Citizens against litter

Many of us, though fed up with the ever-present problem of litter, feel powerless to do anything about it. One option that has more popular in recent years has been the formation of an ever-growing number of local volunteer litter groups, started by ordinary people who have decided to channel their frustration into positive action. Not only do they clear the litter from their neighbourhoods but they are also instrumental in encouraging other residents to get involved and in making great efforts to change litterers’ behaviour.

But people’s feelings of helplessness are increased when the badly-littered area is out of reach. Typical examples of this include railway tracks and motorway verges. But the situation may not be as hopeless as you think.

In the news recently there has been publicity given to a valiant knight in shining armour by the name of Peter Silverman. Fed up with the appalling state of the verges on the M40, he resorted to the corporate equivalent of a citizen’s arrest – the little-known device of the Litter Abatement Order. This involves a citizen taking a “responsible body” (in this case, the Highways Agency) to court to force them to carry out their statutory duty to keep free of litter the land for which they are responsible. Peter Silverman was successful in his tilt against this particular windmill and he even managed to secure reimbursement of the costs that he had incurred.

But, as Tom Sutcliffe subsequently pointed out in the Telegraph, the real culprits in this case, “fly-tippers and oafish motorists”, remain out of reach. Sutcliffe went on to single out the people who leave leaflets tucked under your car’s windscreen wipers and to muse about whether that constituted litter or whether, to qualify as litter, it had to hit the ground first.

In fact this irritating activity is not covered by current litter or fly-posting law and Tom Sutcliffe is right – these leaflets become litter only when they reach the ground. The irony was, though, that Google’s ingenious advertising system had gleefully lit upon the word “leaflet” in the heading of Tom Sutcliffe’s article on the Telegraph website and helpfully listed, alongside Sutcliffe’s article, various businesses that professed to be happy to print your leaflets for you. The Law of Unintended Consequences is alive and well……

So, Caroline Spelman – when you and your Defra ministers get to reconsidering the litter laws (including, I hope, making it possible to prosecute the registered owner of a car from which litter is thrown – at the moment only the person who actually threw the litter can be prosecuted and so that entails a fairly demanding identification requirement) please take the time to deal explicitly with leaflets left under windscreen wipers. And, while you’re at it, please also give Litter Abatement Orders a much greater level of publicity and make them more accessible to the public to use. That way, in line with your “Big Society” aspirations, you will be better equipping the citizen army with another effective item of weaponry against the ever-present litter menace.

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