Our country is littered because most local authorities and Highways England fail to comply with their statutory duty to keep their land clear of litter and refuse. Our mission is to get them to
(a) remove litter and refuse more promptly and
(b) do far more to deter those who create it in the first place.
However for decades central government has failed to provide the leadership, funding and resolution needed to get to grips with the problem.
Duty to keep land and highways clear of litter
Under Section 89 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 duty bodies are required to ensure, so far as is practicable, that their land and highways are kept clear of litter and refuse.
Highways England (motorways and most trunk roads), all local authorities (other roads, parks etc.) and London Underground are duty bodies.
The use of the term “practicable” as opposed to “reasonably practicable” is significant. With the latter cost is a relevant consideration. With the former it is not. (See the 2 minute video “Duty to keep highways clear of litter”)
However no organisation was charged with the task of policing compliance with the S89 duty and the code of practice issued by DEFRA (under EPA S89(7)) is crafted in such a way as to suggest a reduced standard based on response times and “reasonable” practicalities.
For example a busy lay-by might need a daily clean but under the code a duty body has two weeks to clean it after it falls below standard.
As a consequence …
England was officially declared to be a litter-ridden country
In 2015 a Commons Select Committee concluded that that “England is a litter-ridden country compared to most of Europe, North America and Japan”.
This is not surprising since local authorities on average spend under 60p per week per household on street cleansing. This is less than 1% of their total expenditure. We happily spend 5 times as much per household on hair dressing and beauty treatments!
There are however some shining examples of bodies taking their statutory duty seriously. London Underground and the central London Boroughs litter pick with sufficient frequency that accumulations are not allowed to build up.
Our main roads and motorways are in the worst state of all. Local authorities pay less heed to through roads where there are usually no residents to complain about their condition. Please refer to Roadside litter complaints. Some Councils have admitted that they only plan to clean their high-speed roads twice a year.
The government’s response (Dec 2015) to the Select Committee’s report:
- Characterised the problem as a local one for local government (buck passing).
- Pointed out that successive Local Environment Quality Surveys had shown that the vast majority of England is “predominantly free of litter and refuse” (denying the problem).
- Agreed to develop a national litter strategy ( i.e to produce yet another piece of paper).
The litter strategy was leaked to the press in January 2017. The 7 point plan includes only one measure of any substance. No additional funding was promised.
It was accompanied by the same ministerial rhetoric we have all heard before.
We must get serious about litter fines
A positive development in the last several years has been the increasing use by councils of specialist contractors to issue on-the-spot fines for littering. These arrangements can be self-funding or even produce a surplus to fund more litter picking. However, many schemes are token operations taken on to show a council is doing something. On average in Walsall only 1.4 /day fines are being handed out.
When a fine is not paid the person is prosecuted in the Magistrates Court. Because of complexities arising from the Children’s Act and the reluctance of Magistrates to give a 15 year old a criminal record for dropping a packet of crisps officers are usually instructed not to issue juveniles with on-the-spot-fines.
I am recommending several changes to the current regime. (1) A civil law penalty option should be introduced to simplify the process and facilitate the fining of juveniles. (2) To massively increase productivity officers should operate in plain clothes and target hotspots. (3) Councils should be encouraged to use this enhanced process to raise enough money to at least double their current spend on street cleansing. (4) This should all be supported by a “You are being watched campaign“.
… and sort out the mess at Highways England
Before he was appointed as the minister in charge of the government’s litter strategy Lord Gardiner, had referred what he described as our filthy motorways.
In April 2015 under the Infrastructure Act the Highways Agency, an executive branch of the Department for Transport was turned into a semi-independent government owned company – Highways England. I wrote to the incoming Chairman pointing out the HA’s failure to comply with EPA S89, the defects in their area service provider contacts (no clear specifications and no meaningful monitoring) and their culture of spin and excuses.
At the same time the DfT set Environmental Key Performance Indicators for Highways England. There are KPIs for noise, biodiversity and air quality -but none for litter.
HE’s fail to spell out its statutory duty in their 6 page Litter Strategy. They have stated
they were simply responsible for the “removal of litter” and keeping the motorways free of litter as far as is “reasonably possible”. “Practicable” has morphed into “reasonably possible”.
In July 2016 HE agreed a new style contact with their service provider for Area 7, the East Midlands. For the first time, they specified what the cleansing frequencies should be. However, this was to be only once a year for the M45 and parts of the M1.
The Office of Rail & Road and Transport Focus are funded by the DfT to the tune of £4.3 million pa to monitor and investigate how HE exercises its functions.
The ORR say that assessing Highways England’s compliance with this EPA S89 duty is outside the scope of it’s functions.
Transport Focus have published 57 reports on the HE network. None have mentioned litter. As at the end of February 2017 there were no references to litter anywhere on their web site. This, they say, is because “relative to the many other things that determine a road users’ satisfaction with their journey the problem doesn’t feature highly”.
A major contributor to roadside litter are spillages from skip lorries and bulk waste transporters. This 30 second video shows what is happening on a regular basis. However the Environment Agency have only prosecuted one such offending company since Jan 2000 and that was at my instigation. Highways England obstinately refuse to accept that they can and should prosecute these offences.
Bizarrely most of the trunk roads (as apposed to the motorways) on the HE network have to be cleansed by the various local authorities through which they pass. So before the HE contractor can cut the grass the council’s contractor has to pick up the litter. The government stated that transferring this responsibility to HE would require primary legislation which is simply incorrect. Please refer to Cleansing of HE trunk roads (APTRS) – transfer of responsibility to HE
I have taken up these and other HE related matters in an e-mail of 1st March 2017 to the Permanent Secretary at the DfT.
Please refer to my Key recommendations page
Now have your say
Please go to Have your say
7th March 2017