Own goals on the litter pitch

When we started up CleanupUK, we did as many organisations do and thought about the values that CleanupUK should embody. The trustees and I felt strongly that CleanupUK should be an essentially friendly organisation with the concept of fun at its core. We wanted people to enjoy themselves as they go about tackling the litter problem in their area and we thought that the hard-nosed campaigning and ranting should be left to others. In particular, we felt that we should support and work with local authorities in their efforts to get on top of the litter problem in their area, rather than continually castigating them for not keeping the streets clean, as some people do.

Apart from the people who actually do the littering, the one group that we felt that we ought to be aggressive to is people or organisations that put obstacles in the way of volunteers who want to pick up litter.

So it was with a heavy heart that I read recently about what happened to a family in Surrey who did a sponsored litter pick for charity. They raised £300 for a school-building project in South Africa by filling 22 bags of litter from a 5-mile walk along pavements and roadside verges.

At the end of the litter pick, they rang Mole Valley Council and asked if the Council would collect the bags of litter. The Council said it would cost the family £95, nearly a third of the amount that they had raised for their school in South Africa.

To cut a long story short, the Council eventually relented (hurrah !) but made the fair point that it would have been preferable for the volunteers to have made arrangements in advance with the Council for the collection of the rubbish bags. The Council leader was quoted as saying “We are happy for people to pick up litter and it’s clearly not appropriate to charge this chap” and you can just sense the frustration in his voice.

This is very reminiscent of an occurrence early last year in which a volunteer group in Essex was reprimanded by Thurrock Council for having collected too much rubbish. The volunteers amassed 43 bags of rubbish and a fly-tipped sofa but the 3-man dustbin crew who were sent to collect the rubbish couldn’t then carry on with their usual round because their vehicle was full. What is more, the Council had approved the operation and had provided the bin bags and litter-picking sticks. Not surprisingly, the Council subsequently apologised to the group and praised their efforts.

Both of these cases involve council staff speaking out of turn and, in each case, thankfully the council quickly made it clear that what was originally said did not reflect council policy. But the damage had been done.

It is easy to sit here typing this and to say, with the benefit of hindsight, that both councils should have made clear to the relevant staff what their policy was with volunteer litter-pickers. And you can argue that keeping everyone singing from the same hymn-sheet in a large organisation is an uphill task.

But what is indisputable is that these two lapses of judgement by council staff engendered a huge amount of adverse publicity (both achieved articles in the Daily Mail) and also caused significant local ill will. That, surely, is worth avoiding, perhaps by investing a little more in communications skills training for key staff.

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