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The Department introduced the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 to allow councils to issue fixed penalty notices of up to £80. The number of fixed penalties issued by councils for litter offences increased to 4,443 in 2014-15, up from 3,268 in 2011-12. Where the case is dealt with by the courts, a fine of up to £2,500 can be imposed. I will continue to keep the situation under review, taking appropriate action where necessary.
The Department also introduced the carrier bag levy in April 2013, which has reduced the number of bags dispensed in Northern Ireland by tens of millions every year, and thereby reduced the number of bags littering our public spaces. The levy is the most extensive of any of the carrier bag charging arrangements on these islands and has generated millions of pounds for local environmental projects, including anti-litter projects. A review of the charge, as Members are aware, is currently under way.
Education is a vital component in the fight against litter, and, to that end, DAERA works closely with councils and NGOs to develop and support educational and promotional campaigns aimed at achieving behavioural change. For example, my Department provides significant financial support, nearly £945,000 in the period 2014-15 and 2016-17, to Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful, which runs a number of programmes, including Eco-Schools and Live Here Love Here. As of January 2015, Northern Ireland was the first country to have every school signed up to the Eco-Schools programme. Additionally, NIEA runs a fly-tipping partnership programme with councils to clean up fly-tipped wastes. My Department is using a combined approach of legislation, education, awareness and enforcement to tackle litter in Northern Ireland.
I thank the Minister for her answer. I am very aware of how successful the challenge fund has been in south Antrim, in particular, especially around the eco-schools. I am thinking in particular of Ballycraigy in Antrim and Fairview in Ballyclare and the tremendous work they are doing and how that education goes home to the parents as well. I very much welcome that. Have you any plans to reopen this fund?
I thank the Member for her question. I am delighted to announce today that an initial £400,000, sourced from the carrier bag levy, will be available for the challenge fund in the current financial year for not-for-profit organisations delivering projects that aim to improve the local environment and boost civic pride. This funding of £400,000, with potentially further support later in the year, will enable local communities, schools and voluntary organisations to undertake small-scale projects to improve the environment and deliver environmental education. Community groups, for example, can use the funding to enhance their local area through tidying a local beach or neglected beauty spot or by creating and enhancing areas where the public can enjoy the local environment.
I am pleased to be able to deliver further resources for the fund and ensure that this good work in our schools and communities can continue. This competitive fund will award moneys to organisations delivering projects on civic pride, access and recreation, education and awareness, and environmental management.
To date, more than £4·6 million has been awarded from the challenge fund, enabling almost 600 environmental projects to be carried out. I am pleased to be able to deliver further resource to ensure that that good work continues.
The Minister has touched on the subject of my question a number of times. Do you agree that the plastic bag tax has greatly contributed to a reduction in litter in urban and rural areas?
I thank the Member for his question. I do, indeed. The challenge fund has made a huge difference, particularly in getting schools and communities involved. That is why I am particularly keen that, in this new element of the fund, we include the theme of civic pride, because that is incredibly important. As elected representatives, we all engage with our local communities and village groups and understand the pride that they have in their local area, and this is just to help encourage them to do that. This is therefore an incentive as much as anything else, but it has made a tremendous difference.
Minister, you mentioned in a previous answer fixed penalties for littering. As two councils seem to account for 67% of all fixed penalties and with the bill for street cleaning topping £40 million for the first time, what plans do you have to encourage other councils to use their fixed penalty powers more?
I thank the Member for his question. There is a disparity there. An education programme needs to be carried out not only in our communities but alongside our local councils. I am aware, given the changes to local councils and changes in personnel, that there are probably a variety of policies still being looked at and addressed by each council. Therefore, following on from today, I will be content to have conversations with councils, particularly with my officials leading on that to ensure that their use is encouraged. In the first instance, however, we need to try to have an education programme to avoid littering.
I thank the Member for his question. A zero-waste society does not necessarily mean that we produce no waste. It is about trying to reduce the amount of waste that goes to landfill. There is currently a policy of promoting reuse and recycling, which will hopefully lead to zero waste. The Department published 'The Road to Zero Waste' in September 2014, and it is something that we are working to achieve. There are a number of projects in each council area around the circular economy and encouraging business to get involved with that. In my constituency, I am aware of a large business that says that it has zero waste. It has invested a considerable amount of money in its plant to ensure that everything is recycled or reused. It is about trying to encourage that and about changing the mindset of people and their attitude to waste.