Does anyone remember the “Keep Britain Tidy” campaigns? Surprising as it may seem to some, this organisation is very much alive and has recently teamed up with Country Life magazine in a campaign to clear up Britain in time for the Queen’s 90th birthday in April this year.
It is proposed to rally an army of volunteers across the country to clean up their local areas over a special clean-up weekend on March 4–6. Rye is already preparing to get its act together as reported in Rye News last month.
Now our national government is also wading in, big stick in hand. Marcus Jones, the communities minister wants to see fines greatly increased for litter-dropping. At present, fines for littering are set by local councils and range typically from £50 to £80. The Departments for Communities and Local Affairs will recommend higher fixed penalties of up to £150 with a minimum of £100.
So, will we succeed in curing Britain’s litter disease? Is the ingrained habit of dropping litter not also a freeborn Englishman’s right? One foreign observer remarked: “Why should everyone have to live in a teenager’s bedroom? It’s bad for your spirit”. To another person’s tactful remonstration about a cigarette packet dropped on the pavement, the man replied: “it’s OK, thanks, it’s empty”.
The indications are not good. The nationwide campaign was started in 1954 by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (which has just celebrated its centenary). It coincided with the introduction of pull-tab aluminium cans for beer and soft drinks (patented in 1959), cheap plastic bottles (early 1960s) and plastic carrier bags (1965), all of which by the 1980s had come into common usage throughout the world.
Go to the South Pole, to the top of Everest, to any beauty spot in the world and it will be marred by the rubbish dropped by human litter-louts. Vast areas of the ocean are awash with swirling plastic detritus.
In the UK, legislators attempted to stem the flood with the Litter Act in 1958. In 1990 for the first time, the Environmental Protection Act defined standards of street cleanliness, followed by the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act (2005), which tightened the definition of littering and introduced Fixed Penalty Notices. A new law introduced in England now requires large shops to charge 5p for all single-use plastic carrier bags.
Will this modest challenge to the pocket help change the culture? We know it’s not just a case of kids outside the school gates, though more civic education might help. As with other minor acts of criminality, it’s the lack of basic enforcement that undermines all the campaigning in the world.
The fact is that, as a society, we do not care enough to provide sufficient resources for maintaining the public realm. We are content with private wealth contrasting with public squalor. Litter illiteracy will continue until we educate our citizens to take pride in ownership of their public spaces.
Till then, we can expect to see dedicated individuals walking the streets, lanes and river-banks with litter-sticks and bin bags in their solitary crusade to clear up litter.