Max Anderson is the Senior Communications Officer for Bright Blue.
England’s natural and urban environments have been under constant threat from litterers. That is why Bright Blue has published a new report this week, Picking up the pieces, which proposes new policies to reduce fly-tipping and littering.
Those who don’t care for our country’s natural beauty discard their waste along our footpaths, roadsides, and in our communities. It is only getting worse; in the past three years for which data is available, we have witnessed the number of reported fly-tipping incidents in England increase from 957,157 in 2018-19 to well over one million in 2020-21.
Littering causes significant disruption to local wildlife. Commonly littered items, such as cigarettes and plastic packaging, can leach toxic chemicals into the soil and nearby waterways which disrupts the entire ecosystem. Additionally, discarded waste poses a significant risk to wildlife with its ingestion often leading to death. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) receives on average 14 calls a day in relation to animals affected by litter, with wild birds being a particularly common victim.
The public is aware of the problem. In 2021, Bright Blue’s report Nature positive? revealed that fly-tipping and littering is seen by the UK public as the third largest threat to the UK’s natural environment (25 per cent), behind plastic pollution (41 per cent) and climate change (37 per cent). Not only is the public concerned, but the taxpayer also pays to deal with the problem. Local authorities in England alone spend an estimated roughly £700 million a year to clean up their streets.
Multiple government policies are in place to try to reduce the level of fly-tipping and littering in the country such as the plastic bag tax. Introduced in 2015, it required retailers of all sizes to charge customers for using a plastic bag. Since its introduction the scheme has cut plastic bag use down by more than 95 per cent. Government has also banned certain single use plastics, is introducing an electronic waste tracking system in 2023, and is consulting on a deposit return scheme.
However, the main method for tackling litterers remains a Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN). In England, fixed penalty notices for littering range from £65 to a maximum of £150. Bright Blue has previously argued that this fine should be increased to match other cities internationally known for their cleanliness. In Calgary, fines for littering range between £150-£290 and in Singapore, littering can result in a fine of up to £2,750. Both cities are consistently ranked in the top ten cleanest cities in the world. The public supports this idea; in our polling report Nature positive?, 76 per cent of the UK public wanted to see higher fines for littering.
Perhaps more important than the value of the fine itself is the belief that it will actually be enforced. On this, too many local authorities are failing. Data obtained by Freedom of Information has revealed that of the 169 councils which responded to the request, the majority (56 per cent) issued less than one FPN a week and 16% issued none for the 2018-19 period. If FPNs are simply not being issued, it hinders their efficacy as a deterrent for littering.
Currently, there are no official inspections into whether local authorities are enforcing the law on litter, nor are there repercussions for failing to do so. The Office of Environmental Protection (OEP), the new independent regulator designed to hold government and other public bodies to account on environmental protection, should be tasked with inspecting local authorities to ensure they are applying the law on litter. Where they are failing to do so, the OEP should mandate the use of third-party enforcement services to apply the law on litter within a local authority’s area.
In 2018, the 73 local authorities who employed private enforcement services to issue FPNs issued an average of 2,940 fines each per year. By comparison, the 230 local authorities who did not employ third-party enforcement services to issue FPNs issued an average of 157 each per year.
Littering harms local communities, destroys local ecosystems, and costs the taxpayer millions of pounds every year. Effective use of third party enforcement services by local authorities could be a cost-effective way of greatly increasing the number of FPNs issued. Doing so would be a popular and effective solution to cleaning up our streets and our country.