February 2nd, 2018

Street smart: how can councils better tackle litter?

7 minute read

by Neil Greenhalgh


Walk down any street in Britain and you are likely to find litter: from crisp packets and drinks cans to fag-ends and chewing gum. I am still astonished by the audacity of people who clearly think unwanted confectionery and fast food packaging belong in a gutter or on a pavement. Allowing one’s dog to foul public spaces is another enviro-crime that too many people evidently find acceptable.

The ‘broken windows’ theory suggests that where litter and detritus are left in an area, this attracts further degradation in the forms of graffiti and fly-tipping. In turn, this can lead from enviro-crime to low-level crime in the form of theft and damage to property. Litter can also affect animals and plants, blighting the landscape and harming local wildlife from birds to hedgehogs. It can even impact on house prices and people’s wellbeing.


Zonal marking

Who is responsible for keeping the UK clean? Well, it starts with you and me. If no-one dropped litter there would be no need for the army of men and women who trail around every corner of the country cleaning up after the great British public. However, until the day comes when littering is a thing of the past, the legal duty to keep land clear of litter falls on various different types of litter body.

The most prominent is the ‘principal litter authority’ for each area, the local council. Under Section 89 of the Environmental Protection Act (EPA) 1990 they are required to keep their land clear of refuse and litter. Councils use expensive plant and vehicles to brush and suck up dirt as well as to wash our streets clean. In addition, hand held brushes, shovels, scrapers and grabbers are used to safely pick up and collect the rubbish left behind by the great British public.

‘Street cleansing’, as councils generally call it, is perhaps the wrong label: although most of the resources are spent cleaning the streets, the service also covers much of the countryside, as well as many beaches. Street cleansing is essentially the sister service to refuse collection, and can cost a local council millions of pounds a year.

There are two ways to plan a street cleansing service: either by inputs (frequency based) or outputs (standards met).  A significant proportion of councils still clean on a frequency basis; and the typical response to funding cuts is to reduce the frequency, leading to lower standards of cleanliness.

Under Defra’s Code of Practice on Litter and Refuse, councils are encouraged to divide their area into ‘zones’ (light, medium and heavy), reflecting how intensely each part is used. More cleansing resources can then be targeted on areas of heavy footfall. In a frequency-based system, that might mean the town centre being swept daily, while an outlying area might be visited monthly or less – whether the area is clean or dirty.

An output based system instead focuses on identifying, whether through inspections or complaints monitoring, zones that have fallen below the required cleanliness standard, and then targeting resources at them. A busy zone will have a tight time standard for how quickly it should be cleaned; less stringent time standards may apply to lightly trafficked areas.  A well-designed output-based approach allows more control over resources and can be more resilient to budget cuts. Resources can be targeted on the areas of greatest need, by saving time wasted on the cleaning of already clean streets.


Loony bins

More effective equipment can also help to improve efficiency. Take litter bins, for example: they come in all shapes, sizes, purposes and – unfortunately – levels of usefulness. How many times have you conscientiously taken your litter to a bin only to find it already bulging with last night’s takeaway wrappings? Some councils actually don’t have a complete record of how many bins they have or where they all are.


Overflowing Bin

Bin away too long: a rigid, frequency-based system for emptying litter bins rarely makes the best use of resources. Photo courtesy of Neil Greenhalgh.


Some have simply responded to the problem of litter by installing more bins. However, these bins cost money to purchase, install and empty, and need maintaining.  Broken bins, wrong sized bins, a lack of recycling bins and bins that are simply collected on a ‘round’ whether full or empty – all are potentially a waste of valuable time and resources.  Many councils could benefit from a strategic review of litter bin provision and associated policies to complement the street cleansing service they provide.


Not escaping notice

No discussion of litter would be complete without mention of enforcement. Despite the UK having some of the strongest anti-littering laws in Europe, the problem continues largely unabated. Enforcement is a key part of any anti-litter strategy but will always be controversial. Litter ‘police’ have received poor press, particularly when this function is outsourced to private contractors – prompting concerns about over-zealous issuing of penalties to maximise profits.

In recent years the number of fixed penalty notices issued for littering has more than doubled, but in 2008/9, the last year for which figures are available, councils across the UK generated only £1.33m of income from litter fines. By contrast, the RAC estimates that in 2015 councils made almost £700m ‘profit’ on car parking fines. It certainly suggests that tackling car parking offences is seen as an easier option than dealing with enviro-crime.

Still, the UK public continues to drop litter at an astonishing rate. The cost to councils of dealing with it is widely quoted as £1bn. Litter policy must therefore include enforcement as a deterrent, combined with effective communication and education campaigns.

If your local council does not deal effectively with littering problems then bear in mind that individuals can compel them to act, using powers in the EPA. Although rarely used, any member of the public can apply for a Litter Abatement Notice to force a landowner (including a local authority) to clean up an area within their control.

On a different tack, local communities can also take up arms (or rather litter pickers) themselves and undertake clean ups – as Eunomia staff did last summer. They can find support from local councils, as well as other independent, not-for-profit organisations offering equipment, training, advice and safe recycling or disposal facilities. The admirable Tidy Britain Group offers excellent support and advice.



As austerity measures bite further, local government faces challenges around how to continue to provide essential front-line services with less money. Income generating opportunities are often limited and are generally concentrated on raising the value or volume of fees for public services such as car parks, market stalls and trade waste. Decisions on where the savings are drawn from can also be quite crude, effectively salami-slicing all budgets to meet the target saving.

Faced with cuts on a scale never before envisaged, the strategy has to change. Councils need to identify priorities and opportunities, and to consider how services can be delivered differently and more economically. Although street cleansing may not be at the forefront of peoples’ minds, it is an essential front-line service that underpins a lot of community strategies. A high quality, effective and efficient street scene service can improve the economic value of an area, ensure the public feel safe in their local community, protect the local environment and improve the health and well-being of citizens.

It is time to change the way we think about services such as street cleansing. The public accepts that keeping the UK clean comes lower down the pecking order than hospitals and ‘blue light’ services. However, with marine plastics (an issue Eunomia has championed) now very much in the public eye thanks to Sir David Attenborough and the BBC, it is well worth remembering that amongst the many benefits of a clean environment is that it helps prevent plastics entering waterways, and ultimately the sea.

A clean environment is essential to ensuring future generations do not have to deal with the legacy of poor decision-making in times of austerity. In the words of Bill Bryson: “A tidy countryside should be a right, not a surprise. It’s possible. It’s worth it.”


Neil Greenhalgh



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A very interesting article, the streets are kept clean here but the rubbish on verges and on field edges is disgusting. Farmers dont have time and why should they have to clear up the detritus from humanity? It is all of our responsibility to keep our environments clean.

Theofilos Karantzalis
Theofilos Karantzalis

Completely agree with the points raised in the article. Just wanted to highlight that facilitating street cleaning should be an integral part of any planning development decisions especially in areas of high footfall