Clive Betts: Why I’m ashamed of Britain’s litter epidemic

A Clean for the Queen litter event in Pontefract.
A Clean for the Queen litter event in Pontefract.
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I’M ashamed, embarrassed and angry. It’s not because of something I’ve done. It isn’t something councils have done.

I can’t even blame David Cameron for it. It infuriates and angers most of my constituents.

So, what is it that is producing such heights of anguish and despairing impotence?

Yes, litter... a phenomenon which could be avoided almost entirely if individuals simply placed their rubbish in a bin or took it home.

Bluntly, our country is a filthy disgrace. Could it be different? Of course it could. There are countries where you would be hard-pressed to spot any litter and, if by accident, a piece of paper gets dropped, you watch the guilty party chase and retrieve it.

Is there a simple solution to the UK’s problem now? Almost certainly not. Should we just throw our hands in the air? Definitely not. Although this is not a problem of the Government’s making, we should expect the Government to recognise the problem and then take the lead in finding some solutions.

It was on that basis, last year, that the all-party Communities and Local Government Select Committee decided to examine the issue. We received lots of evidence and were overwhelmed with litter photographs. It was clear that litter is a subject which engenders huge concern across the whole country.

We found that litter levels in England have barely improved over the last 12 years, hitting the taxpayer with an annual bill of as much as £850m in clean-up costs. Chewing gum and cigarettes are the most littered items, while fast-food litter had increased by 20 per cent in the last year. Flytipping has also got significantly worse as well.

Of course, what is really obscene is that councils are spending those hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money but they’re fighting a losing battle. I can think of far better ways of spending £85m in Sheffield over the next decade rather than on litter clean-up.

The Committee produced its report almost 12 months ago. We were absolutely clear that change is needed and that individuals, Government, and tobacco, chewing gum, and fast food industries must now act to tackle the nation’s litter problem.

We recommended an increase in the fixed penalty notice (FPN), from its current £80 maximum, as a greater deterrent and to help defray more of the costs of clearing litter. Barnsley is a good example of where increased litter warden activity is already producing an impact – it issued more than 5,000 FPNs last year – but bigger fines would almost certainly achieve even more.

We said flytipping is still increasing, up by 20 per cent in the last year, with 852,000 reported incidents but there were only 2,000 convictions in the courts. The Government should introduce FPNs for flytipping for household items, which are the bulk of the incidents. We also called on industry to introduce a scheme to take away unwanted household appliances and furniture when replacements are delivered. We also thought that councils could do more to forge partnerships with charities who are willing to collect such items free of charge.

We said that the Government should hand a portion of tobacco levies to local councils to help pay for the cost of clearing cigarette litter, as that would show that the Government was serious about getting tough on litter. We said that the Government should introduce an obligation requiring all shops, restaurants and retail food outlets to keep the perimeters of their premises free from litter.

Chewing gum and the resultant staining are both difficult and costly to remove. Having given serious consideration to recommending a chewing gum tax, we warned the industry that it has one last chance to put its house in order and make greater efforts to reducing chewing gum litter by making a greater contribution to the cost of clearing gum and staining and by placing larger anti-littering notices on all its packaging, wrappers and adverts.

As well as making arrangements with charities to collect bulky items free of charge, we also called on councils to look at innovations such as smart bins which have sensors indicating when they are full and need emptying preventing the horrible site of litter spilling from overfull receptacles.

We said that the Government should launch a national litter strategy, with a clear framework for action, underpinned by a co-ordinating role for local councils.

But, rather than the usual eight weeks to respond, it took the Government nearly nine months to do so – reflecting the conflicts in leadership on the issue between Ministers at Defra and the Department for Communities.

The Government has made some progress on fixed penalty notices for flytipping, is consulting on increased fines and on making car owners responsible for any litter thrown from cars. On the other hand there is no sign of councils getting money from tobacco taxes or any indication of further action to make the chewing gum industry and fast food outlets more responsible for the litter they help create.

The Government needs to show the necessary leadership and the very least it should do is give the powers and the tools to local councils so that they, working with a wide range of other partners and local citizens, can start tackling this serious problem in all its many unacceptable aspects.

Clive Betts is a Sheffield MP and chairman of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee.