Most councils issue less than one fine a week to litterers, according to data obtained via freedom of information rules, with one in six issuing no fines at all across a year.
Enforcement varied widely, with a handful of the councils in England and Wales issuing more than 100 a week.
Campaigners at Clean Up Britain said the level of littering was “shameful” and that enforcement of fines by councils should be made compulsory. They said the maximum on-the-spot fine of GBP150 was “derisory” and should be increased to GBP1,000.
Littering has increased as more people have visited parks during the coronavirus pandemic, with councils each having to clear up an average of 57 tonnes of additional waste from April to July, according to a survey by Keep Britain Tidy (KBT). “The levels of litter and waste being left has reached unprecedented levels,” one council officer told KBT.
Clean Up Britain received replies to their freedom of information (FOI) requests from 169 councils, representing more than half of councils in England and Wales. The majority – 56% – issued less than one litter fine a week and 16% issued no fines at all in the financial year 2018-19, the most recent year for which the FOI data is available.
The London borough of Hounslow issued the most fines for littering, with 156 per week, and Bristol council was second, with 151 a week. Four other London boroughs were in the top 10 – Merton, Camden, Bexley and Wandsworth. The Wirral, Wolverhampton and Doncaster councils also issued more than 80 litter fines a week
But Harrogate, Stevenage, Bridgend, Derbyshire Dales and South Somerset councils were among those issuing no litter fines at all, while Chorley and King’s Lynn and West Norfolk councils issued a single fine and Stratford-on-Avon council issued two.
Cornwall council, which runs a #LitterlessCornwall campaign also issued two fines in 2018-19. In total, the councils issued 116,000 fines for littering, compared with 2.3m fines for parking offences.
“It’s depressing, shameful and embarrassing what a dump this country has become,” said John Read, the founder of Clean Up Britain. The 2017 National Litter strategy from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was a series of “incoherent, ineffective and uninspiring initiatives”, he said.
“Litter is a complex issue and there is no single silver bullet,” Read said. “However, it is very important to have an effective and punitive deterrent and that is totally lacking in Britain.”
The maximum on-the-spot fine for littering increased from GBP80 to GBP150 in 2018, but Read said that was a derisory figure and should be raised to GBP1,000. In February, the thinktank Bright Blue called for the fine to be raised to GBP500.
Merle van den Akker, the president of the behavioural insights team at Warwick Business School, backed Read’s call for a GBP1,000 fine: “This is how you get people to pay attention and take action. No one wants to be fined GBP1,000 for throwing away a GBP1 can of drink.”
A Defra spokeswoman said: “Littering blights communities, spoils our countryside and poses a risk to people’s health, which is why councils have legal powers to take enforcement action.”
Offenders who fail to pay the on-the-spot fines can be prosecuted and fined up to GBP2,500 and the spokeswoman said there were 22,699 such convictions in 2019, though this was a fall of 23% on 2018. The government has no plans to increase the on-the-spot fines, she said.
“Clearly it is a concern if some local authorities don’t ensure some level of enforcement on littering,” a spokeswoman for KBT said. “However, most have been subject to substantial budget cuts since 2010. Ultimately we need to urgently move away from our current single-use [packaging] culture.”
She said KBT ran training courses for council officers in effective and proportionate enforcement and would support magistrates making greater use of the GBP2,500 maximum court penalty.
Councillor Darren Rodwell, at the Local Government Association, said: “Councils are working hard to keep parks, streets and public spaces free from litter. Responsibility for litter lies with the person dropping it. [Fines] are a useful tool but on their own will not stop littering.”
Councillor Dan Humphreys, at the District Councils’ Network, said: “Our aim is to work with communities to promote positive behaviour. It can also be very difficult or in some cases impossible to track down perpetrators, which is why councils need the public’s cooperation to help keep our communities litter-free.”
A spokesman for Cornwall council said: “#LitterlessCornwall is designed to change people’s behaviours to prevent littering. I believe this has had a positive impact.”
He said the council had more trained officers than ever before who were authorised to tackle littering.
The FOI requests also obtained data on fines imposed for dog fouling, with councils issuing just six fines for dog fouling per year on average, apart from Woking, which imposed 60% of the all the fines, equivalent to 30 a week.
There were also few fines for graffiti, with 114 in total across all councils, dominated by Tower Hamlets in London with 49, and few for flyposting, with Cardiff issuing half the total of 1,063.