The amount of litter snared in the undergrowth and verges of England’s highways is a national disgrace, with little chance of this most unsightly of problems disappearing any time soon.
Although on a purely aesthetic level littering has been a bugbear of mine as long as I can remember, there are several moral and practical considerations which cannot be set aside. Similar to the well-publicised dangers of the increasing threat that plastic poses to our seas and waterways, all manner of garbage is a hindrance to the natural ecosystem which is juxtaposed with man-made highways and railway lines. Indeed, as intrinsic green corridors railways play a vital part in upholding an area’s environmental credentials whilst all around have been sacrificed to concrete and tarmac. It is therefore appalling to witness the amount of rubbish alongside railways, often deposited down embankments by householders whose gardens back onto the tracks. Many trains still deposit toilet waste onto the lines after every flush, leaving plastered paper, and other unmentionables, between the tracks as a reminder that we are actually meant to be in the 21st century…
From a practical point of view so much of the waste left to slowly decay can be recycled and given a new life, but instead leaches poison into the soil, and lends the impression to foreign visitors that England cares little for its environment and visual amenity. Journeying along comparable highways in Europe will make you wonder why this country has such a serious problem towards its waste, and what motivates countless motorists and their passengers to deposit garbage out of moving vehicles. As is so often evident these days, the consequences of life and its consumerist ways are seen as the problem of someone else; the act of taking home one’s waste and separating it appears beyond, and beneath, many rather than the few.
England is admitted a windy country, and rubbish will on occasion end up where it is the least wanted or accessible because of the elements. With though the advent of the five pence levy on plastic bags by large retailers the reliance on single-use receptacles has comparatively dropped to a trickle, although the depressingly omnipresent obsession with plastic wrapping shows little sign of abating.
Retrieving rubbish from fast-moving highways is a danger hazard, and precludes on health and safety grounds the utilization of those on Community Payback schemes from forming an army of free labour to tackle the problem. Highways England are though legally obligated to address littering along the roads and motorways that they oversee, and while it isn’t their fault the rubbish has found itself where it is, the accumulation over a period of time very much is. One pertinent example is a motorway slip-road close to Blackburn, where the verges and undergrowth hold more rubbish than I have ever seen in such a concentrated area. Highways England didn’t put it there, but the scale of the problem in this instance has not just manifested itself overnight; it has therefore been allowed to accumulate unchecked for an indeterminate period of time.
Locally to me I have had reason on several occasions to contact a sympathetic local councillor regarding intermittent accumulations of waste along a rural, but busy highway. She unequivocally agrees that it is unacceptable, but the council on which she sits have reduced litter picks to TWICE A YEAR. Not only does this render the remit of the department responsible as untenable, their operatives are known to mindlessly cut the verges without first picking up rubbish within the grass, thus shredding it into pieces that become irretrievable. All this from grass that has been allowed to grow longer and more suitable to harbouring rubbish, again because of council cutbacks!
The current Conservative administration seem content for irate locals and community groups to pick up the slack, motivated by the alarming decline to their local environment and the attitude of others towards it. Community engagement does though vary from area to area, with great pride in some towns giving way to little interest in others, where the “I’m alright Jack” attitude is alive and well.
Joined up solutions do not readily come to mind while the status quo remains as such. Attitudes of the many, not the few need to change, as does the realization from government that devolving power to councils has to involve value for money for Council Tax payers who quite rightly expect clean streets to be a given. It is also incumbent on Highways England to undertake what is expected of them, subject to all the necessary safety precautions being taken while working on dangerous stretches of road. The amount of plastic that cannot currently be recycled must also be addressed. If it cannot be reconstituted into a new product, its manufacture must be prohibited. There are so many challenges but each can be overcome, but only by those in power with the genuine will for positive change. Sadly, it is doubtful there are enough people in a Conservative government more obsessed with wealth creation than the country’s green and pleasant mosaic willing to bang the environment’s drum, by at least insisting that “street scene” budgets should be ring-fenced, rather than instead being the first target of those tasked with finding efficiency savings.
“And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres”
Extract from Going, Going by Philip Larkin