Is it The Council’s job ?

How often have I been told that picking up litter is “The Council’s job” ? Well, if I had a pound for every time, I think I could consider retiring. And it’s not only local residents who have told me this – it’s also been potential funders who don’t want to be supporting work that they consider the statutory duty of the local authority.

So it was with some interest that I noted a report from the North East last week relating how, due to budget cuts, Darlington Borough Council is considering involving volunteers in litter-picking.

The report told how “community groups, the voluntary sector and local residents could be asked to carry out tasks usually undertaken by Darlington Borough Council as part of cost-saving measures”. And “suggestions [from councillors and officials] included relying more heavily on community groups and residents to litter-pick and help to maintain public spaces like parks and cemeteries”.

Quite frankly, I am surprised that this issue hasn’t surfaced before given the huge financial pressure that local councils are under. But this suggestion raises all sorts of thorny issues.

First, some people object to volunteers picking up any litter at all as they think it will do someone out of a job. I have never given this argument much credence as, if a council needs to cut costs, it is bound to mean some poor people in some departments losing their jobs. If it isn’t in the street cleansing department, it will be somewhere else.

Second, there is indeed the whole question of volunteers carrying out what are rightly regarded as the statutory duties of the council. Normally, I would say that volunteer litter groups currently very much complement the work that the council does. I know of no volunteer that cleans a street at the regular intervals that the council used to clean it, thereby reducing the council’s street-cleaner’s workload. And if a council attempted to involve volunteers in doing what was, under the Environment Protection Act 1990, their own statutory duty, a learned friend of mine thinks that it would need a decision by the courts to rule on whether a council can be forced to carry out its statutory duty fully in an economic downturn.

Finally, I would argue from a purely pragmatic point of view that, if the council cannot for financial reasons keep an area clean regularly enough, then good on any volunteer residents who take it upon themselves to fill the gap. But we do need to think carefully about the wholesale abandonment of a council’s statutory duty in a certain area of their responsibilities. Could this be the thin end of the wedge, paving the way for volunteers to become traffic wardens, childcare inspectors or planning officers ?

I sense that we haven’t heard the last of this debate – in fact, it may be that this is just the beginning. Do please leave a comment below with your view on this controversial issue.

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