Jayne Dowle: Trashing our own town with rubbish attitudes

DO you love where you live? I do. But I don't love it when I look around the town centre and see litter everywhere. Takeaway cartons chucked into flowerbeds, cigarette butts piling up by the cash-point. Barnsley has a tough enough time of it without having this rubbish to put up with. So I'm hoping that the new "Love Where You Live" campaign, launched by the Keep Britain Tidy group this week, is going to make a difference.

I'm not holding out much hope though. I've lost count of how many anti-litter campaigns I've lived through. I can actually remember the launch of the original "Tidyman" logo back in the Seventies. Sadly though, even the threat of on-the-spot fines for littering does not seem to have made an iota of difference. In fact, according to the Local Environment Quality Survey for England, the litter problem has got worse in the last 12 months. Sweet wrappers, drink, fast-food and smoking-related rubbish has all increased.

Keep Britain Tidy is pinning its hopes on its ambassador, television presenter Kirstie Allsopp and a touchy-feely new "Tidyman" anti-litter logo, which updates the original figure of a man dropping his rubbish responsibly in a bin. Well, if you ask me, it's going to take a lot more than a plummy-voiced posh bird and some clever graphics to get through to some of the thoughtless individuals I see lumbering around Barnsley town centre tossing their pasty wrappers on the pavement. And I mean thoughtless.

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I truly believe that some people don't realise that dropping litter is wrong, and putting it in a bin is their responsibility alone. I think they just assume that someone else will pick it up for them, just like someone else will pay for their benefits and keep their children in free school dinners.

And the point is, if they do it, their offspring think it's OK to do it too.

Ask a teenager to pick up the kebab wrapper he just dropped in the road – as I have, on occasion – and he's likely to ask you why. It's easy to blame local councils, but it's not their fault. How ever many millions of pounds they spend on keeping the streets clean, they are doing it with their sweeping brushes tied behind their backs if the public don't play their part.

A problem so deeply ingrained needs more than a fancy publicity campaign to put things right. The kind of thoughtless individuals I'm talking about probably won't even register the new logo, or acknowledge the concerns of Ms Allsopp. If it was up to me, I'd put big black and white signs up, the same way that hospitals warn against smoking in the grounds, spelling out the penalties for dropping litter in no uncertain terms. And I'd make sure that police and council officials had the power to make very public spectacles of those they catch in the act. Not quite bringing back the stocks, but you get the idea.

And then there is the biggest challenge; getting through to people the reason why litter matters. Ms Allsopp talks about bringing back pride in the places we live. So it saddens me that so many people must have no thought or respect for their own home town. Everywhere will have its pockets of mess, admittedly, but visit somewhere like Harrogate or the Yorkshire Dales, and there is hardly a discarded sweet wrapper in sight. And although litter might sound like a petty problem, it certainly isn't. Visitors don't notice its absence, but they certainly notice it when they have to wade through polystyrene to get through a shop doorway.

I am proud of my town, but the sad fact is that the detritus which blights its public spaces is indicative of some of the endemic social problems we face. It is no secret that here in Barnsley we have some of the highest rates of obesity and smoking-related health issues in the country. And unfortunately, on a bad day, the town centre is strewn with the evidence of this. You don't have to live here to imagine what kind of message this sends out, not only to its 200,000-plus inhabitants, but to the rest of the world.

Clean, attractive town centres attract decent retailers and plenty of shoppers. There might not be much spare money around to pay for the major regeneration projects we so desperately need, but putting rubbish in a bin doesn't cost a penny.

A dedicated band of volunteers do organise tidy-ups of the town centre. But despite their efforts, it's as bad again a week later. This makes a mockery of David Cameron's plans for localism. If we can't even pull together to get rid of litter on our streets, what hope have we of finding enough public-spirited citizens to run our libraries or sit on our parish councils?

It will always be the same few individuals who do all the work, while the rest of the population stands back. So next time you see someone drop litter, shout up. Because in the end, it's up to all of us to decide whether we want a Big Society or a rubbish society.