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This is the A404 linking the M4 and M40. It is one of the All Purpose Trunk Roads (APTRs) which, with the motorways, constitute the national network of strategic roads managed by Highways England.

Bizarrely, while HE are responsible for all other aspects of its maintenance, each local authority along its route has to keep it clear of litter.

This means that before HE’s contractor can cut the grass on this verge Wycombe District Council’s contractor has to come along and pick up the litter. Another APTR, the A27 on the south coast passes through 7 different council areas.

Highways England do have the responsibility for cleaning some APTRs. This arrangement should be extended to cover all such roads.

There are parallel situations in London where TfL  maintained roads, such as the North Circular and the A312 in Hounslow , have to be cleaned by the Boroughs and in those parts of the Shires where County Council maintained roads, such as the A1081 in Hertfordshire , have to be cleaned by the District / Borough / City councils.  In London responsibility for cleaning TFL roads should be transferred to TfL. In the Shires responsibility for cleaning dual carriageways and roads without pavements should go to the County Council. The District / Borough / City councils should however retain responsibility for other roads (residential & commercial etc). (Local Goverment structure overview).

Those roads could then be cleaned by specialist teams protected by blocking vehicles moving seamlessly from one local council area to the next without the need for liaison between two different bodies. This could be done on a continuous and repetitive basis working 24/7 (apart from the rush hours) to make maximum use of the capital assets being employed.

Time line


In their  2009 Road Side Litter Research Strategy prepared for the Highways Agency the consultants, Atkins,  found that:

… often Local Authorities did not know which trunk roads they were responsible for litter picking. They pointed out that, to avoid traffic delays, work on certain roads had to be carried out at night which was often not a viable option for LAs. LAs, they said, often did not have staff trained in the necessary traffic management procedures. LAs did not see trunk roads as a priority and preferred to concentrate their limit resources on urban routes. Transferring the responsibility, they said, would lead to increased effectiveness and efficiency.


Link to video including Rugby Borough Council describing dealing with the Highways Agency as a nightmare.


The May 2015  Communities and Local Government Select Committee in their report on Litter and fly-tipping in England stated in Section 5: 

55.Clearing litter and fly-tipping from the roads in England is the responsibility of either local authorities or the Highways Agency [now Highways England]. The Agency is responsible for keeping motorways and a small proportion of all-purpose trunk roads clean, while local authorities are responsible for the roads in towns and cleaning the majority of trunk roads. However, the Highways Agency is responsible for the maintenance of these trunk roads including maintaining verges and grass-cutting.

56.Clean Highways, a group focussing on legislation on litter, pointed out that before cleaning a trunk road a council would often have to get permission from the Highways Agency to close a lane. The Agency would normally insist the work was carried out late at night to minimise traffic disruption, but councils were ill-equipped to handle this work which often necessitated hiring crash cushion vehicles and signage. Warwickshire Waste Partnership explained that despite repeated efforts local authorities had been unable to establish effective partnerships, coordination and communication with the Highways Authority and their contractors. It said that working with the Highways Agency was “a nightmare”. In addition, the costs associated with litter removal and implementing safe methods of working on trunk roads were disproportionately expensive for district and borough councils. For example, an 11 mile section (5.5 miles each way) of the A46 on the edge of Coventry took five workers 17 days to complete. They collected 6 tonnes of litter and waste at a cost of £22,000: that was £2,000 per mile. Tim Harbot from the Highways Agency said they did try to coordinate with local authorities and “institute litter forums, whereby we write out to local authorities and invite them to come to sessions where we try to debate how we are going to do things better”.

57.In London, where Transport for London (TFL), rather than the Highways Agency, maintains trunk roads, Wandsworth Council said they had similar problems trying to coordinate clearing litter with TFL’s scheduled road works. Shaun Morley said there was “always a bit of conflict about who is responsible. And the lines are not as clear as they could be in some instances”.

58.The Local Government Association (LGA) suggested that a national approach to keeping key trunk roads clean and clear would be more efficient as it would combine the road closure function of the Highways Agency with that of clearance. The Highways Agency said it would “certainly be open to discussions around taking on responsibilities and duties, but […] that would need an increase in our resource funding to enable us to take them on.”

59.Dan Rogerson, the Defra Minister, said the Government was willing to look at this issue and would await our recommendations, but he also noted that it should not take “a huge amount of effort” for local authorities to work with the Highways Agency. Kris Hopkins, the DCLG Minister, agreed and said, “we have some well-paid and very clever people who work in local authorities. It does not take much more than a phone call to try to find a solution”.

60.It should be possible for local councils to coordinate with the Highways Agency or Transport for London to enable easy access for road and street cleaning. However, this is not happening. Nor are we convinced this is the most efficient approach to street cleaning since it is difficult to organise and it is not cost-effective for local authorities to have staff working through the night. It would be much better, and cost-effective to remove the anomaly which gives the Highways Agency, and Transport for London in London, responsibility for maintaining trunk roads and another body responsibility for cleaning them. We understand that a proposal to transfer cleaning responsibilities for all purpose trunk roads to the Highways Agency has been under consideration by the Department for Transport for some time.  We recommend that the Government make the Highways Agency responsible for cleaning trunk roads and make the necessary budget adjustments. Similarly, we recommend that responsibility for cleaning trunk roads in the London area should become the responsibility of Transport for London.

Witness statements to the committee 

In their December 2015  response to the Committee’s report the Government stated that:

….to make Highways England legally responsible for litter collection on all the roads that they operate ….. would need primary legislation and would include complicated alterations to funding arrangements that would reduce the resources available to local authorities.


A pilot project in the Midlands is being progressed to enhance collaborative working between Highways England and local authorities on cleaning the strategic network in the region. ……. This model would then be shared as best practice to encourage effective partnership working. Enough time would need to be allowed to establish these new working practices. [See paras 34 and 35]


In 2017 on page 6 of their Road users’ priorities for the Road Investment Strategy, 2020-25  Transport Focus recommended that

The DfT should also consider transferring responsibility for litter clearance on the SRN ‘A’ roads from district and unitary councils to Highways England, along with the appropriate funding. This would give Highways England full control over this aspect of its customers’ journey experience, and would recognise that Highways England is probably better placed to carry out litter picking on major, high-speed roads than local authorities more geared-up to sweeping local streets.

The April 2017 Litter Strategy for England says on p58:

The Government will commission and publish an independent assessment of road cleanliness and publish cleanliness reviews by authority. We will then set a deadline for underperforming authorities to improve their performance within this Parliament. [My underlining].

We also propose to reallocate responsibility for managing relevant cleaning activities from any local authority that is not fulfilling its statutory duties on the road network.

As we will see below under 2020 these promises were broken. 


On 3rd May 2018 Roads Minister Jesse Norman in answer to a question from Layla Moran MP said that:

… he had asked the DfT to assess what additional funds would need to be made available to introduce a transfer of responsibility for the removal of litter on trunk roads from Local Authorities to Highways England.

18 months later on 25th November 2019 the DfT confirmed that no assessment had been made.

In an 18th July Westminster Hall debate on litter which she had initiated Theresa Villiers MP raised the question of the problems caused by these divided responsibilities with DEFRA Minister Therese Coffey.

She was told that the government were  “not considering changing the law or the responsibilities at this time”.

So the recommendations are still on the governmental back -burner.


In August 2019 the excellent A27 Clean Up Campaign wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport with the support of 7 councils and three local MPs to press for the responsibility for cleaning that road to be transferred to Highways England. 15 weeks later they received a response from an unnamed person in a correspondence team at the DfT intimating they provide further details to Highways England.


I wrote to Bernadette Kelly, the Permanent Secretary at the DfT on 29th April, (recycling of old excuses about  improving collaborative working),  on 11th May , 15th May (following reports of HE contractors shedding litter on the A27 and A26),  on 21st July 2020  (about Minister’s response to A27 Clean Up Campaign proposals) and on 23rd October critiquing DfT response to mine of 21st July (S86(11) Order would not require primary legislation – real problem is that HE do not know how much it costs to pick-up litter).

In July 2020 DEFRA Minister, Rebecca Pow stated:

In 2018, Defra commissioned an independent survey of roadside litter on those parts of the Strategic Road Network (SRN) where Highways England is responsible for maintenance but the local authority is responsible for clearing litter. The results have been shared with relevant local authorities and will be used in policy development.

Following an information request DEFRA refused to release copies of the communications ( which included a questionnaire) with the relevant local authorities.

On 6th November 2020 a DEFRA officer stated that:

I consider that local authorities would not have expected us to publish or release their results until the questionnaires had been analysed and conclusions drawn. As this has created an expectation of confidentiality, combined with the necessary quality of confidence of the information, it means that Defra has a duty of confidence in relation to these proceedings. Please note that we are in the process of this analysis at present, having been delayed by departmental reprioritisation.

So  three and a half years after the Litter Strategy promise to (1) publish cleanliness reviews by local authority (2) set a deadline for underperforming authorities to improve their performance and (3) reallocate responsibility for cleaning away from failing local authorities to Highways England zero progress has been made.

The survey results have not been published. Instead of using them to  reallocated responsibilities of APTRs from failing local authorities to Highways England the results “will be used in policy development”.

See DEFRA’s broken promises on trunk road cleanliness survey

Changes to the law are not required

The government’s claim that primary legislation / changes to the law would be required is simply wrong.

This is because they already have powers to transfer cleansing duties from a local authority to a highways authority (e.g. Highways England) under EPA86 (11). The Secretary of State can issue an order without reference to Parliament.

Indeed the Highway Litter Clearance and Cleaning (Transfer of Responsibility) (England) Order 2009 was used to transfer responsibility for several APTRs from a number of local authorities to the Highways Agency.

This point was acknowledged by Marcus Jones, Minister for Local Government on 8th April 2016 in reply to an e-mail from Kevin Hollinrake MP

I was surprised therefore a DEFRA minister Therese Coffey was seemingly unaware of this on July 2018 as was the DfT spokesperson in the Lords Baroness Vere on 12th July 2019.

No need for complicated  changes to funding arrangements / No reduction in LA resources

My understanding is that a local authority does not receive additional government funding if it happens to have an APTR passing through its area.  If the responsibility for keeping it clear of litter is passed to HE then there would be no funding to recover.

Additional funding would of course need to be forthcoming for Highways England.

The complications arise because Highways England have no meaningful cleansing procedures which could be costed. Funding for cleansing is lumped in with that for general maintenance. HE receive no specific funding from the DfT for cleansing and do not pay their contractors specific amounts for it. The contractors do not employ specialist litter pickers. One contractor described it as a “fill in job”. No one knows what it currently costs never mind what it would cost if it were done properly.

I have asked the DfT for the results of the costing exercise requested by Jesse Norman in May. I suspect it has been shelved – but we will see.

Collaborative working / Midlands pilot project 

This is what ministers and HE have had to say over the years:

Chris Mole, Roads Minister March 2010 :

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 2015 the CLG Select Committee concluded that this was not working. The Government then came up with:

Marcus Jones, Minister for Local Government April  2016 :

The government company Highways England (formerly the Highways Agency) is currently pursuing a policy of collaborative working with local authorities and is identifying best practice to roll out across the country. ….  Highways England’s Midlands region signed a partnership agreement with a number of local authorities in December 2015 which formalised a collaborative approach to working to clear litter. This is already delivering results from widespread sharing of equipment and resources.

In their April 2017 Litter Strategy for England they government wrote on page 57:

As set out in its 2016‐17 Delivery Plan, Highways England is to launch a Litter Collaboration Pack which will help formalise working relationships and facilitate better co‐ordination of litter clearing operations.

In December 2015, Highways England’s Midlands region signed a partnership agreement (Tackling Litter Together) a number of local authorities in the Coventry and Warwickshire area, formalising their collaborative approach to tackling litter together. I was later told that the following councils were involved:

North Warwickshire Borough Council
Rugby Borough Council
Stratford District Council
Nuneaton & Bedworth BC
Warwick District Council
Coventry City Council
Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council
Tamworth Borough Council

DEFRA Minister, Therese Coffey July 2018 :

Highways England has also been working to improve collaboration between its contractors and local authorities, including by enabling local authority litter pickers to access roads for which they are responsible while Highways England has closed them for routine maintenance, which makes it easier to clean high-speed roads. I am sure Members will agree that is a sensible move.

Therese Coffey is repeating what Chris Mole said in 2010 and presenting it ( i.e. providing access when roads are closed for maintenance) as a “sensible move” as if its something new that the government has come up with. What happened to the Midlands pilot?

In October 2018 I asked Highways England for copies of any reports etc looking at the progress being made / lessons learnt for it. In January 2019 they admitted that they did not hold any such documents.

I was told that the Midlands pilot had been superseded by a nationally consistent approach and was directed to Tackling Litter Together – Your stakeholder collaboration pack  -the document promised in the HE’s 2016/17 Delivery plan and much heralded in the government’s Litter Strategy.

I have just read it through. It was not clear at first to whom this was addressed to. However it says:

“If you work in a service delivery or asset development team then this collaboration pack will help you develop effective working practices with local authorities” (page 2).

“The first step to building a relationship with your local authority is to open a dialogue; you will need to identify the key personnel within local authorities with whom to establish and build strong relationships. Many service providers will already have a working relationship with local authorities and it may be an idea to maximise use of their contacts in the first instance”(page 6).

Servicer providers is clearly a reference to HE’s area contractors. So it would appear to be an internal HE document telling their staff, inter alia, to make contact with relevant local authorities.

Also in October 2018 HE said they had recently “produced a similar note to be issued directly to all Local Authorities with litter clearing responsibilities on trunk roads”. When I asked for a copy and a list of the local authorities I was told on 26th November that it was still in draft and they did not have a list of the authorities. They did however send a copy of the draft. See DRAFT Tackling litter together – Support pack for local authorities.

As at 1st August 2019 my understanding is that it has still not been finalised – let alone issued to Local Authorities – almost 2 years from the date they said that it had been produced.

So they have written to their own staff to tell them how they should do their jobs (why did they not know already?) but have not told local authorities responsible for clearing HE’s APTRs how to do theirs.

A46 – Highways England’s Midlands Pilot scheme a sham(bles)

April 2020 – HE say they are going to enhance collaboration with local authorities on their clearance of HE’s trunk roads.

Evidence from Councils

I have assembled on a separate post evidence from councils and residents  illustrating the difficulties presented by the current absurd division of responsibilities. Snippets can be read here.

Scotland has the same problem

Transport for Scotland carries out the same function as HE. Maintenance is contracted out to three Operating Companies  All of the trunk roads on the network are however cleaned by local councils.

In their June 2018 report “Litter Management on the Trunk Road Network‘ the Association for Public Service Excellence  APSE wrote:

… a consistent message from Local Authorities that the preferred path was for full responsibility for litter management to rest with Operating Companies.

16 operating problems with the current arrangements were listed.  APSE have written to the Scottish Minister for Transport asking them to consider a change to the Term Maintenance Contract Specifications to address the issue.

E-mail to Bernadette Kelly Permanent Secretary at the DfT


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