Skip to main content

Litter Strategy

Volume 645: debated on Wednesday 18 July 2018

[Geraint Davies in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Government’s 2017 litter strategy and roadside litter.

I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I welcome the presence of the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who takes litter-related matters very seriously.

In his foreword to the 2017 litter strategy, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) stated that roadside litter

“harms our economic prospects and stifles communal wellbeing.”

As well as damaging our quality of life, roadside litter and debris can put lives at risk if they blow into the road and damage the vision of passing drivers. Page 55 of the 2017 strategy acknowledged:

“The current situation is unacceptable. Our roads and highways are the gateways to our towns and cities, and yet verges, traffic islands, and roadside paths are often marred by unsightly litter. Local authorities will need to improve their own cleaning and work more effectively with neighbouring authorities and Highways England to keep such places consistently clean”.

Discarded litter is a scar on our countryside and more needs to be done to bring home to motorists how unacceptable the practice is. Does my right hon. Friend agree that deterrent sentencing is an answer, and that in the worst cases the court should have the power to endorse the licence of a littering motorist?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. We need to ensure that people know that it is a criminal offence. The courts should be tough in imposing punishments on those who cause that scar on our countryside, as he describes it.

I applied for this debate after a similar conversation with my constituent Mr Nick Spall, who contacted me to complain about litter and debris piling up along the approach roads linking the M25 with the South Mimms turn-off. He had particular concerns about the connection with St Albans Road leading south towards High Barnet, which is just outside my constituency of Chipping Barnet. He pointed out:

“Visitors to the UK will be surprised and disappointed that this cannot be kept under control at such a visible and prominent location.”

I raised that complaint with Highways England, which told me that Hertsmere Borough Council was responsible for litter clearance on the roads concerned. Hertsmere Borough Council informed me that the general area was litter-picked on a weekly basis, but that several sections could not be safely accessed without traffic management measures, and that they could take place only if Hertfordshire County Council had road closures planned.

That illustrates the first key issue I wish to raise with the Minister. If we are to tackle the litter that we can see through our car or bus windows every day, we need to address the problem of divided responsibilities and introduce clearer lines of accountability. That point was made by Peter Silverman of the Clean Highways campaign, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank him for the briefing he provided for the debate and for his determined work to highlight these important matters.

My right hon. Friend is giving her customarily fantastic evocation of the issue. I congratulate her on securing this hugely important debate. In my constituency, Christine Dunster has set up the Olton library litter pickers and she was recently awarded a British Empire Medal for galvanising the community. As my right hon. Friend has just congratulated the gentleman in the Gallery, will she join me in congratulating other local campaigners on their work to involve the community in this issue?

I will. We should take pride in the fact that so many members of our communities are prepared to put their own time, effort and hard work into tackling litter. In that regard, I highlight the staff at McDonald’s Friern Barnet, who regularly go out to litter pick. Those volunteer efforts are hugely to be welcomed, but we also need to ensure that we have an effective response from the Government and local councils.

Allocation of responsibility for clearing highway litter is governed by the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Local councils have that duty in relation to the majority of roads, including trunk roads in the strategic road network. Highways England is charged with maintenance and litter clearance on motorways and a small number of trunk roads. Similarly, Transport for London is responsible for maintenance and litter clearance on several strategic routes in the London region.

That means that there are many cases where the body responsible for maintaining the road and its verges is not responsible for litter clearance on those verges. We also end up in a situation where small district councils are supposed to clear litter from busy major roads but are not geared up for the extensive organisation that comes with health and safety requirements, such as coning off lanes or shutting roads altogether, as in the example near my constituency, which I referred to earlier.

Will the Government consider reforming the law to provide that the body responsible for maintaining a road and the roadside is also the one tasked with clearing litter from that roadside? In particular, that reform would mean that Highways England had an increased duty to clear the litter around all the roads for which it is responsible, and it would make it much easier to combine work such as trimming roadside vegetation with litter picking, so clearance could take place more regularly and efficiently.

If the Government feel that that would be too big a step, can they at least report on progress on improving the partnership working between Highways England and local authorities, as they advocated on page 57 of the 2017 litter strategy? That would be a crucial way to address some of my constituents’ concerns.

My second concern is more general. Section 89 of the 1990 Act imposes a statutory duty on Highways England and local authorities to clear litter and refuse from roads where they are the designated authority. The amount of litter blighting our roads must surely mean that that duty is not being taken seriously enough. That is implicitly acknowledged on page 60 of the strategy, where the Government promise to revise the code of practice that provides guidance on how to comply with the section 89 duty.

We need to strengthen the obligations placed on Highways England in relation to litter clearance. I have a copy of its litter strategy with me and, frankly, it is a bit thin—it runs to four pages plus a list of roads. The Government’s 2017 strategy refers to working with the Office of Road and Rail and to including a tougher litter-cleaning key performance indicator in the performance specification for Highways England. The Government promised to review the mechanism for holding authorities to account in relation to the performance of their obligations under the code of practice. They also undertook to remove responsibilities from local authorities that failed in their duty to keep the road network clear of litter. I appeal to the Minister to press ahead with reform to make Highways England take the issue more seriously, to toughen up the code of practice as it applies to all local authorities, and to ensure that the enforcement of the section 89 duty becomes much more effective.

My third point relates to the procedures required for litter picking on fast, busy roads. Those responsible for clearing litter have a duty to keep their employees safe, and that obligation must always be strictly adhered to. At present, extensive coning off of lanes, or even full road closures, are often deemed necessary for routine roadside litter clearing.

On page 56 of the 2017 strategy, the Government express their determination to tackle the practical barriers preventing clearance of road litter. They refer to a working group that they have established, which is dedicated to looking at these matters. I appeal to the Minister to ensure that the outcome of that work ensures that rules requiring the coning or closing of roads are used in a proportionate way and only when necessary, to ensure the safety of workers. What we do not want to do is place unnecessary constraints on litter clearance. The Government have been looking at the issue as it relates to workers involved in road maintenance and road works. I hope they will also undertake a similar process in relation to workers who are at one remove—in other words, who are on the edge of the road and not on the road itself.

A fourth concern on which I would like the Minister to reflect relates to heavy goods vehicles. Sadly, roadside litter is not just food wrappers and coffee cups thrown by irresponsible and antisocial drivers; a significant proportion of it will have blown off skip vans or lorries with open loads. I urge both the Environment Agency and Highways England to give higher priority to prosecuting that kind of waste crime. I am sure that they have been sent many dashboard camera video clips of such an offence. I have raised this issue with the Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association. There is also a real concern about some HGV drivers leaving litter after overnight stops, as referred to in the litter strategy. I appreciate that it is very much a minority of HGV drivers who behave in that way, but such littering does happen.

Page 64 of the 2017 strategy refers to the particular challenges in getting an anti-litter message across to drivers from overseas. It would be useful if the Minister could update us on the Government’s progress in communicating that message. Of course, it is also important to note that there is a shortage of overnight provision for HGV drivers, and finding more space for those kinds of facilities—including, of course, litter bins and waste disposal facilities—is an important part of a strategy to tackle roadside litter.

Thankfully, the problems that I have highlighted regarding the national road network occur largely outside my constituency. However, like almost everywhere in the country, we suffer from the blight of fly-tipping, with recent bad examples occurring in Mays Lane in the Underhill area and Regal Drive in South Friern. Fly-tipping is a serious crime that enrages those constituents affected by it. I believe that the police and prosecution authorities, including the Environment Agency, should pursue offenders more vigorously and seek the maximum penalties available for that crime.

I welcome the work done locally in my area by Barnet Council to combat fly-tipping. Many neighbouring boroughs have introduced fortnightly bin collections, which inevitably worsens problems with fly-tipping. That is one of the reasons why Barnet Council has kept weekly bin collections for general waste and general recycling. I also commend its #KeepBarnetClean campaign, which started in 2016 and has involved an extensive campaign of public engagement, including highlighting the £80 fine for littering and the £400 fine for fly-tipping.

In conclusion, not too long ago the Government published a 25-year plan for the environment. A plastic bag charging scheme is already in place, a bottle return scheme is out for consultation, and there is a long list of other ideas under discussion on reducing the need for avoidable single-use plastics. There is now greater public concern about plastic waste than I can ever remember in my lifetime. I urge the Government to harness that momentum in support of long-standing efforts to prevent litter from disfiguring our roads, countryside and public spaces.

At this time of year, students throughout the country are embarking on their National Citizen Service programmes. I hope that one of the issues they are asked to consider is litter and how to prevent it. However, I am afraid that it is not just young people who drop litter. To illustrate that, I produce this Crunchie wrapper, which I picked up this week after it had been dropped in the back row of the main Chamber of the House of Commons.

It is truly depressing that littering occurs even here, in this mother of Parliaments. All ages and all types of people can be guilty of this kind of antisocial activity. We all have a part to play in addressing it, and I very much look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the matters I have raised.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) on securing this debate on a subject that, as she rightly points out, matters to so many people.

Litter is unpleasant and absolutely unnecessary. Litter louts exhibit behaviour that is selfish, lazy and downright irresponsible. Our litter strategy detailed how we will achieve a cleaner country, with a substantial reduction in litter. We intend to do that by applying best practice in education and enforcement, and by supporting local authorities with better “binfrastructure”, in order to change people’s behaviour and make littering entirely socially unacceptable.

Dealing with litter is costly. In 2016-17, local authorities spent £682 million, or £29 per household, to keep our streets clean. In addition, Highways England spends at least £6 million a year on collecting litter from the strategic road network. Those funds could be better used to deliver the range of important services provided by our councils.

Our litter strategy, which was published last year, was the first ever for England, and it was produced in partnership with the Department for Transport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. We have delivered on a number of key commitments that we detailed, as set out in the annual report, which I assure the House will be published shortly.

Councils now have new enforcement powers they can use, making it easier for action to be taken against people who litter, principally through the use of fixed penalty notices. The big change has been to make the owner, or more precisely the keeper, of a vehicle liable for littering offences committed from it, although I recognise that this power has already been in place in London councils for some time. However, I understand that only one London council uses it, and that is Wandsworth and not, sadly, Barnet.

Since April this year, the maximum fixed penalty that local authorities can issue for dropping litter has nearly doubled, from £80 to £150. The minimum fixed penalty will also increase from £50 to £65 next year. The same changes also apply to penalties for graffiti, fly-posting and the unlicensed distribution of free printed material in a designated area, although I am assured that that does not apply to election leaflets.

I am conscious that people are concerned that councils may just use these penalties as a money-grabbing initiative. That is why we have consulted on improved guidance for the use of these powers. Responses are being carefully considered, and the guidance will be published later this year. However, I should emphasise that penalties collected are to be used to improve tackling litter, including cleaning up litter and educating people.

I stress that it really is now up to councils to take advantage of the powers that they asked for. I think this initiative can become self-financing, and there have been some great examples of how a crackdown has really had benefits. For example, in Southend-on-Sea—a lovely place to visit, where the local people are very proud of their sea front—council officers have been proactive in issuing penalties, and that has had a positive impact on cleaning up the sea front.

The second part of our approach is education and changing behaviour. I am pleased to announce today that we will work in partnership with Keep Britain Tidy to further develop and launch our new national anti-littering campaign. This ambitious campaign will seek funding from private sector companies, particularly those whose brands’ packaging is often littered. However, I recognise what my right hon. Friend said when she commended staff from her local McDonald’s for being the first to get out and clear up.

Keep Britain Tidy already has an army of 350,000 litter heroes—people who have had enough of other people’s litter and who are willing to do something about it—to help us spread the word. I also think of people such as Nadia Sparkes in Norwich, who has embraced the name of “Trash Girl”, which was given to her by bullies. I understand that she is now being turned into a cartoon superheroine for her efforts to clean up the streets of Norwich.

The third element of our strategic approach is to improve cleaning and “binfrastructure”. I recognise the context of ever-increasing pressure on local authority budgets, so it is important that we share best practice and ensure that local authority money is spent in ways that are proven to be effective. To promote innovation and proper testing of new ideas for tackling litter, we have launched a litter innovation fund to pilot and evaluate innovative new approaches that have the potential to be rolled out more widely. This fund, of just under £500,000, is jointly funded by my Department and MHCLG, and 10% of the money has been exclusively allocated to tackling litter in the marine environment.

After more than 200 expressions of interest were received in the first round, grants totalling £125,000 were offered to 14 projects to trial approaches across England. Those projects included reducing litter from riverside pubs along the Thames, work focused on the night-time economy and work using nudge techniques to reduce dog-fouling on playing fields. I must admit we were slightly disappointed with a lot of the initial applications, and we hope that, with some feedback, more will be successful in the second round, which we expect to open next month.

A lot of what my right hon. Friend talked about today was to do with roadside litter, which I recognise is particularly problematic. Our roads and highways are the gateways to our towns and cities, and litter by the roadside gives a bad impression of our country. Furthermore, as she pointed out, clearing that litter from the side of busy roads is a dangerous and expensive job for councils and their employees. This Government are committed to tackling roadside litter, as reflected in our manifesto, and we have taken steps in the last year to do exactly that. I have already mentioned the new powers that we have given to councils to improve enforcement against those who throw litter from their vehicles, but there is a great deal of other activity under way to address that particular problem.

Does the Minister have a strong view as to the division of responsibility between Highways England and local councils? Local councils are ultimately responsible to their electorate. Ideally, I think Highways England should be responsible, but I wonder who is marking the organisations’ homework and what mechanisms we have for checking they are doing their job properly.

My hon. Friend raises a good point. I was going to bring the matter up later, but I will do so now. Highways England is responsible for cleaning alongside motorways and some of our major trunk roads, and it often contracts that to the local authority. However, to respond to one of the questions my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet asked, we are not considering changing the law or the responsibilities at this time.

The Minister for roads—my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman)—and I want to see Highways England being more effective. We commissioned an independent survey of every council in England that has responsibility for cleansing one or more of the roads I mentioned. Unfortunately, that was delayed by poor weather as a result of the “beast from the east”. The data is still being analysed, but it will give us a much more accurate picture of the scale of litter on that part of the strategic road network and enable us to identify good practice and work with those local authorities that appear to be underperforming. Roadside litter is a problem that can be addressed effectively only by working closely with my colleagues across Government. I will bring some of the points that my right hon. Friend has raised to the attention of my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire.

I congratulate the Government on bringing in the power to seize a vehicle that is being used for fly-tipping. Can we see a greater use of that power to take vehicles off people who are desecrating our countryside?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I do not know off the top of my head how many vehicles have been seized, but I know that the Environment Agency and local authorities have been keen to make use of the power. If he wanted to table a written question, I would be more than happy to get that data to him as quickly as possible.

That is good to know. Officials will be working on that as we speak, as they have heard this debate.

Since publishing the strategy last year, I have worked with the Department for Transport and Highways England to build on the work they already had under way to develop both new methods to reduce the amount of litter on the road network and ways to improve litter removal practices.

Thinking about the particular issues faced by hauliers, who spend many hours living in their cabs, it is important to provide suitable facilities for them to dispose of their litter and other waste. In my constituency I have the port of Felixstowe and the A14, which is one of the busiest transit parts of the strategic road network, so I am very conscious of the things that can often appear.

I raised the issue of litter at a meeting with the Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association earlier this year, and I stand by the commitment made in the strategy to work with local councils, ports and the haulage industry to improve facilities for hauliers and others to dispose of their litter and waste. However, that does not excuse littering behaviour in the meantime by people who work in that industry.

We wrote to the Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association following the introduction of new local authority powers to tackle littering from vehicles in April this year. So far as I am concerned, if litter is thrown out of an HGV, we should pursue those people, but it is for local councils to take that action.

There is obviously still more to do, but I assure my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet that, while she may feel progress is slow, Highways England has removed more than 12,000 bags of litter in the past year from the 25 identified hotspots. It found that, for February to April 2017, customer reports of littering had reduced by 70%, as compared with the same period in 2016.

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. Highways England has also introduced a new way of undertaking maintenance on the network, bringing the responsibility for asset and operational decision-making in-house and directly managing assets and network operations. That means Highways England can take a more flexible approach to when litter picking is planned, scheduled and co-ordinated, enabling a faster response to litter problems on the network.

I hear my right hon. Friend’s point about smaller district councils, health and safety requirements and people not necessarily having all the expertise. I also hear her point about the action we will take on those councils that are not performing as well as they can. In the short term, it is fair to say that we need to assess the data, particularly on the strategic road network, to give us a better understanding of what is happening in different councils. I know there has been a change of Minister at the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government since the report, and I am conscious that we now need to work together to take forward the action my right hon. Friend suggests.

In conclusion, I want to assure my right hon. Friend and other Members that the Government are absolutely committed to reducing and preventing litter and littering behaviour. The actions I have outlined today are just the first steps in delivering on our commitments in the litter strategy. I know it is something we all want to see succeed as quickly as possible.

Question put and agreed to.