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Before becoming Under-secretary of State for Transport with responsibility for the motorways Conservative MP Mike Penning led a debate in Westminster Hall on litter on motorways and trunk roads on 30 March 2010.  

This transcript is taken from  the relevant pages of Hansard.  

You can also see the full debate on  video and read  key quotations from Mike Penning

Motorways and Trunk Roads (Litter)

1.30 pm

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): May I also pay tribute to the work that you have done in this House, Mr. Wilshire, in your time as a Member of Parliament and as the Chair of important Committees and of Westminster Hall? I wish you well in whatever else you go on to do.

I asked for this debate out of the anger and real frustration that I, my constituents and indeed everyone in the country has experienced at the fact that our great country and our excellent road network are being blighted by the rubbish that is continually being discarded; the network in my own part of the country is being particularly blighted. That rubbish is either being dumped from vehicles or it is escaping from the top of waste disposal vehicles or skips on to the highways. I am very aware that there is legislation in place to deal with this problem. Frankly, however, having driven around the highways and byways of Britain, particularly our motorways, I know that it is not working.

At this stage, I would like to pay tribute to Keep Britain Tidy and the Campaign to Protect Rural England. Those organisations did not lobby me to secure this debate, but once I had secured it they were very quick off the mark to contribute and their briefings have been very useful.

As someone enters this country, or as they enter a town or one of our great cities, there are first impressions that will stick in their mind. If someone leaves the great city of London and travels up the M1 from Brent Cross, they are driving through a rubbish tip-there is no other way to describe it. Sadly, as I travel on that motorway all too frequently, I know that traffic builds up and drivers sit there, waiting for the traffic to move on. As they do so, they glance to the side and they see a build-up of rubbish that has obviously been thrown from private vehicles or that has escaped from commercial vehicles. Clearly, that rubbish has been there for some considerable time. That is obvious, because a modern drinks can takes an awful long time to break down, as does a crisp packet.

Indeed, the other day I was amazed to see a Marathon bar wrapper that had been discarded. Marathon bars have not been for sale in this country for some considerable time; they have been renamed “Snickers”, or whatever the company wants to call them these days. I do not actually eat those bars, but I am aware that they have not been called Marathon for some time. I tried to find out when the brand or name of “Marathon” went out of use, but I could not find that out. However, it is certainly several years and yet these Marathon bar wrappers are still sitting on the side of our highways and byways. They are the type of awful litter that is blighting the countryside around us.

That is unfair on towns such as Hemel Hempstead and in particular on local authorities such as my own, Dacorum, which do everything they can to clear up the refuse and litter that is thrown around, for whatever reason. My town of Hemel Hempstead is very clean; I am very proud of it.

However, a driver might come off the M1 at junction 8 in my constituency. Before going further, I would like to pay tribute to the Government for the excellent
 road-widening that took place in my constituency, in particular the work done between junctions 6A and 10. I also pay tribute to Neil Owen, who was the team leader for the Highways Agency, and to John Hollaway, who was the project manager for Balfour Beatty. They have brought onstream a fantastic piece of motorway networking.

That piece of motorway has only been open for about a year, but if a driver looks at it now as they enter my town it is absolutely covered in litter. I must ask who is looking after that piece of motorway? I asked my local authority whether it had any right to go down there and, even if it was not going to be paid for it, to clean up. I was told, “Oh, no, that’s very much the responsibility of the Highways Agency.” I then looked up what the Highways Agency has been doing. I found that every week 13 tonnes of litter is thrown or discarded from vehicles around the country.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Chris Mole) indicated assent.

Mike Penning: I could not find a breakdown of what proportion of that litter is coming from private vehicles, as people go about their normal daily business in their cars or vans, and what proportion is escaping from refuse vehicles or skips, which is a problem that I alluded to earlier. I suspect that any such breakdown would largely be guesswork, anyway.

There is legislation on the statute book to deal with the problem of litter escaping from commercial vehicles. We have all driven down the highways of this country behind a lorry and seen litter-commercial paper, etc.-escaping from the back of those vehicles. I hope that the Minister will address that issue when he responds to the debate.

Apparently 13 tonnes of litter are being thrown from vehicles every week. However, according to the figures that I have here, 50 tonnes of litter are being cleared from just five motorways. So, are there special roads in this country that are being cleared while other roads are not being cleared? Clearly, the M1 in my part of the world, which is the responsibility of the Highways Agency, is hardly being cleared up at all. As I have said, I know that simply by looking casually out of my car window and seeing the length of time that some litter has been left in place.

However, it is not just the Highways Agency that is responsible. Some local authorities, particularly the county authorities, have their own highways teams. In my own constituency, for instance, the A41 is a wonderful bypass that was put in several years ago. To come into Hemel Hempstead from the west, drivers come off the A41. However, it is possible to mark the line when a driver enters my local council’s area by the litter line. That litter line is there. It is also possible to mark the line by seeing how the hedgerows have been cut back, etc.

So I have a question to put to the Minister; I noticed that he was nodding, from a sedentary position, when I mentioned that 13 tonnes of litter is being discarded from vehicles every week. I want to ask him how the cleaning of that litter is being carried out. What sort of system is in place?

Frankly, I am very angry that our beautiful countryside is being blighted. To meet our transport needs, motorways cut through the Chilterns and many other great and beautiful areas of our country. But people, such as my constituents, who pay their taxes, including huge amounts of road tax and other duty, are driving along the highways and byways of the country to look at what? If someone is a passenger, they look out of their window and what do they see? Refuse. Everywhere you go, there is rubbish and litter.

In my personal view, I do not think that it should be the job of the Government to pay lots of people to clean up that rubbish. Clearly, that is what we are doing; I am sure that the Minister will tell me how much the different agencies are spending on that work. I think that the people who should also contribute to this work are the people who need to pay back the community when they have done something wrong but who have not been sent to prison.

I am particularly interested in the wonderful community punishment and rehabilitation orders that our courts are being encouraged to give out to defendants who have been found guilty of certain offences. The sorts of projects that those people should be doing are supposed to be priority projects to allow high volumes of offenders to work in the community safely. I cannot think of a better thing for someone who has committed a crime and gone through the court process but not been sent to a prison than to have to carry out-as it says on the packet-a “punishment and rehabilitation order”, to come out into the community and pay back the community by fixing something that has been blighted and damaged.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I could not agree more with what my hon. Friend is saying. He is right to place huge significance on this problem, both in terms of the damage to our landscape and in terms of the use of juvenile offenders and other people who would be able to come into an area and deal with the litter that accumulates. That litter includes the dangling plastic bags and other pieces of plastic that get caught up in the hedgerows all around the country. In my constituency of Stone, I get absolutely furious when I look at such litter. I see the problem that my hon. Friend is so rightly concentrating on. This is a real bread-and-butter, nuts-and-bolts debate of great importance.

Mike Penning: I had not intended to take any interventions in this short debate, but I am now pleased that I did so. I have been to my hon. Friend’s constituency and it is a beautiful part of the world, which he represents fantastically well. However, these plastic bags that he mentioned blight the countryside. My farmers talk to me about them on a regular basis, not least because if they have any cattle or sheep-I have a lot of sheep farmers in my constituency-they know that the number of animals killed each year by plastic bags is very high.

One of the things that I noticed the other day in a hedgerow on the M1 was audio tape. Clearly, someone had tossed out of their vehicle a small audio tape; such tapes used to be the fashion in our cars, before compact discs and everything else that came along after. I do not know when the person tossed out the tape, but they seem to have tossed rather a lot of them. It is now a sort of moving graffiti-when the sun catches it, one cannot miss it-yet it seems to have been sitting there forever.

How do we address the problem? We are in a tight fiscal situation. I am sure that agencies-particularly the Highways Agency, which the Minister is going to discuss in a moment-will say that they are short of money and cannot get to such places as often as they would like, but thousands of community punishment and rehabilitation orders are given every year. I have read the literature, and the orders seem absolutely perfect for the purpose. I also looked to see whether other countries use offenders for such tasks to pay back the community. It takes place around the world.

As I dug deeper, I was surprised that not many people in this country are out there paying back. I got an e-mail from a magistrate in London who, for obvious reasons, does not want to be named in this debate. He discusses

“the government’s concerns on prison overcrowding and the pressure on the judiciary to use more community sentencing.”

That is eminently sensible. I would prefer people who should be in prison to be there and people who can pay back in the community to do so. I am sure that we would all agree that a community payback project should not be the soft option, that it should be visible and that the people involved should work hard. Yet attached to the e-mail was another e-mail from a gentleman called Malcolm Jenkin, director of interventions for London Probation, who said:

“Please be advised that, due to budget restraints, London Probation has temporarily ceased using casual status Project Supervisors in Community Payback.”

It goes on to say, in effect, “Please don’t do this.” I do not blame the Minister, who I am sure can feed that back into the Justice Department, but it is absolutely ludicrous that magistrates are being told on one hand not to put young people-I apologise. Not all people who commit offences are young people; far from it. There are a lot of very good young people doing fantastic work in the community. I do not want to brand them. The courts are being told not to give so many custodial sentences and to use these wonderful community punishment and rehabilitation orders, but the people who are supposed to administer them are asking courts not to give them out.
The e-mail says that community payback teams have:

“Merged many groups to ensure that they are used to maximum capacity”

and

“reserved weekend sessions, where possible, to offenders”.

That is not what community payback was designed for. It was designed to be exactly what it says on the tin: a community punishment and rehabilitation order. It is imperative that the Government get a grip on that and put such people out in the community where it is safe to do so. Believe me, people can work on roads in safety. It is done regularly. Otherwise, we would not be able to pick up the 500 tonnes that I am sure the Minister will tell me about in a moment.

If the Government did that, we could start to recapture the beauty of our countryside and towns. Motorways are driven through areas of outstanding natural beauty or areas that have experienced natural regeneration since the motorway was built. We must take the opportunity to keep such areas tidy for the sake of first and daily impressions, so that both visitors to and permanent residents of this country can care about it.

There seems to be a complete lack of penalties available for people who litter from vehicles, although there are plenty on the statute book. How many people have been prosecuted in England in the past 12 months for littering from a car? Presumably they were picked up by Highways Agency vehicles, unless the Highways Agency cannot do so. I understand that it has no powers to issue such penalties. If someone on a motorway is chucking rubbish out the window of their car, who is responsible? If it is the traffic police, I must say that they are few and far between in my part of the world, having been mostly replaced by Highways Agency vehicles.

This is a serious debate. I am sorry that I got only a half hour. I wanted an hour and a half, as I knew that some colleagues wanted to debate it as well. The issue affects everybody in this country. Those of us who are enormously proud of our country cannot understand why anybody would want to blight our countryside and roads by throwing refuse out their window. Those who do should be penalised, and those who let down their community and country should pay it back under the orders. I hope that the Minister will ask the relevant Justice Minister to explain why the orders are not being used in a sensible way.

Mr. David Wilshire (in the Chair): Welcome back, Minister.

1.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Chris Mole): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the second time this afternoon, Mr. Wilshire. I did not realise earlier that this is likely to be one of the last times. I wish you well for the future.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on securing this debate and providing us with an opportunity to discuss litter on motorways and trunk roads. I recognise that litter on our motorways and trunk roads is of considerable concern to road users, neighbouring communities and businesses, as well as to the officials and contractors who must deal with the problem.

Some 700,000 sacks of litter are collected from the motorway network each year. Between 18 February and 11 March this year, 745 sacks of rubbish were collected on the M25 along the northern approach towards the A4127 during 35 visits to the area by the Highways Agency’s service provider. On the M11 between junctions 6 and 9, an estimated 80 to 90 sacks of litter are collected each week. In fact, the increased amount of litter being deposited on the M11 has required additional resources to be allocated to the task.

Picking up litter along a high-speed carriageway is a dangerous, continual task, and appropriate traffic management may be required to protect those engaged in that crucial work. I do not want to disagree with the hon. Gentleman about the role that community punishments might play in providing additional resources for addressing the problem, but I caution him that there could be safety issues involved in using untrained, inexperienced staff in an environment that can be dangerous. I do not demur from what he said about the value of community punishments. I have seen offenders painting benches in kiddies’ play parks in my constituency, and I appreciate the value of such activities and the sense of payback that I hope individuals receive from being asked to take part in them. I am more than happy to take away his suggestion and discuss it further with Highways Agency officials and colleagues in the Ministry of Justice.

Mike Penning: If the Government started by asking “How can we do this?” rather than saying “We can’t do it,” we would get a lot further. Other countries around the world have done it. It happens already in certain parts of this country. As difficult and back-breaking as the job may be, I suggest that the necessary training to pick up litter on a motorway that has been coned off is not huge.

Chris Mole: I will discuss the different types of roads, as I think that it will put my comments in a little more context for the hon. Gentleman.

Roadside litter is a national problem. It is unsightly. It pollutes our environment, blocks drains and endangers wildlife. It also presents a risk to service providers carrying out their maintenance duties and to public health. It is composed not just of crisp packets and sweet wrappers thrown from vehicles but of large items that have accumulated in lay-bys or been illegally dumped. Fly-tipping at lay-bys on trunk roads is an ongoing problem. Large items such as tyres, beds and sofas are regularly dumped. I know, for example, that it is a particular problem on the A11, A12 and A14. The Highways Agency regularly reports such accumulations to the relevant local authority.

Responsibility for clearing highway litter and sweeping carriageways is governed by the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Under the Act, the Highways Agency is responsible for litter collections on motorways in England, but responsibility for litter collection on the vast majority of all-purpose trunk roads, or A roads, rests with the appropriate local authority. The task of clearing litter from motorways in England is undertaken by the Highways Agency’s service providers, which are required under their contracts to meet the standards set out in the Environmental Protection Act.

I cannot provide a specific cost for the collection of litter from motorways, as the task is included in the overall maintenance duties of the Highways Agency’s service providers. As for the trunk roads, the task is undertaken by local authorities. The constant need to clear litter from roads diverts valuable resources away from road maintenance and repairs and places a financial burden on central Government and local authorities.

Responses to the Highways Agency’s road user satisfaction survey rate reflect the central importance of keeping roads free of litter, and litter features frequently as a topic in customer correspondence received by the Highways Agency. A recent study by a major motoring organisation showed that 88 per cent. of its members feel angry about litter louts who throw rubbish on to our roads and motorways.

To counter litter on trunk roads, the Highways Agency works collaboratively with local authorities, whose responsibility it is to collect litter from such roads. For example, when the Highways Agency has traffic management in place on trunk roads for other works, if practical it notifies the relevant local authority so that litter picking activities can be planned to coincide with that so that disruption to the travelling public is minimised.


In the west midlands, traffic management has been shared on 51 occasions on various routes during periods of routine maintenance or other works since July 2009, 12 of which have been since January this year. In the south-west, the local authority took advantage of the Highways Agency’s traffic management to clear litter during the work to improve the A303 between Willoughby Hedge and Mere.
The Highways Agency’s service providers monitor the whole motorway and trunk road network for cleanliness, with special attention being paid to areas of slow-moving traffic and places close to service areas. Some of those factors may be relevant to the geography the hon. Gentleman described. When they have concerns about the amount of litter on a particular trunk road, they contact the relevant highway authority and ask for the litter to be cleared. On some parts of the trunk road network, the Highways Agency is actively working with local authorities to reach agreements on litter picking duties, whereby the Highways Agency collects litter from the trunk roads on behalf of the local authority or provides the traffic management for the local authority to do so. Those are local arrangements and are not part of a general policy.

Mike Penning: The Minister is right that litter tends to build up where motorways end or where there is often congestion at junctions. When motorways go through cities, there can be a wind tunnel that picks up the litter. Can the Minister arrange for the relevant agency or local council to drop me a line to tell me what work is being done in my part of the world? In particular, it would be great if the road signage and sandbags that were left over from the roadworks at junction 8 of the M1 could be picked up. We are talking about litter and rubbish, but things are often left over when work has been done. I do not know if sandbags are biodegradable, but they are doing their best to deteriorate because they have been there for so long.

Chris Mole: I will certainly raise with Highways Agency officials the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the signage that has been left following the recent roadworks.

Litter would not be such a problem if people disposed of it more responsibly. The Highways Agency encourages drivers and passengers to take their litter home with them by having a rubbish bag in their vehicle. The agency runs local events and an annual national campaign called “Bag it! Bin it!” to highlight the danger to other road users of throwing rubbish out of moving vehicles or depositing it along the roadside. The bags distributed as part of that campaign are biodegradable and can be recycled.

Mr. Cash: I hear what the Minister says, but his description does not deal with the problem in my constituency where there are trunk roads and a motorway. On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) on people being expected to use juvenile offenders’ orders or other Ministry of Justice mechanisms, why could we not have a litter and rubbish removal order that is allocated specifically for this purpose? Will the Minister speak to the Ministry of Justice about that? Like my hon. Friend, I would also like to be told how the Highways Agency is operating in my area.

Chris Mole: I said that I am happy to engage with my colleagues in the Ministry of Justice on the community punishment approach.

I am pleased that the national campaign that encourages people to take their litter home is supported by the AA, the Royal Automobile Club Foundation and the Institute of Advanced Motorists. Yesterday, the Highways Agency’s south-east region began holding local events at motorway service areas as part of its ongoing “Bag it! Bin it!” anti-litter campaign that will run until 1 April. As part of the campaign, agency and service provider staff will engage with their customers to talk about the problems caused by litter on the network and offer bags to motorists. Initiatives with schools are being discussed in some parts of the country, particularly those located near litter hotspots. The agency has worked with some primary schools as part of the “Bag it! Bin it!” campaign.

The Highways Agency is working with local authorities wherever possible to find ways of improving litter collection. On the A30 and A38 in Cornwall, the agency now clears larger items of litter from the verges into holding sacks provided by Cornwall county council. A trial will soon start whereby Cornwall county council will provide recycling bins in lay-bys, which it will empty as and when required.

Mike Penning: I have read the literature and I have seen the “Bag it! Bin it!” campaign. I am pleased to hear that work is being done at service stations. There is no point in giving bags to customers once they have come out of service stations because it would have such a small effect. Surely we could work with service station providers to ensure that their bags are biodegradable because they invariably end up on the side of our motorways. Instead of giving out biodegradable bags when customers already have bags that are not biodegradable, service station providers should work with us to ensure that all of their bags are biodegradable. That would be eminently sensible.

Chris Mole: I was going to refer to work being done by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and it might be able to raise that directly with suppliers and motorway service area providers.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned litter escaping from vehicles. There are issues with vehicles that should have nets across the back to contain material that could be drawn out by the wind and left on the highway. Highways Agency traffic officers keep an eye out for such vehicles and although they do not have direct enforcement powers, they can refer vehicles to the police so that they can investigate whether a prosecution is appropriate.

Mike Penning: It is not the police who have the enforcement powers on that matter, but the licensing authority for the waste vehicle. If the netting is not on the vehicle, it should be reported to the relevant body that licensed the vehicle under the waste legislation.

Chris Mole: The hon. Gentleman might be right about certain types of vehicle for which waste is the primary function. However, other vehicles might not be covered by that framework and could be pursued directly.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about prosecution for people who throw litter out of vehicles, traffic officers do not have those powers. It is not our intention to give them such powers because their primary function is to be the motorist’s friend on the highway in helping to resolve accidents and situations. A line is crossed when they are given powers more akin to those of the police.

Mike Penning: I am not sure that is correct. I thank the Minister for giving way. He is being very generous and I promise not to intervene again in the next two minutes. Traffic officers do have powers. If one overtakes a Highways Agency vehicle while it is performing a moving roadblock, it is an offence under the relevant legislation. I understand that traffic officers are the prosecuting authority for such offences.

Chris Mole: The hon. Gentleman is right that it is an offence to pass a traffic officer engaged in a rolling roadblock, but I am not sure whether he is right that they have the power to undertake the prosecution. I think that has to be done by the police.

On its routes, the Highways Agency is continuously looking at ways to prevent the dropping of litter. In parts of the east region, signs requesting that the public take their litter home have been erected on slip roads adjacent to motorway service areas. Litter picking schedules were disrupted earlier in the year because of the severe winter weather, which resulted in a heavier than usual accumulation of litter, but they have now resumed. As the weather improves, and more people travel at weekends for leisure purposes, we are likely to see an increase in the level of litter that is deposited, which will put more pressure on the litter collecting authorities.

On 23 March, a representative from the Highways Agency attended a litter roundtable event hosted by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and attended by senior people from a wide range of organisations, including supermarkets, fast food chains, local authorities and campaign groups. The remit for that meeting was wider than litter on motorways and trunk roads, but I am pleased that they are being included in the wider problem of litter across the country.

The Highways Agency is conducting strategic research into a number of key work aspects designed to develop and inform litter policy. Those include improving partnership working with key external stakeholders such as Keep Britain Tidy, Campaign to Protect Rural England and CleanupUK. In conjunction with local authorities, the agency is seeking to trial a number of initiatives, such as temporary anti-litter road signs, utilising variable message signs and partnership working with local business and industry.

To conclude, I thank the hon. Gentleman once again for securing this debate. This is an important issue and I hope he is encouraged and reassured by the information I have given about the work the Highways Agency is doing to tackle litter on our strategic road network.

2 pm

Sitting adjourned.

 

 

 

 

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