Local elections: Councils use stick and carrot to tackle litter

Cigarette butts

Politicians are often accused of talking rubbish, but when it comes to Thursday's local election that may well do them some favours.

Speak to candidates knocking on doors in each of Wales's 22 local authority areas and they will tell you that voters appreciate a bit of trash talk.

Local councils are responsible for keeping land in their area clear of litter and refuse, including dog mess.

So how are they doing? And what issues do they face in trying to keep our streets, town centres, parks and beaches clean and tidy?

Based on the latest How Clean Are Our Streets report, an annual independent survey funded by Welsh Government and carried out by Keep Wales Tidy (KWT), you could argue that the situation looks rosy.

The survey has been going since 2007, monitoring more than 3,000 streets across Wales.

This year, there were reductions in all types of litter recorded with dog fouling and smoking-related rubbish at their lowest levels yet.

The survey's cleanliness indicator gave an all-Wales score of 69.3 - the highest yet, although there are still challenges for urban areas and the gap between the lowest and highest figures is still widening.

However, with litter estimated to cost Welsh taxpayers an estimated £70m a year in clean-up costs, there is an emphasis that dealing with it cannot lie with councils alone.

Jemma Bere, policy and research manager for KWT, said: "Even though progress is being made, litter remains a real and persistent problem for many communities. To effectively reduce litter in Wales, it's vital that we continue to work in partnership with local and national government, agencies, businesses and schools, developing a more joined up approach."

That is echoed by councils themselves, given the financial position they are in.

Since 2009/10 expenditure across Wales's local authorities on environmental services, which includes bin collection and street cleaning, has seen a 12% cut, while money spent on regulation has fallen by 47%.

Councils are having to work in different ways, partnering with charities, encouraging volunteers to carry out street clean-ups and take up offers from private agencies to catch litter-droppers on their behalf.

Tim Peppin, director of regeneration and sustainable development at the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) told me that the quality of the local environment was "always at the forefront" for councils.

"The appearance of an area really counts. So local authorities have been trying really hard on issues such as litter, fly-tipping and dog mess against a backdrop of budgets for environmental services being squeezed."

"A lot of effort goes into thing like route planning for emptying bins in public areas so they don't overflow."

Social care 'headache' for Welsh councils

Looking for better school marks

Image copyright Shane Hughes/Keep Wales Tidy
Image caption Volunteers in Ruabon, who are involved in litter-picks every few months and other environmental work in the village

Increasingly private agencies are taking over when it comes to enforcement action. They operate on a no-fee basis, taking a cut of any fines they dish out on the council's behalf instead.

It has meant that despite a period of much tighter budgets, the number of fixed penalties issued by Welsh councils for littering has increased sharply - chiefly where private firms have been used for litter enforcement.

Wrexham Council had faced a litter clear-up bill of £1.2m but a year ago brought in private enforcement wardens, who already operate in two other north Wales council areas.

For a council which issued just 47 litter penalties in 2015/16, more than 3,100 fixed penalties were issued in the first six months.

The council has recently signed a contract with private firm Kingdom for the next two years.

As well as a wielding a stick and hoping it will act as a deterrent, the council is also engaging with the voluntary sector.

Shane Hughes, project officer for Keep Wales Tidy in Wrexham, works with more than 40 different community groups, as well as schools, who volunteer at different times for litter-picks and clean-ups.

It is not just town centre litter, but dog fouling and litter thrown into country lanes and into hedgerows in the borough's villages "get people wound up".

"The numbers of volunteers involved in each litter-pick can range from 10 up to 30 or 40 people sometimes," said Mr Hughes.

"Everybody is working together for the greater benefit of the community and we work hand in glove with the council, but also with the local police - the PCSOs. It's important there is a multi-faceted approach."

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