Page last updated at 11:08 GMT, Monday, 9 March 2009

Litterbugs 'trashing lovely Britain'

By Sarah Mukherjee
Environment correspondent, BBC News

Street cleaners out on patrol
Some councils more than others make anti-littering a priority

Britain needs co-ordinated action, including more consistent penalties, to combat its growing litter problem, according to a report from the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange.

The report - called "Litterbugs" - suggests that there needs to be one national body to co-ordinate solutions to a problem that costs the nation 500 million a year to clear up.

In the report's foreword, the president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, American author Bill Bryson, makes it clear that he thinks it is an unsustainable situation, where money is spent "to clean up after the squalid behaviour of an inconsiderate minority".

"It is truly exasperating," he continues, "that we can routinely trash a country that is so rich in natural, cultural and built heritage.

"Nowhere in the world is there a landscape more lovely to behold, more comfortable to be in, more artfully worked, more visited and walked across and gazed upon than the countryside of Britain.

"So the many millions of visitors from overseas are genuinely puzzled that we can allow this beauty to be casually despoiled in a way which, in my experience, simply doesn't happen in much of the rest of Europe or the United States."

Deposit on cans

The report suggests that an education plan is needed to inform people of the consequences of their litter-dropping actions.

It says we need penalty fines to be consistently enforced across Britain - but there should also be incentives as well.

Clean streets are one of things that businesses say they look for when they are planning to locate or relocate
Royston Smith
Southampton City Council

For example, the report's authors cite the experience in New York State, where a scheme to give people a small deposit back on cans and bottles reduced roadside litter by 70%.

The report also contains research carried out into people's perceptions of litter.

Many said they would feel more comfortable about dropping their trash if an area was already littered - something which is confirmed by councils who do make anti-littering a priority.

For example, Southampton City Council, according to the authors of the reports, is one of the examples of best practice when it comes to tackling litter.

On a clear, bright and chilly morning, the street cleaning teams are out at six (they do not finish until 11 in the evening at the weekends).

Everything from cleaning lorries to people on foot, armed with large plastic bags and metal claw-grabbers for that most persistent of litter problems, the cigarette butt.

Interestingly, the report found that 42% of smokers thought it acceptable to drop litter, far higher than non-smokers.

"In these very difficult economic times, we have to set ourselves above the rest, and a good public realm and clean streets are one of the things that businesses say they look for when they are planning to locate or relocate", says the council's deputy leader Royston Smith, who is also in charge of the city's economic development.

"It doesn't slip down the list now that budgets are tight.

We will be running an education programme to make people more aware of the issue
Jane Goddard
Southampton street cleaning

"What will get us through the bad times will be to keep jobs - like a stimulus package, you're investing to save.

At the medieval Bar Gate, once the entrance to Southampton's port, there is now a shopping centre, which is scrubbed to within an inch of its life.

Jane Goddard runs the street cleaning teams in the city and she says there is no excuse to drop litter anywhere in the city centre.

"We have 1,300 litter bins and this year we will be running an education programme to make people more aware of the issue," she says.

"We also have enforcement officers who will fine persistent offenders and will follow up with court action if necessary."

The Policy Exchange report also looks at international examples of where litter campaigns have worked, like in Australia, which had the typically direct slogan, "Don't be a tosser".

It will be interesting to see if politicians here rush to embrace that particular phrase in their own anti-litter policies.

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