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Roads: Litter Collection

Volume 701: debated on Tuesday 20 May 2008

My Lords, standards for the clearance of litter and refuse from roads are set out in the code of practice on litter and refuse. Local authorities and, where relevant, the Highways Agency are responsible for meeting those standards. The key is effective management, but we must acknowledge that particular care over health and safety is important when moving traffic is involved. The Highways Agency is improving its partnership arrangements with its contractors to help tackle litter hotspots.

My Lords, I am rather glad that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has answered that Question because he, unlike many of his colleagues both in this House and in another place, is a Minister with a reputation for getting results. Given that action is very much needed on this issue, and given that there is only one test as to whether roads are clean, I hope that he will take some action. First, we are about the dirtiest country in Europe—we would be even if we were not in Europe.

Secondly, my Lords, is it not about time that we made the punishment fit the crime? Let there be 20 hours of litter-picking for a first offence and 40 hours for the second offence. As for local authorities, just as they fine people who mess around with their bags, let them pay a fine organised by the Highways Agency when they fail to keep the roads clean.

My Lords, last week, on 15 May, I did some service delivery for single farm payments by receiving applications direct from customers, but I am not doing service delivery on collecting litter. There are some serious issues and the noble Lord is right that we are dirty in some ways, but I cannot comment on his suggestions for that. In the latest year for which figures are available, some 43,000 fixed penalties were issued, which is 10,000 up on the year before, and 77 per cent of that was collected in repayments. It would be complicated to look for other ways of dealing with people throwing litter on the roads, and I am told that it would not be cost effective.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that Mother Nature is very kind to the approaches of his home city of Birmingham in the spring and summer, for she cloaks the filth and litter along their roadsides—I use the A456—railway embankments and canal sides? Visitors from foreign countries to that city must be appalled at the amount of litter lying around. What can he do about it?

My Lords, frankly, Birmingham is one of the cleanest cities in the country. Let me make that absolutely clear. Let us look at a more salubrious part of the country’s roads—for example, junctions 1 and 2 of the M3, which are in an area that is not Labour-controlled, I might add. In April this year on one westbound carriageway—one junction, one month, one collection in one direction on the motorway— 189 bags of rubbish amounting to one tonne were collected. I am told that that is typical of our motorways and of what people turf out of their cars as they travel. Very little of it is due to the wind and it is a disgrace.

My Lords, given that many, if not most, people in this country seem to have no idea why they have to pay council tax, income tax, value added tax or any other tax, would it not be useful to put up on some of those roads, “You have to pay taxes to pick up this litter”, or words to that effect?

My Lords, that is an excellent suggestion. It is a fair point because the total expenditure for local authorities in England for street cleaning which is not chargeable to the highways is approximately £500 million, which is a lot of money that could be avoided. The cost to council tax payers of fly-tipping, lack of recycling and collecting such litter is a fortune, but getting that connection to them of what it costs society as a whole and them individually is not easy.

My Lords, at this time of the Chelsea Flower Show, I am sure that the Minister will acknowledge the huge benefits that the Britain in Bloom campaign has caused, as local authorities compete to beautify their neighbourhoods. Does he not believe that they might similarly compete in a litter-free Britain campaign, which would stimulate them into making sure that theirs is a litter-free zone?

My Lords, that is quite a practical suggestion. On the targets, not all local authorities go in for issuing fixed-penalty notices, for example. We are up to 233 authorities at the moment: a year ago, only 197 saw the benefit of issuing those. A degree of competition, with local authorities claiming that they are cleaner—with Birmingham being the cleanest, of course—cannot be a bad idea. I do not pay council tax to Birmingham and have no interest to declare.

My Lords, this is an important subject. In the town where I live, the Colne in Bloom volunteers certainly do much litter-picking. I should declare an interest as a member of a principal litter authority—namely, Pendle Borough Council—which, in the league table produced in April, came fifth among authorities in the north-west. We are doing all right, but not well enough.

Will the Minister agree that there is still some difficulty in two-tier areas over the demarcation between the county highways authorities and the main litter authority, which is the district? For example, when it comes to removing dead animals, the litter authority is responsible for small ones such as cats, dogs and hedgehogs while big animals like pigs, cows or elephants are the county’s responsibility.

My Lords, seven of the top 10 litter items most frequently dropped on roads are food-on-the go materials. Nobody is dropping hedgehogs or dead pigs out of the window, as far as I can tell.