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Notes on a Dirty Island

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Bill Bryson explains why he was moved to film Panorama: Notes on a Dirty Island which will be on BBC One at 8.30pm on Monday 11 August

When writer Bill Bryson first came to Britain in 1972 he was, by his own account, "instantly smitten".

"A big part of what appealed to me about Britain was how tidy it was, how orderly, how civilised," Bryson says. "I'd never been to a place that was so manicured and so loved."

It's like background noise, people have come to accept it
Chris Coode, River Thames manager

But in Panorama: Notes from a Dirty Island it is apparent that more than 30 years on, the honeymoon is well and truly over:

"It's just not the place that I fell in love with," Bryson now says.

So what could have wrought such a drastic change of heart?

In a word - litter.

Outside view

Britain, Bryson says, is being engulfed by a layer of grubbiness and squalor to which most people are simply turning a blind eye.

People sweeping up rubbish
Not only is litter an eyesore but it is costly to remove

"It's like background noise, people have come to accept it," Chris Coode, who as a river manager on the River Thames has to deal with the consequences of this laissez faire attitude on a daily basis, told Panorama.

Mr Coode thinks that if people were able to look at the mess with fresh eyes they might be shocked out of their acceptance.

In Notes on a Dirty Island Bryson tries to do just that, using his status as an outsider to draw our attention to the problem.

Spot fines

In the 1970s the stars of the day gave their backing to high profile "Keep Britain Tidy" campaigns which drove home the message that dropping litter was unacceptable behaviour.

But now in the 21st Century it is not so much a case of "Keep Britain Tidy" as "Get Britain Tidy".

As Bryson discovers great strides are being made in some urban areas.

Rubbish left by fly tippers
Fly tippers know they are unlikely to be caught or punished

Liverpool, which he once described as looking like a city "in the middle of a litter festival" now spends 7.5m a year trying to rid its streets of rubbish.

And Southwark has gone from being one of London's dirtiest boroughs to one of the cleanest, thanks to a system of fixed penalty notices which fine litterers up to 75 on the spot.

Other areas could follow suit - Britain has some of the toughest anti-littering laws in Europe - but it is left to individual councils to decide how to enforce them, and, as Bryson finds, in many cases they are simply not doing so.

In fact, as the programme reports, last year 74 local authorities failed to issue even a single fixed penalty for littering.

Illegal dumping

Rural areas, where there are less bins and street sweepers, are also being hard-hit.

Ray Mallon
Middlesbrough's mayor is clamping down on litter

Over half of us admit to throwing rubbish out of car windows. The Highways Agency now spends 500m a year just clearing up main roads, but on quiet country lanes it is largely down to volunteers to clean-up.

And a particular scourge in the countryside is fly tipping - the deliberate and illegal dumping of rubbish - a crime which is committed an estimated 2.6m times a year and costs more than 120m a year to clear up.

Yet, as Notes on a Dirty Island highlights, in most parts of the country fly tippers are able to go about their business in the happy knowledge that they will neither be caught nor punished.

In fact, according to figures from the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) 70% of local authorities have not prosecuted a single fly tipper in the last five years.

Community spirit

But litter is not just an unsightly national disgrace which is expensive to remove, there is also evidence that there is a link between litter and crime.

If you have one broken window it indicates that we don't care, so you get a second broken window and a third broken window and it indicates that Society doesn't care about the society we live in

Ray Mallon
Middlesbrough mayor

Bryson travels to Middlesbrough where Mayor Ray Mallon, once known as Robocop for his support of zero tolerance policies, has spearheaded a campaign against litter, saying that it is an essential component in bringing back pride in the city for its inhabitants.

Mr Mallon says it all comes down to what he refers to as "the broken window syndrome".

"If you have one broken window it indicates that we don't care, so you get a second broken window and a third broken window and it indicates that Society doesn't care about the society we live in," he says.

And as Bryson discovers this cleaning up of the streets has gone hand in hand with a drop in anti-social behaviour, in people's fear of crime and a growth in community spirit.

Panorama: Notes on a Dirty Island will be broadcast on Monday 11 August on BBC One at 8.30pm

Environment minister's response
26 Aug 08 |  Panorama
Waitrose response to litter claim
08 Aug 08 |  Panorama
Camden Council response
12 Aug 08 |  Panorama
Archive: Sinking into Squalor
08 Aug 08 |  Panorama
Rubbish June 26 2000
26 Jun 00 |  Archive

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