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CLEANING UP OUR ACT

Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 5th September 2008
This week, David Winpenny, Co-Chairman of Ripon Civic Society, considers litter.

Archaeologists love rubbish. Without the rubbish heaps of our ancestors, we should know much less about how they lived, and the minutiae of their lives – the Roman child’s boot from a drain at Vindolanda, the combs and pins of Viking women from York – even the Ripon Jewel – were all once rubbish. Things lost or thrown away are the precious artefacts of the historian.

But what of our own rubbish? – not so much the rubbish we put into our black sacks or, eventually, our wheelybins, but the detritus that we find blowing around our street corners and which we tread underfoot each time we walk around the city. This is not the stuff of history, but an increasing nuisance.
Of course, it is not just Ripon that suffers from problems of litter. As Bill Bryson, President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) pointed out in his recent BBC Panorama programme, it is everywhere – and the responsibility of everyone. CPRE has launched a campaign, ‘Stop the Drop’ because, as Bryson says, ‘we believe that people care very much about their community, streets and countryside and don't want to see it disappearing under an ever increasing pile of litter.’
It is more than 50 years since the Keep Britain Tidy group began its successful anti-litter campaign, which for perhaps two decades was effective in encouraging people to (or shaming them into) not dropping litter and to take it home with them. Since the mid-seventies, though, we seem to have lost the civic pride or the guilty consciences that moved us to keep our streets comparatively litter-free.
The increasing amounts of litter may well be connected with the tendency of manufacturers and shops to over-package goods, resulting in lots of extra wrappings that need to be discarded. As more pressure is put on local authority resources, litter bins are emptied less frequently, and there are few of them. Harrogate Borough Council has around 30 street-cleaning staff for its area of 500 square miles. And since smoking was banned inside buildings, the amount of smoking-related litter has increased – look outside any pub in the city and, unless its staff are public-spirited enough to clean up regularly, you will see large numbers of cigarette ends littering the pavement.
Bill Bryson notes, ‘We have moved past the age of Keep Britain Tidy. It is time to Get Britain Tidy.’ CPRE’s campaign is trying to mobilise everyone to get their neighbourhood tidy. The ‘Keep Britain Tidy Group’ is also running a month-long clean-up campaign, which started on 1 September. As its Chief Executive, Phil Barton, says, ‘For a minority of people today dropping litter seems to have become the norm.’ Much of this seems to come from the habit of eating and drinking in the street – fast food wrappings, snack packets, cans and plastic bottles especially.
So who is really responsible for cleaning up litter? If it is on land that the local authority is responsible for, like streets, parks, playgrounds and pedestrianised areas, the authority has the duty to keep it clean. If a school has litter on its own premises, then it is responsible – but not if it is on the street outside (though it may be a public-spirited gesture to ensure the area is clean). And if a piece of private land is littered, the owner is responsible for clearing it up. Local authorities have power to enforce a clean up – and so do citizens, under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The Act also makes ‘leaving litter’ a criminal offence. Anyone who does so can be prosecuted by the local authority or the police. And local authority officers or litter wardens can give an on-the-spot Ł50 fixed-penalty notice for littering.
Litter in Ripon may not be as troublesome as it is in many cities, but we cannot be complacent. There is too much of it, and we all have a responsibility of ensuring that it is removed. The Civic Society applauds everyone who regularly goes on litter-picking duties, but this is like burying the dead after a battle. What we should be attempting is to prevent the battle being fought in the first place, by encouraging people not to litter – and by ensuring that anyone who does is aware of both the legal consequences of their actions and of the disapproval of the local community.
Litter can be tackled in Ripon as it can elsewhere. But it needs vigilance and good example from everyone. Future archaeologists may not thank us, but we will have a cleaner and brighter city today.

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