sphere where we are all in this together if the values of the respectable majority are to shame an ignorant minority into changing their behaviour for the better.