Is there a link between litter and crime ?

You may have heard it said that crime is prevalent in neighbourhoods which are badly littered. The Defra (Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) website, for instance, states : “There is a clear continuum from litter to more serious environmental crime. Left unchecked, dirty streets and neighbourhoods affect the perception of the local community which can lead to anti-social behaviour and eventually serious crime.”

To my mind this raises all sorts of questions, not least the issue of which happens first – the litter or the crime – and so what exactly the causal relationship is between the two.

Earlier this year I read a letter to The Times from Jonathan Shepherd, Professor of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery at Cardiff University and Director of the Violence Research Group. His observations were fascinating.

First, a paper that he co-published in 2007, based on data from interviews with 40,000 households in England and Wales, reported that the presence of litter in a neighbourhood was strongly linked both to fear of personal harm and to fear of loss of personal property.

But he then developed the theme further – in Helsinki, where there is a money-back bottle deposit scheme, the city’s main accident and emergency department records much less frequent glass injury than does the one in Cardiff. So taking glass off the streets is likely to reduce violence in which glasses and bottles are used as weapons.

Then comes the crunch – Professor Shepherd observes that, had the streets of Peckham been free of glass, perhaps 10-year-old Damilola Taylor, killed in 2000 by youths with a broken supermarket lager bottle, would have arrived home safely.

This is a chilling thought and, I hope, will encourage us all to pick up litter, and glass bottles especially, that we see dropped in the streets.

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