One of the odd contradictions about modern life is that people are ready to condemn the local council as ineffectual and then berate it for not doing something in the next.
I had a good illustration of this when I spoke to pupils at the Swindon Academy, recently. The topic was litter and one of the first questions was what was the Council going to do about it.
Keeping Swindon tidy is one of the historical local council functions and we spend £1.5m a year on clearing up litter, graffiti, and fly-tipping with 46 staff and various specialist cleaning machines. You could argue that we should spend more.
However, if that were the case, which of our other statutory obligations would we cut? If we raised Council Tax, why should the extra money go on clearing up after careless people and not on safeguarding children or looking after the vulnerable elderly? Raising taxes and spending more is simply not a sustainable solution.
There is an option that will tackle litter and improve the Borough’s cleanliness and it does not involve a spending any money at all. It means that we all have to accept that our rubbish is our responsibility and we should dispose of it properly. That means using litterbins where appropriate, or disposing of it when we get home.
I don’t deny that this is difficult because it will be the small minority that most needs to change its attitude are the least likely to listen. Singapore may be infamous for its punitive punishments for these types of offences, but in contrast I am a great believer in human nature and change is possible. After all, only recently 100 people in East London lifted a 12 tonne bus to save a trapped person. Is binning your own litter that much harder?
We already have some good examples of how society changes behaviours by applying peer pressure alone. For example, more and more people were demanding smoke-free pubs and restaurants long before there was any legislation. Isn’t dining out far more pleasant for everyone because of this? Similarly, it has become socially unacceptable to drink and drive, making all our lives safer.
In both these cases, peer pressure worked in harmony with the law. Perhaps our next goal is to encourage the same approach to tackling litter. Those of us who do take care to put our own rubbish in a bin are rightly angry that we are paying good money to clean up after a small minority, and if we keep making that view clear, it might well have a positive effect on those who haven’t yet got the message.