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Litter, fines and doing time

A blog post by Alastair Alford

Our LEQ Network Officer Alastair has worked with us since 2007 when he was recruited to manage our training.  He has developed a range of first rate training courses over the years, introducing new and innovative services as well as extending his experience to other areas of our work.  Here he writes about litter, the legislation and the options open to enforcers.

I have worked in environmental legislation for 14 years. My role with Keep Scotland Beautiful is, amongst other things, primarily to train local authority enforcement officers in the application of the law regarding those people who drop litter. The law with respect to littering has changed very little since the current legislation was introduced in 1990; the only major change, from 1 April 2015, has been the increase in the fine from £50 to £80.

Over the past 14 years I have become aware that the perception of the Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN) is quite different from one local authority to another, from one legal department to another, between Procurators Fiscal and perhaps even between Sheriffs. First, it is important to understand that littering is a criminal offence which is liable to a fine of up to a £2,500 and a criminal record when prosecuted through the courts. The FPN, if offered to an offender, allows the offender to discharge their liability to the court fine and a criminal record.

So why do people drop litter? If we knew that then we would probably have solved the problem. There are various potential reasons such as being lazy, being unaware of the consequences or even ‘mummy isn’t around to pick up after you’! But it is complicated depending on person, situation and litter type.

The consequences, however, are what is important. Apart from the effect on the environment, and we have been preaching that lesson for years, in a littered area the effect on the mental and physical health of a community is measurable, and of course, a littered area will repel tourists and businesses. Additionally, we also know that litter breeds litter – littered areas seem to attract more litter.

So how do we stop littering? Another question to which everybody knows the answer. We can talk about carrots and sticks here but neither has worked effectively. The increased fine level to £80, the ‘stick’, has not had an impact and the ‘carrot’ in terms of ‘don’t litter and you’ll have a better life’ is too nebulous. That’s a short-term inconvenience of not littering to win a long-term gain of, well what? The costs, both monetary and environmental do not seem to matter to the litterer. That’s obvious. The almost unanswerable question, again, is what does matter to the litterer?

Before I started working for the charity, I trained in Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) and worked as a therapist. Sometimes I still do. My interest was primarily in changing behaviours or habits for those people who wanted to change. Changing littering behaviours is, of course, the answer. I have had some fabulous suggestions posited by enforcement officers, colleagues and friends; from increasing fine levels to decriminalising the offence, from ‘fine or time’ and even to tasers. The last is obviously a joke, which may disappoint some people! But changing a littering behaviour is not as simple as changing a habit.

Why can’t we change the behaviour as we did with seat belts and smoking indoors? Perhaps not enough of us call out the ‘litterer’, but why should we? It is not recommended for one thing because it might lead to confrontation. Also, littering is a moment in time, unlike seatbelts, mobiles and smoking. It is a momentary aberration, a thoughtless act. We do not get into a car and think ‘what will I litter today?’ We do, however, make a conscious decision to light up a cigarette or use a mobile phone.

I mentioned ‘fine or time’ earlier. Glasgow City Council (GCC) has been running such a project for about ten years, successfully. The option to spend three hours on a litter pick instead of paying the £80 fine is sometimes available. GCC tell me that this is an initiative that of course benefits the community where the litter picks take place and, unsurprisingly, makes the litterer think about litter. That means that the ‘momentary aberration, a thoughtless act’ changes. GCC reports that many of the ‘fine or timers’ have gone on to become Neighbourhood Improvement Volunteers.

Simply raising the level of an FPN is not, we believe the answer. Increasing the penalty of being caught, only works if the systems are in place to firstly catch the person littering, secondly to process the fine, and thirdly to move it to the courts if it isn’t paid. Currently, we believe that this system is broken, and a different approach is needed.

The ‘fine or time’ option is not and will not be the solution everywhere. I believe that people need to become aware that litter is one of the most anti-social behaviours we can imagine. It costs Scottish local authorities more than £1 million a week to remove and not all can be removed, some ends up poisoning the environment. As already mentioned, the effects on well-being, tourism and business are enormous.

Is there a solution? Maybe we just tell our friends, family and colleagues not to litter and keep telling them and then tell them again.

If you'd like to find out more about our views on littering enforcement and what we think needs to be done check out our response to the recent Scottish Government consultation on a National Litter and Flytipping Strategy for Scotland

You can also find out more about the range of Local Environmental Quality training we offer to duty bodies.

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