Green and pleasant land?
Tuesday March 6, 2007
Litter lies discarded on a London street. Photograph: Frank Baron
Make the most of it. Before the leaves begin to shoot on the trees and the grass thickens on the roadside verges, take a look around you. This is the perfect time of year to appreciate what a squalid place Britain has become.
The gutters heave with the spring awakening of Starbucks cartons. The pavements glitter with discarded gum and the sun twinkles on a million soft-drink cans. What is that streaming from the top of the tree? It’s a 12ft length of grubby plastic
It is not just the sordid view from the windows of trains, or from cars and buses on the motorways. There can scarcely be a country road in Britain that is not splattered with the evidence of what an ugly, thoughtless people we are becoming. Years ago I remember going to Greece and being depressed by the slick of plastic bags, discarded bottles and soiled nappies at the edge of every road. Nowadays, Britain seems to look at least as sordid. What’s gone wrong?
The first port of call is that eminently worthy but dull organisation, the Keep Britain Tidy campaign. The logo, the slogan – was there even some irritating jingle, back in the days of black-and-white television? – recall a different country. Keep Britain Tidy has now been rebranded “EnCams” (short for environmental campaigns? – the name change doesn’t exactly seem to have catapulted it into the headlines) and runs from offices in Wigan.
Astonishingly, they seem to think things are getting better rather than worse, according to their most recent survey in November 2006. The top line of their news release claimed that “litter levels in England have fallen to a five-year low”. This it attributes to “new laws brought in by government”, introducing possible £80 fines. The organisation is largely funded by the government.
How can they claim the country is so clean, when the evidence of our eyes suggests quite the reverse? To be sure, they do think that some problems seem as bad as ever: lots of fag ends, for example; a 2% increase in dogshit (how do they measure these things?).
The organisation is enthusiastic about clean-up campaigns of the kind organised in cities such as Manchester and Nottingham, backed by fines for offenders. These included an £800 penalty for a woman in Manchester for persistently not cleaning up after her dog had pooed in public places. (More effective, it seems to me, would be community service orders requiring such people to spend a few weekends scooping up dog mess, preferably with their bare hands, but that is by the bye.)
At the end of successful local campaigns you have a cleaner area. Of course, this is a good thing: one consequence of rubbish on the streets is that they make you ashamed, depressed and angry about where you live. But it seems to me that we long ago moved from an environment in which litter was a local problem. We are no longer a green and pleasant land spotted with filthy places. We are a filthy island in which there is now an occasional oasis of cleanliness.
Just look at the roadsides. Setting out to cycle a one-mile stretch of quiet country road to attempt my own amateurish survey of rubbish, I gave up once I had counted more than 100 items and, it seemed, hardly gone 500 yards. Of course, some of it – hubcaps and so on – looked as if it had fallen there by accident. But most – sandwich wrappers, McDonald’s bags, crisp packets and endless plastic bottles – had been deliberately jettisoned.
The problem is that the detritus that accompanies our increasingly mobile lives lasts a great deal longer than the time it takes for its contents to pass through us. If it is not cleared up and dumped in one of the increasingly scarce holes in the ground, it stays in the undergrowth for years, a semi-permanent reminder of what a tatty little place we have become.
The reason people throw their trash out of the window of their car is, obviously, that they do not want it inside. They do not want it there because that is space for which they feel personally responsible. “Outside” belongs to someone else. Or, more likely, to no one. So the litter issue is about more than the uglification of Britain. It tells us something about the sort of nation we have become. People, like animals, do not generally foul their own nests. But they feel free to throw rubbish around for much the same reason morons feel entitled to vandalise bus shelters, smash park benches or use telephone boxes as urinals: they do not feel the public realm is theirs.
On the left the common coin is to see this sort of antisocial behaviour as the natural consequence of the “no such thing as society” individualism that underpinned Thatcherism. I guard my things. Indeed, I demand respect from others for them, because they signify my achievement (even if, as often as not, the credit bills on which they were bought will long outlive their shiny consumerist showiness).
But it is too easy to blame it all on Margaret Thatcher. Whatever Blairism may be, it has done nothing to dim the obsession with the signifiers of success. The ludicrous “respect” culture, that sees knife-fights start because someone fails to accord due deference to another person’s trainers, is just the most extreme expression of a cast of mind that now seems universal.
The flipside is not merely increasingly frenetic attempts to persuade us to spend money on things we don’t need to buy. It also encourages a belief that that which is not obviously personal property has no value. I might respect your trainers – but I couldn’t give a toss about the park or the bus shelter that belongs to all of us.
It is stupid, of course, because we all then have to clear it up. And since no government – national or local – wants to take away the money citizens would prefer to spend on shiny new goods, they economise on clearing up rubbish. The difficulty that then arises is that once you get to a point where there is garbage everywhere you look, there is no longer any incentive for others not to add to the mess. The contrast is with visiting a continental city that has the civic pride to keep the streets clean: when foreign visitors see cleanliness is the norm, they feel inhibited about dropping rubbish.
The paper and dogshit will rot away. The real problem, it seems to me, is plastic. The stuff is everywhere – in parks, public spaces, outside office blocks, blowing about on country fields and festooned in the branches of trees.
First off, there are the estimated 10 billion plastic bags given to shoppers. Some of them will take anything from 100 to 1,000 years to rot away. It is not as if nothing can be done about it. Five years ago, the Irish government brought in a tax on non-recyclable plastic bags (15 cents for each one) and within three months cut their use by 90%. When he was a minister at the British Department of Environment Michael Meacher attempted to introduce a similar arrangement in Britain. The plastics industry objected, of course. But they need not have bothered. Meacher found the idea stifled before it could draw breath: taxes were the Treasury’s prerogative, and they weren’t going to let a bunch of sandal-wearers take the initiative. Remember this the next time that Gordon Brown poses as an environmentalist. Here is a man whose memorial should be built of discarded supermarket bags.
The people who supply and manufacture plastic bags claim that “plastic carrier bags are not a significant component of litter”, on the grounds that they are outnumbered by discarded cigarette butts. This is an argument on a par with the old excuse that “the cat ate my homework”.
But I suspect we will whistle ourselves breathless waiting for the government to make the packaging industry pay to clear up the rubbish their customers throw around. There aren’t any votes in it. In the meantime, we shall have to try to force government – local and national – to knuckle down to their responsibilities.
Local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure streets, parks, playgrounds and pedestrian areas are clean. The sides of roads and motorways are the responsibility of councils and the Highways Agency. They are demonstrably failing to keep pace with the tide of rubbish. In theory, any of us could go to a magistrates’ court to get an order forcing them to take their duties seriously. But who has the time? A spokeswoman for the Highways Agency, for example, could not recall a single instance of an individual seeking an enforcement notice against it through the magistrates courts.
What is obviously needed is some combined initiative, individual and collective, voluntary and coercive, before it is too late. Unless we are to revel in a belief that somehow the British are a uniquely sordid people, we should seize the moment. This is the perfect time of year for a national spring-clean, which could involve councils, schools, voluntary groups and community organisations, as well as the statutory authorities. It would be one of those few tasks in life at the end of which you would see a result.
The alternative is to continue sliding downhill into a country that increasingly resembles some vast municipal landfill site. We may be – in every sense – at a tipping point. But we know that people respond to what they see around them. If they see clean and tidy, they act clean and tidy. If they see squalor, they act squalid. Right now, Britain looks pretty vile in many places. Wait five years and see how it looks.