MP puts litter on the agenda in Parliament

Litter hit the news earlier this month after Theresa Villiers, MP for Chipping Barnet was allocated time for a debate in Parliament on this issue. She applied for the debate after a constituent contacted her about roadside litter just outside her constituency around the South Mimms service station.

Theresa used the debate to call on the Minister to toughen up the obligations placed on Highways England on clearing litter. She also highlighted the need for police and prosecutors to crack down on fly-tipping.

The debate featured in the Daily Mail after Theresa produced a sweet wrapper at the end of her speech which she had picked up after someone had dropped it at the back of the Chamber of the House of Commons, behind the green benches. Click here to read the story.

Theresa's speech was recorded in Hansard: "In his foreword to the 2017 litter strategy, the Transport minister stated that roadside litter “harms our economic prospects and stifles communal wellbeing.”

As well as damaging our quality of life, roadside litter and debris can put lives at risk if they blow into the road and damage the vision of passing drivers. Page 55 of the 2017 strategy acknowledged:

“The current situation is unacceptable. Our roads and highways are the gateways to our towns and cities, and yet verges, traffic islands, and roadside paths are often marred by unsightly litter. Local authorities will need to improve their own cleaning and work more effectively with neighbouring authorities and Highways England to keep such places consistently clean”.

I applied for this debate after a similar conversation with my constituent Mr Nick Spall, who contacted me to complain about litter and debris piling up along the approach roads linking the M25 with the South Mimms turn-off. He had particular concerns about the connection with St Albans Road leading south towards High Barnet, just outside my constituency of Chipping Barnet. He pointed out:

“Visitors to the UK will be surprised and disappointed that this cannot be kept under control at such a visible and prominent location.”

I raised that complaint with Highways England, which told me that Hertsmere Borough Council was responsible for litter clearance on the roads concerned. Hertsmere Borough Council informed me that the general area was litter-picked on a weekly basis, but that several sections could not be safely accessed without traffic management measures, and that they could take place only if Hertfordshire County Council had road closures planned.

That illustrates the first key issue I wish to raise with the Minister. If we are to tackle the litter that we can see through our car or bus windows every day, we need to ​address the problem of divided responsibilities and introduce clearer lines of accountability. That point was made by Peter Silverman of the Clean Highways campaign, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank him for the briefing he provided for the debate and for his determined work to highlight these important matters.

We should take pride in the fact that so many members of our communities are prepared to put their own time, effort and hard work into tackling litter. In that regard, I highlight the staff at McDonald’s Friern Barnet, who regularly go out to litter pick. Those volunteer efforts are hugely to be welcomed, but we also need to ensure that we have an effective response from the Government and local councils.

Allocation of responsibility for clearing highway litter is governed by the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Local councils have that duty in relation to the majority of roads, including trunk roads in the strategic road network. Highways England is charged with maintenance and litter clearance on motorways and a small number of trunk roads. Similarly, Transport for London is responsible for maintenance and litter clearance on several strategic routes in the London region.

That means that there are many cases where the body responsible for maintaining the road and its verges is not responsible for litter clearance on those verges. We also end up in a situation where small district councils are supposed to clear litter from busy major roads but are not geared up for the extensive organisation that comes with health and safety requirements, such as coning off lanes or shutting roads altogether, as in the example near my constituency, which I referred to earlier.

Will the Government consider reforming the law to provide that the body responsible for maintaining a road and the roadside is also the one tasked with clearing litter from that roadside? In particular, that reform would mean that Highways England had an increased duty to clear the litter around all the roads for which it is responsible, and it would make it much easier to combine work such as trimming roadside vegetation with litter picking, so clearance could take place more regularly and efficiently.

If the Government feel that that would be too big a step, can they at least report on progress on improving the partnership working between Highways England and local authorities, as they advocated on page 57 of the 2017 litter strategy? That would be a crucial way to address some of my constituents’ concerns.

My second concern is more general. Section 89 of the 1990 Act imposes a statutory duty on Highways England and local authorities to clear litter and refuse from roads where they are the designated authority. The amount of litter blighting our roads must surely mean ​that that duty is not being taken seriously enough. That is implicitly acknowledged on page 60 of the strategy, where the Government promise to revise the code of practice that provides guidance on how to comply with the section 89 duty.

We need to strengthen the obligations placed on Highways England in relation to litter clearance. I have a copy of its litter strategy with me and, frankly, it is a bit thin—it runs to four pages plus a list of roads. The Government’s 2017 strategy refers to working with the Office of Road and Rail and to including a tougher litter-cleaning key performance indicator in the performance specification for Highways England. The Government promised to review the mechanism for holding authorities to account in relation to the performance of their obligations under the code of practice. They also undertook to remove responsibilities from local authorities that failed in their duty to keep the road network clear of litter. I appeal to the Minister to press ahead with reform to make Highways England take the issue more seriously, to toughen up the code of practice as it applies to all local authorities, and to ensure that the enforcement of the section 89 duty becomes much more effective.

My third point relates to the procedures required for litter picking on fast, busy roads. Those responsible for clearing litter have a duty to keep their employees safe, and that obligation must always be strictly adhered to. At present, extensive coning off of lanes, or even full road closures, are often deemed necessary for routine roadside litter clearing.

On page 56 of the 2017 strategy, the Government express their determination to tackle the practical barriers preventing clearance of road litter. They refer to a working group that they have established, which is dedicated to looking at these matters. I appeal to the Minister to ensure that the outcome of that work ensures that rules requiring the coning or closing of roads are used in a proportionate way and only when necessary, to ensure the safety of workers. What we do not want to do is place unnecessary constraints on litter clearance. The Government have been looking at the issue as it relates to workers involved in road maintenance and road works. I hope they will also undertake a similar process in relation to workers who are at one remove—in other words, who are on the edge of the road and not on the road itself.

A fourth concern on which I would like the Minister to reflect relates to heavy goods vehicles. Sadly, roadside litter is not just food wrappers and coffee cups thrown by irresponsible and antisocial drivers; a significant proportion of it will have blown off skip vans or lorries with open loads. I urge both the Environment Agency and Highways England to give higher priority to prosecuting that kind of waste crime. I am sure that they have been sent many dashboard camera video clips of such an offence. I have raised this issue with the Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association. There is also a real concern about some HGV drivers leaving litter after overnight stops, as referred to in the litter strategy. I appreciate that it is very much a minority of HGV drivers who behave in that way, but such littering does happen.​

Page 64 of the 2017 strategy refers to the particular challenges in getting an anti-litter message across to drivers from overseas. It would be useful if the Minister could update us on the Government’s progress in communicating that message. Of course, it is also important to note that there is a shortage of overnight provision for HGV drivers, and finding more space for those kinds of facilities—including, of course, litter bins and waste disposal facilities—is an important part of a strategy to tackle roadside litter.

Thankfully, the problems that I have highlighted regarding the national road network occur largely outside my constituency. However, like almost everywhere in the country, we suffer from the blight of fly-tipping, with recent bad examples occurring in Mays Lane in the Underhill area and Regal Drive in South Friern. Fly-tipping is a serious crime that enrages those constituents affected by it. I believe that the police and prosecution authorities, including the Environment Agency, should pursue offenders more vigorously and seek the maximum penalties available for that crime.

I welcome the work done locally in my area by Barnet Council to combat fly-tipping. Many neighbouring boroughs have introduced fortnightly bin collections, which inevitably worsens problems with fly-tipping. That is one of the reasons why Barnet Council has kept weekly bin collections for general waste and general recycling. I also commend its #KeepBarnetClean campaign, which started in 2016 and has involved an extensive campaign of public engagement, including highlighting the £80 fine for littering and the £400 fine for fly-tipping.

In conclusion, not too long ago the Government published a 25-year plan for the environment. A plastic bag charging scheme is already in place, a bottle return scheme is out for consultation, and there is a long list of other ideas under discussion on reducing the need for avoidable single-use plastics. There is now greater public concern about plastic waste than I can ever remember in my lifetime. I urge the Government to harness that momentum in support of long-standing efforts to prevent litter from disfiguring our roads, countryside and public spaces.

At this time of year, students throughout the country are embarking on their National Citizen Service programmes. I hope that one of the issues they are asked to consider is litter and how to prevent it. However, I am afraid that it is not just young people who drop litter. To illustrate that, I produce this Crunchie wrapper, which I picked up this week after it had been dropped in the back row of the Chamber of the House of Commons.

It is truly depressing that littering occurs even here, in this mother of Parliaments. All ages and all types of people can be guilty of this kind of antisocial activity. We all have a part to play in addressing it, and I very much look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the matters I have raised."