Litter: A consequence-free crime?

Last month the government published a report urging businesses and local authorities to take greater responsibility for discarded waste, but they too must be held to account over Britain’s litter epidemic. Katie Strick explores why a lack of responsibility and loopholes in the law are turning our country’s roadsides into rubbish tips, one hedgerow at a time.

Hertfordshire farmer Bill Barr is just one of thousands of victims of a crime so devastating to our country that we risk significant social and economic decay. MP Clive Betts has described the problem as “endemic”, TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp has called it “economically suicidal”, and environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy (KBT) estimates that local authorities now spend £1 billion a year tackling the issue, enough to pay 704,200 gas and electricity bills for a year. Britain’s litter problem is one of the worst in the world, officials say.

Up to three times a week, Mr Barr is forced to clear large mounds of rubbish from the middle of country lanes near his farm near St Albans, discarded by illegal dumpers in the night. The regular rubbish tips of asbestos, tyres and even bags of babies’ nappies cost him time and money to clear, puncture his machinery, and crucially prevent emergency vehicles passing. The problem, he says, is getting worse.

“The countryside is becoming like a football ground,” he says. “It’s in a terrible state. We’ve got barriers, electric gates and cameras to stop these people tipping rubbish, but we’re getting nowhere. Farming on the urban fringe is like being in a prison; it’s a very, very frustrating thing.”

Despite his suspicions that local traveller sites may be the cause of the problem, Mr Barr says very little is being done. “The laws just don’t cover what’s going on – it makes it so easy for these people to weasel out. There’s virtually no prosecution. These gypsy types are making a small fortune – they’re laughing at the law, and laughing at us.”

Image credits: Howard Walker
Image credit: Howard Walker

Aside from the illegal fly-tipping, Mr Barr has also expressed his disgust at the general litter thrown from cars into hedgerows and laybys. But litter breeds litter, he explains: “If we don’t pick this litter up then other people add to it.”

Research by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) found one in five drivers throw litter from their cars, yet just 5,500 people were convicted in magistrates’ courts of littering in 2013, according to a report by the Communities and Local Government (CLG) Committee last month. Meanwhile, 852,000 incidents of fly-tipping were recorded last year, but there were only 2,000 convictions.

“For certain groups within society, hitting them in the pocket is the only thing that’s going to change their behaviour”

In recognition of the substantial costs of going to court, however, the report’s key recommendation for law enforcement was the imposition of a Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN) for littering, mostly in the form of a £75 on-the-spot fine.

“For certain groups within society, hitting them in the pocket is the only thing that’s going to change their behaviour,” says Helen Bingham from KBT. “They’re not going to respond to education messages.”

But whilst the CLG, Keep Britain Tidy and many others argue that fines are the most effective method of litter crime prevention, little has been done to record their effectiveness. The government has not collected data on the number of FPNs issued or amounts collected since 2008, and has thus struggled to make an assessment of their success in meeting policy objectives.

Founder of the Clean Highways campaign Peter Silverman has suggested that the most important reason current legislation on litter is not working is that there is no organisation – other than his own – scrutinizing the compliance of authorities with their Environmental Protection Act duties.

Peter Silverman of Clean Highways (Image credits: The Guardian)
Peter Silverman of Clean Highways (Image credit: The Guardian)

“It is a law without any policing,” claims the 71-year-old, who runs a website dedicated to highlighting the state of the motorways. Mr Silverman regularly sues the government over roadside rubbish using a little-known law known as Litter Abatement Orders. “There’s nobody minding the shop.”

His argument is that whilst groups such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and KBT are not suitably equipped to scrutinize the legislation, the responsibility for holding duty bodies to account is, therefore, left to the private citizen. And although citizens do have the right to make complaints to a magistrate, the process is lengthy and expensive, and thus rarely used.

Indeed, road management organisation Highways England, who spend more than £6 million a year collecting litter from motorways, has avoided responsibility for punishing perpetrators of litter crime. “Our focus is on prevention not prosecution,” said a spokesperson for the organisation.

Labour MP Andrew Gwynne has been supporting Peter Silverman in his battle to toughen the laws on litter. He says he regularly chases Highways England to clear the roads around his Greater Manchester constituency of Denton and Reddish near the M60, but describes the process as “like pulling teeth”.

“They get away with lesser standards than the local authorities would get away with,” he explains. “As a council tax payer, if that level of litter and detritus was on the street where you live you would rightly be onto the council, and the council would rightly have to come, by law, to clean it up within designated timescales.

“Essentially it is a law that is unenforceable” 

“I don’t see why Highways England should operate any differently. The law applies to them too, but they seem unwilling or unable to adhere to it.”

It is such misunderstanding – or sheer avoidance – of responsibility that appears to be causing problems in terms of law enforcement.

One key challenge has been overcoming the shield of anonymity used by those who drop litter from cars. Samantha Harding from CPRE says the difficulty with law enforcement of this “consequence-free crime” lies in a loophole in the Environmental Protection Act 1990. “If enforcement officers see litter being thrown from a vehicle, current legislation demands that they prove who it was that threw the litter, which is very difficult,” she says. “Essentially it is a law that is unenforceable.”

The CPRE is currently fighting a six-year campaign to bring litter crime in line with other driving-related infringements, such as speeding and parking. “They should be able to issue a fine to the keeper of a vehicle for litter,” says Ms Harding, describing how London councils lobbied for the new law for fining vehicle keepers back in 2007.

But it is officials themselves, she argues, who appear to be delaying such amendment from becoming national policy outside London. “DEFRA have done everything they can to not do anything about it,” says Ms Harding. In light of May’s election, the CPRE are hence calling for any new Government to push forward the new regulations for littering from vehicles.

And this is not the only loophole in the litter policing system. Whilst many local councils’ zero-tolerance approaches have helped to reduce litter offences – Braintree in Essex, for example, reported a decline of 20 per cent in litter crime after just two months of implementing fines – one significant and key demographic group currently avoids punishment.

“At the moment councils will not give FPNs to juveniles, even though they’re the worst offenders” says Peter Silverman. “The reason they’re ignored is that if they don’t pay an on-the-spot fine they end up in a magistrate’s court. No magistrate wants to give a 15-year-old a criminal record for dropping a bit of rubbish from McDonald’s.”

Image credits: Derby Telegraph
Image credit: Derby Telegraph

A further hurdle in effecting FPNs against juveniles is the extra requirement to comply with the Children’s Act 2004.

Mr Silverman’s suggested solution is a revision of the Litter Code of Practice so that offenders are dealt with under civil, rather than criminal, law. While critics have argued against a decriminalisation of littering, he maintains that a civil process would not only allow juveniles to be fined but also save court costs.

Yet only a handful of councils have taken the responsibility to issue this new system of fines, as many cannot afford the expense of hiring staff to issue FPNs. “The authorities have a legal duty to ensure their land is kept free of litter,” says Peter Silverman, explaining how local councils spend an average of just 0.7 per cent of their budgets on street cleaning. “Are they picking it up properly? No. Are they fining people? Only some. The gun should be pointed at councils, Highways England and the government, who need to make sure the law is used.”

MP Andrew Gwynne says he does not believe the issue of litter is taken seriously enough in parliament. “I don’t think it’s a priority at all. Unless you jump up and down like the Peter Silvermans of this world, whether it’s through parliament or through campaigning, very little happens. If they can get away with doing nothing, nothing they will do.”

“The gun should be pointed at councils, Highways England and the government, who need to make sure the law is used”

And he argues that Britain’s roadsides are badly affecting tourism. “It says a lot about us as a country that once it’s out of sight it’s out of mind for us, we’re still quite happy to spoil the environment for everybody else. So there is that element of education that’s needed, but also these national bodies really do need to pull their finger out about removing the litter, because it doesn’t say much about the UK to our foreign friends and visitors.”

According to Keep Britain Tidy, 89 per cent of sites across England are either at or above an acceptable standard for litter. It seems the problem is not the creation of laws, but a responsibility to ensure that they are implemented effectively. Dropping litter is a criminal offence and we need to start treating it like one, before it is too late.

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