Councillor Steven Williams: we must all be custodians of our shared spaces

Litter binI found it fascinating to read a survey a few weeks ago that the vast majority of people think littering is a “disgusting” habit yet much smaller numbers would actually confront someone caught dropping rubbish and tell them that.

We must all, as a community and a society, be better custodians of our shared spaces. Andrea Leadsom, the former Environment Secretary in Mrs May’s Cabinet, is acutely aware of the problem and is tackling this issue more robustly than her predecessors. More bins will be rolled out across the country and smart bin technology will help councils understand where hotspots are and when they need emptying.

It will be followed by a country-wide anti-litter campaign in 2018, designed to make littering as socially unacceptable as drink-driving and smoking in front of children. Announcing a new strategy to tackle litter across the country last month Ms Leadsom said the problem is a “shocking drain on the public purse” and revealed plans to fine people who drop waste of up to £150.

Looking around the world, there are streets in Calgary, Canada, which are almost litter free - perhaps, or at least in part, due to sizeable fines. As far back as in 2009, the authorities in Calgary increased fines to C$500 for littering, C$750 for throwing rubbish from a vehicle and C$1,000 for throwing a lit cigarette out of a car window.

In Singapore, the fines can be even more costly. A first conviction for dropping litter can result in a penalty of up to S$1,000, or £560. Repeat convictions can result in fines of up to S$5,000 (£2,800) and community service orders can be handed out, as well as the offender being sent to a anti-littering lectures. Those who still don’t get the message and are convicted a third time can be made to wear a sign stating “I am a litter lout”.

Interestingly, Singapore also fines people for putting spent chewing gum anywhere other than a bin (S$100). Given the mess made of pavements (not to mention people’s footwear at times) in Canterbury due to gum being tossed seemingly anywhere and everywhere, I’m sure many locals would back the Singapore approach. And, as with all of these things, wherever they take place in the world, there is no point having a law if it is not enforced.

There are also novel initiatives aimed at making the streets cleaner across the UK. One installing “voting ashtrays” where smokers can vote on different sports questions each week with their cigarette butts, as the bins are set in two parts asking questions like “Who will win the next Test at Lords”.

Some districts and boroughs across the country have used the latest thinking on behaviour change and awareness-raising to try and find solutions, including having bins that play music when one puts litter in them or lighting up once rubbish has been deposited.

Ultimately there needs to be a fundamental change in attitudes towards littering and this needs to be driven from central government. Attitudes can fundamentally change when nationwide legislation and campaigns are enacted, so I am pleased there will be country-wide anti-litter campaign in 2018, designed to make littering as socially unacceptable as drink-driving and smoking in front of children.  

With hard working members of the community holding regular litter picks, educational facilities becoming far more proactive in demonising litter for the social malice that it is and government shifting society’s attitude on litter we can make Canterbury and Britain a more attractive, cleaner and healthier place to live.A part of this is giving people a greater involvement and ownership of the areas in which they live. The other part of this is to make volunteering and social action a part of people's everyday lives.  I would, therefore, suggest making litter picking and volunteering a key part of the schools’ curriculum, perhaps with specific time each week as part of citizenship education. This would help the individual student when they eventually leave school to become an active contributor to the social fabric of their communities.  Building social responsibility and ownership for one’s community into children from an early age will only serve to benefit them and the society in which we all live in.

Only time will tell whether this generation will be the first not to have a better standard of living than their parents, but one thing we can, and indeed must, ensure is that this generation is the first in modern human history to leave the environment in a better state than it found it.

Steven A T Williams (below right, leading a community litter pick)
Canterbury City Councillor for Barton Ward

Steven Williams, right, leading a community litter pick