Motorways: Litter

– in Westminster Hall at 4:47 pm on 25 April 2023.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering 4:47, 25 April 2023

We now move on to a rubbish debate—about litter on motorways. I call Sir Mike Penning to move the motion.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered litter on motorways.

On a very serious subject, hopefully we can also have some calming measures, if you know what I mean, Mr Hollobone. Other colleagues have indicated to me that they would join the debate this afternoon, so I wonder whether you could bear with them, Mr Hollobone, if some of them arrive a little later.

My constituency is boundaried by the M1, M25 and A41. The state of the rubbish on those motorways is an embarrassment to me as the constituency’s MP, and as an MP in general. I freely admit that the rubbish has probably been thrown out of the windows of cars—by passengers as well as drivers. Some of it comes off the back of refuse lorries that, inappropriately, do not have the correct tarpaulins to stop that happening.

Whatever the reason, the rubbish will start to disappear in the next few weeks. It is not going anywhere—it is just that the grass and weeds are growing, and they will cover it up. It is still not only a hindrance but a danger to our wildlife. Some of the areas where the motorways go are areas of outstanding natural beauty, on which wildlife very much rely. In my spare time, I love bird watching. It frightens me to look at some of the nests—especially at the end of the seasons, when we start clipping our hedgerows and other such things—and see what the birds think is safe to put into their nests.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

I thank the right hon. Member for securing this important debate. Anyone who knows me will know that littering is my biggest bugbear; it is infuriating. A key concern that highways workers have relayed to me is the health and safety risk that litter poses to them when they have to clean it up. Does he agree that the issue is not given enough consideration?

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

I think not only that it is not given enough consideration, but that it is a national disgrace. I specifically picked on motorways because of the legal responsibility Highways England, the Highways Agency or whatever it wants to call itself today—it has renamed itself several times since I was the Roads Minister. I do not know why it has spent so many thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money renaming itself. If the brand is decent, it should not be renamed. If the brand is bad, it should be renamed, and that seems to be exactly what Highways England or the Highways Agency—Highways something—has been doing. It has a legal responsibility for its network, which includes not just motorways but some A roads.

We should have better enforcement and use the technology that we have. If we can prosecute people for going two or three miles per hour over the speed limit—I am all for that; I was a Transport Minister—we can use the same cameras to prosecute people who throw litter. I am sure that, like me, colleagues have seen footage of people on the motorway driving down the road—there is the car, there is the numberplate, there is the face, there is the phone—and exactly the same technology can be used for people chucking litter out of the car.

Penalties almost certainly need to be stronger. Perhaps we should do something not dissimilar to what I did when I was the Minister and we brought in the driver awareness course. Fines and points were not working, but the evidence showed that drivers actually drive better and slower after they have done such a course.

At the end of the day, we have to do two things. We have to educate people through courses such as the driver awareness course, and we have to make sure the person or organisation responsible for these highways takes action. I picked the motorways because it is not like in our constituencies, where it could be a borough council, a district council, a county council or a unitary authority; there is a single body legally responsible for motorways and some A roads under section 89 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. We have got to the ridiculous stage where individuals—I will talk about John Read and the Clean Up Britain campaign—are almost certain to use section 91 of the Act to take National Highways to court. We have the right under the Act to say, “You are not doing what you are supposed to be doing, which is to clear up the mess on our highways.”

When I applied for this debate, I was thrilled by not only by the excellent paper produced by the House of Commons Library, but by John Read of Clean Up Britain, Policy Exchange and the RAC Foundation. I also thank the Sunday Express for helping to highlight this issue last weekend. They have all come together to say, “What can we do to stop this blight, predominantly on the English countryside, getting worse and worse?”

As I said earlier, the litter will soon start to be covered over as the plants grow, but in the autumn, when the frost comes, there it will all be. What surprised me enormously was some of the commentary coming from National Highways. It produced a lengthy paper saying that it regularly checks the highways, and that more than 60% do not have any rubbish on them. All I can say is that they should have gone to Specsavers, or other places that are available, to check their eyesight when they drive back and forth to work on our highways. Litter is a danger not only to our wildlife—I have seen aluminium tins on the side of the road that have been there for so many years that they are starting to degrade, and plastic does not degrade in the same way—but to the staff clearing it up, as Margaret Ferrier said. There have to be road closures and it has to be done safely.

Interestingly, other countries seem to have solved this problem quite well. Any of us who go on holiday this summer to Germany, France or Spain will see that their highways are not covered in trash. Many people from this country will go to Florida, which has large five or six-lane roads. The hedges and grass are not covered in trash, and any litter is certainly not all chopped up when the grasscutters come along and it has not been picked up.

We have to ask ourselves why. Is it a cultural thing, or is it because the organisation that is legally responsible for clearing up rubbish is doing so? Frankly, if someone has broken the law and they get a community project, I cannot think of a better way of paying back into the community than being in a team that goes out and safely clears the rubbish from the sides of our roads. When I was in the Minister’s position, I was told that that was not possible because it was not safe. I used to be the Health and Safety Minister as well, at a different time, and it could be made safe. It is safe for workers to do it, and some of the stuff they have to pick up is truly horrible. We will not go into that in this debate, but Members can imagine what gets thrown out of car windows.

The question has to be, why is National Highways not taking this issue seriously? The organisation cannot be taking it seriously, because it has given contractors contracts but is not monitoring them. Following a freedom of information request to Mr John Read, National Highways came back and said:

“We don’t undertake audits of our contractors’ work for litter clearance.”

How do they know that 60% of the roads are clear if they are not monitoring their own contracts? It baffles me.

Under the Secretary of State, the Department for Transport has introduced key performance indicators for National Highways, but litter is not one of them; it is just part of something else and seen as not that important. I say to the Minister that it is important. How can we have a key performance indicator for the contract issued to National Highways by the Secretary of State that does not take into consideration the legal responsibility it has to the public? This is public money being spent on behalf of the public through the Secretary of State.

Photo of Louie French Louie French Conservative, Old Bexley and Sidcup

I thank my right hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Many of my constituents express many of the concerns that he has already outlined. On the point about legal responsibilities and KPIs, we also have an issue that is applicable not just to motorways, but to A roads. In my constituency, we have the A2 and the A20, where there is general confusion about who is legally responsible for cleaning the litter from the hard shoulder and the verges. Transport for London often says that it is the local council’s responsibility, and local councils often dispute that, because they are obviously Transport for London roads.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that alongside strengthening the KPIs, we also need to have legal clarity about who is responsible for litter on motorways and our A roads? I echo his enthusiasm for encouraging community volunteer litter pickers who want to go out and help, but who are told no because of health and safety.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

My hon. Friend has made several points that I completely agree with. As I said earlier, National Highways is responsible not only for motorways; it also has some A roads in my own part of the world. What was the M10 is now the A414, but it still has responsibility for that road. I do not think the organisation knows that, because it has not been anywhere the road since the day it ceased to be a motorway. I wrote to the Secretary of State and what I think was then known as Highways England, asking whether there was any chance that it could come along and pick up some of the signage that is lying on the roadsides, getting rusty and acting as a blight on animals and on the safety of someone who has pulled off the side of a road in an emergency. The signage is still there today.

The point that I think my hon. Friend Mr French is making about who is responsible is actually quite crucial. I mean, when I was the Roads Minister, I did not realise that with the M10—I live right next to the M10, although I know it is now the A414—the Highways Agency had kept responsibility for it and several other A roads. So that could be resolved very simply by the Minister dropping our hon. Friend a line to say that “the legal responsibility for the A2 lies with X”. I am sure that the Minister could get his officials to do that; that is what I might have done if I was the Minister. But who knows?

Regarding the other point that my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup made, there are lots of volunteers out there today, going out and picking litter up; I have some in my own constituency and they do a fantastic job. There is that issue and there is actually the payback issue. People who are blighting my community in myriad different ways and who may get a community order should have to be supervised out there to clean the roads.

If anyone goes to Florida, they will drive down wonderful, clean roads. One of the reasons is that Florida actually uses people who are incarcerated to go and clear the roads. They are not dangerous criminals, but they are people in for short-term sentences. Of course they are not chained up or anything like that, but if they scarper—the sort of language that my grandmother would have used—they will eventually be found and at the end of the day they would not have any parole. They are not going to be attacked if they scarper, and they are already starting the payback. In our open prisons, why could we not have that today in parts of the country? It would be slightly difficult with some of the open prisons in, say, Norfolk, because there are no motorways in Norfolk. Payback and should mean payback.

The Minister might say to me, “Well, actually, the contracts are set in stone over a period of time with National Highways and the KPI is set.” But if he looks carefully at the legislation, he will see that the Secretary of State has the powers at any time to deviate the contract, so the KPIs could be changed.

I think this is an issue of national importance. We can talk about it being rubbish, or trash, but we have some of the most beautiful countryside in the world, in my opinion. We should cherish it. There are people demonstrating out there, yesterday and today, because they passionately believe—I do not agree with their motives and how they are trying to do it, but I do agree that we have to protect our countryside.

Over the years, we have put lots of roads right the way through some of our countryside, and that countryside is being blighted, day in and day out. Frankly, looking at the correspondence, particularly from National Highways—I am sorry, Minister, but I do not think they get it. They just talk to me. Among the briefings, they are talking about the responsibility of local authorities. Well, no local authority in the country has responsibility for clearing up the motorways. They—National Highways —have it. The title of this debate was specific, so as not to have that debate about local government. The narrative here is purely about National Highways.

There are lots of things that are probably not fully in the Minister’s bailiwick, and I share his frustration with some of that, because I used to sit in that chair and think, “I’d love to have done that,” and, “I would love to do this.” But if we have the will, we have the way. Fines need to be increased. If people want to throw stuff out of car windows—some of it the most abhorrent products that we do not particularly want to discuss today—they should be penalised for it.

Similarly, however, if an organisation has the legal responsibility in law, set by this place, that it is their job to clear up that mess—go and give them some powers if we want to use the cameras in a way in which we can actually enforce the issue. They cannot cop out of this; it is actually in statute whose responsibility it is. The KPI can be changed, so that the regulator can step in and actually say, “You’re not fulfilling your contracts,” because if that does not happen, we will have individual members of the public taking this organisation—National Highways, which is funded by the British taxpayer—to court for a breach of the Act. To me, that is a crying shame, but if it happens I will fully support that commitment to go to the magistrates courts.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South 5:04, 25 April 2023

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning on securing this debate. I agree with almost everything he said.

Litter is something I have repeatedly raised concerns about with National Highways and, previously, Highways England. It is unacceptable for my office to have to repeatedly raise the issues of litter, lack of effective maintenance and general poor standards of work with National Highways. I am pleased that the Transport Committee, which I am a member of, recently wrote to Nick Harris, chief executive of National Highways, about some of these issues, particularly the nearly 40% of the strategic road network that either has widespread litter or is heavily affected by litter.

Many of my constituents in Stoke-on-Trent South frequently raise concerns with me about the disgraceful levels of litter and the bad impression that people get when visiting or travelling through our area on the strategic road network. One of my constituents said to me recently when I was out in the community that one of their relatives had visited from overseas and was completely shocked to see the standard of our highways and the scale of litter accumulating at the side of the road. As my right hon. Friend said, overseas we do not see the same scale of littering at the side of the highway.

Staffordshire is at the heart of the UK, with several key routes passing through it. We have seen major problems with litter and poor maintenance on this road network, and there are concerns with our motorway network, particularly on the M6 and around its junctions. The issue is not reserved to the motorway network. There are also major concerns about trunk roads, which are also under the auspices of National Highways. The A50 and A500 cut right through the middle of Stoke-on-Trent, and that has a significant impact on the surrounding communities. While these routes provide important strategic connectivity, they also cause many problems, including air pollution and litter.

The problems with litter have at times reached epic proportions, and I am extremely concerned about some of the wider maintenance standards, such as with vegetation management. The severe lack of grass cutting by National Highways has resulted in roundabouts and verges in the centre of Longton and Meir being totally neglected. Given that these roads cut through predominantly urban areas, standards of maintenance need to be different from those used in more sparsely populated areas. National Highways currently conducts only an annual cut, meaning verges become totally overgrown and completely filled with litter.

The lack of effective vegetation management has resulted in significant litter build-ups gathering in the overgrowth and attracting vermin. Following our calls, Stoke-on-Trent City Council has thankfully stepped in to cut some of these areas, including the most sensitive locations in town centres, which are still the responsibility of National Highways, but this really should not be happening. National Highways should take proper responsibility for the land that it owns.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

On the point of vermin, littered food attracts wild animals such as mice, rats and foxes. Drawn so close to vehicles moving at speed, these animals have a higher risk of being killed. Many of them carry germs and disease, and it is not a nice job to have to clean up roadkill. Does the hon. Member share my concerns about the increased risk of animal deaths resulting from litter?

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South

I agree that those are very serious concerns. Health and safety concerns were mentioned earlier regarding the impacts of the litter and the disease that could be carried by rats and other animals. That is a serious concern.

One of the things we have seen in our area because of the lack of effective maintenance is anti-social behaviour, with resultant massive build-ups of litter, including alcohol bottles and drug paraphernalia on National Highways land. As regards health and safety and the operatives who will have to remove some of that drug paraphernalia, that is extremely concerning. If there are syringes and things like that there, they will have to wear specialist safety equipment. I recognise that some projects have been undertaken to address some of the vegetation management in our area, but we need a far more comprehensive and proactive routine maintenance approach—and to a much higher standard than some of what we have experienced so far.

The situation is overly complicated, with differing responsibilities for different roads, and we heard earlier about some of the confusions in Bexley. That is repeated in a number of places around the country. Motorways are entirely the responsibility of National Highways. However, it is suggested that National Highways takes responsibility for litter collection on only some of its major A roads, even though the land is in its ownership. On many National Highways A roads, local authorities have to clear litter, so we see different standards across the country.

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead, I commend many of the volunteers—particularly those in Stoke-on-Trent South, who have been doing an incredible job across the constituency in addressing some of the litter issues. However, they simply cannot do that on many highway locations, where safety is a serious concern and where we need National Highways or others to remove some of the litter.

National Highways has now started to form litter partnerships with local authorities, which is a positive step forward. Those partnerships are important given that it would be totally unsafe—impossible, in many cases—to undertake litter collections on parts of the National Highways network without road closures. There needs to be effective co-ordination for litter picking to take place when those roads are closed for wider maintenance.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

On the point about collaboration with local authorities, the financial burden should not fall on local authorities for something that is the legal responsibility of a different organisation. If that happens, it will spread around the country. That would be wrong, because it is not the financial burden of the local authority.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. We see lots of pressures on things such as social care and everything else that local authorities have to deal with, so it is totally unacceptable that, in addition, they have to routinely clear up litter on many of those roads.

As I mentioned earlier, Stoke-on-Trent City Council has to cut the grass on many of the areas for which National Highways should take responsibility. Yet because its policy is for one annual cut, which is totally insufficient and results in massive build-ups of litter, we do not see the standard of service we need, and the financial impact for local authorities that have to deal with that is significant. In many cases, it just does not happen at all and we see the continued build-up of vast quantities of litter on much of the highway network.

I hope these partnerships, alongside other measures being undertaken by National Highways, result in a step change in the standards we need to see and in dramatic improvements, which have to happen, on what we have experienced previously. Forty per cent. is far too much of a blight on the network. Indeed, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead said, there is far more than that and it is potentially an underestimate of the scale of the challenge. It is vitally important for people in Stoke-on-Trent, those visiting and the wider environment that we have an effective approach to maintenance and litter control on the strategic network. I thank my right hon. Friend for the debate. It is about an important matter, and I hope the Minister will address all the issues.

Photo of Gareth Johnson Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford 5:14, 25 April 2023

First, I apologise to you, Mr Hollobone, for not giving advance notice of my intention to speak in the debate. I want to make a fairly short contribution. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning on securing the debate and I apologise also to him for not being here for the very beginning of his speech, which I am sure was as outstanding as the latter part.

This is a genuinely serious issue. I cover the M25 and have the A2 in my constituency; nearby are the A20 and M20. There is no doubt that this is a growing problem; it is a worsening situation, which is very challenging to deal with. I am, frankly, sick to death of driving down the A2 and seeing this sea of litter along the side, particularly at junctions. The Darenth interchange is in my constituency, which is in an appalling state.

I am blessed in my constituency to have a large number of litter picker-type groups, which have done a fantastic job assisting the council and complementing the work that it does in picking up litter. The volunteer groups go out and collect litter. Some have been clearing litter from the junctions, but there is clearly a danger there—a significant risk.

When they contact National Highways, they are told not to go to the junctions—“Don’t go there; we advise against that because of the obvious dangers.” Some have been to those junctions and have taken away bags of rubbish, but there are all sorts of hazardous issues in doing that, not just traffic. So we are very reliant on National Highways taking the lead on this growing problem. It needs to show the lead. We are very reliant on it to clear up the litter.

Of course, National Highways do not drop the litter. People drop the litter, and I agree that that is the responsibility of those ignorant people who are throwing rubbish out of the window when they are driving along. I accept that sometimes it can be inadvertent, or negligent, but sometimes it is deliberate. Items are being thrown out of car windows and lorry windows, ensuring that the sides of the roads are an eyesore that we are all, unfortunately, getting used to seeing.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

Does the hon. Member think that more frequent signage reminding motorists not to litter and the potential consequences of a fixed penalty notice would make any material difference to the levels of littering seen on the motorways? Would that be a worthwhile investment?

Photo of Gareth Johnson Gareth Johnson Conservative, Dartford

I agree with the hon. Lady that that would make responsible people more aware of the issue, and they would act even more in a responsible manner. However, I do not feel it would have much of an impact on the ignorant people I spoke about earlier, who do not give a damn, frankly, about anybody else. It is someone else’s problem—“I am going to throw this rubbish out of the window and someone else is going to have to deal with it.” Unfortunately, those people are not going to change because of a sign.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right on the issue of fines. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead touched on this point in his speech. We now have camera technology that can give motorists fines for blocking box junctions, going through red traffic lights, speeding and so on. My hon. Friend Mr French will know about the ultra-low emission zone cameras, as will the Minister, although we will leave that issue to one side at the moment.

The technology is able to pick up motorists doing almost anything it seems, apart from when they litter. I would certainly welcome a change in policy so that we use the camera technology that already exists to target those vehicles responsible for rubbish being deliberately thrown on to our motorway verges and to issue fixed penalty notices to the registered keeper of those vehicles. That would have some impact on the blight that is hitting our country, alongside our motorways, up and down the country. I would like to see more of that happening.

This is a big and growing problem in my constituency, and not just there, but around the whole of the country. It is not just Dartford or Hemel Hempstead or Bexley or Stoke-on-Trent that suffers; it is the whole country. We are seeing a lackadaisical attitude from National Highways, which should be taking the lead and upping its game. The current situation is not tenable.

Photo of Gill Furniss Gill Furniss Shadow Minister (Transport) 5:19, 25 April 2023

It is a pleasure to work under your chairpersonship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate Sir Mike Penning on securing this debate. I know he has raised this important issue many times in the past and it is an issue to which he is fully committed. I thank all hon. Members for their contributions.

Motorways provide vital links between towns and cities across the country. They contribute tens of billions to our economy by helping to make sure our shelves are stocked with food, medical supplies and everything else that we need. However, litter on these roads is a serious issue that affects all those who use them, as well as the wider environment.

Littered motorways pose a risk to safety. Objects can obstruct drivers’ views or cause problems with grip, if caught between a wheel and the road. Furthermore, the impact of litter discarded on motorways stretches far beyond the roads themselves. It adds to pollution, which, as we have all seen, has a devastating impact on wildlife, especially in our oceans, seas and rivers. We have all seen shocking images of rubbish piled up on and around our motorways. There has been a failure to properly deal with it.

For instance, in 2020, a Channel 4 report showed huge piles of rubbish covering areas around the M25. Taxpayers’ money has been handed out to private firms to keep our motorways clear of litter, but incidents like this raise important questions that need answering. Although the vast majority of drivers do the right thing and dispose of their rubbish properly, a small minority cause problems.

Resources for picking up litter are important. However, preventing litter from being dropped in the first place is a lasting solution. I am aware of calls for greater penalties and better enforcement of anti-littering laws to incentivise drivers not to throw litter out of their car windows. Can the Minister confirm, either in his speech or in writing, the number of fines handed out for motorway littering? What steps has he taken to ensure that all those who litter are held accountable?

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

I thank the hon. Lady for her gracious comments. Sadly, National Highways does not have powers to issue fines, unlike local authorities. Almost certainly, enforcement through the use of cameras must be done by the Department for Transport unless we are going to change the statute, which is a separate subject for another day. It does not have the power to issue fines. I wish it did; on the other hand, perhaps not.

Photo of Gill Furniss Gill Furniss Shadow Minister (Transport)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that.

National Highways reports directly to the Department for Transport, so it falls to the Minister to hold it to account and ensure that it is upholding its statutory duties. What discussions has he had with National Highways about littering? Does he believe that all contracts handed out to private companies to keep our motorways free of litter are offering taxpayers good value for money? What steps is he willing to take if the problems do not get resolved?

As well as holding National Highways to account, there are a range of wider measures that the Government could introduce to tackle littering, but, as we see all too often, they are dragging their feet. Deposit returns for drinks containers have been shown to cut down littering, including on motorways, but that will not be launched until 2025, despite widespread public support for an earlier introduction.

I am concerned that such delays mean that the Government target to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042 is already behind schedule. I conclude by once again commending the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead for securing this debate. Littering is a serious problem, which blights all our communities. It must be given the attention necessary to create a cleaner and safer environment for everyone who uses our motorways and highways.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 5:23, 25 April 2023

It is an absolute pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank my right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning for bringing this debate to Westminster Hall. I believe he served as Roads Minister for almost two and a half years; I hope to have even a fraction of that time in the role and to do as much work as he did in this area at the start of the coalition Government. I also thank Margaret Ferrier, my hon. Friends the Members for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr French), for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) and for Dartford (Gareth Johnson), and the shadow Minister, Gill Furniss.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead raised many issues that I will approach head on through my response on behalf of the Government. The Government’s vision is of a road network free of litter. We believe that there is a lot more that we can do to keep the strategic road network, which includes England’s motorways, clear of litter. Litter is not only an eyesore, as hon. Members on both sides have mentioned, but environmentally damaging in numerous ways. It can risk the lives of the people who need to collect it as well as those of people on the road network itself.

The Government’s litter strategy for England is owned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and it sets out the aim to deliver a substantial reduction, across Government, in litter and littering within a generation. The litter strategy brings together communities, businesses, charities and schools, to bring about real change by focusing on the following key themes: education and awareness, improving enforcement, and better cleaning and access to bins. Those three themes have been picked up by hon. Members across the House in this debate. Influencing public behaviour and discouraging littering from occurring in the first instance is important in delivering lasting improvements. We will work across Government and with anti-littering organisations to help achieve that vision.

The responsibility of National Highways was a key theme of my right hon. Friend’s speech, and the responsibility for clearing litter and sweeping carriageways is indeed governed by the Environmental Protection Act 1990. National Highways is responsible for litter collection on motorways and on some trunk roads. I will write to my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup about the A2 and A20; the area is around the M25 and what is before and after it, but I will get the specific maps to him.

Relevant district and local authorities manage litter collection on roads in the rest of England. National Highways does have its own litter strategy, which aligns with wider Government strategy and has similar themes. Within that strategy, National Highways has committed to keeping the strategic road network predominantly free from litter without compromising safety, and delivering that affordably. National Highways staff undertake regular road inspections along the network to identify litter, detritus and safety hazards and they arrange for appropriate action as soon as possible, in line with the DEFRA code of practice on litter and refuse. Obviously, their main priority is to maintain road safety on the network.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

As a former Roads Minister, I understand how it is when an arm’s length agency is sending notes saying, “This is what we do.” But it is completely different out there in the real world. I am sorry, but if National Highways is out there checking regularly, it really needs to get its eyes tested. The situation is appalling. Year after year, the same places are involved—particularly the junctions. In my part of the world, the M25/A41 junction is literally piled high year after year, and I have never seen it cleared. The Minister has a responsibility to the taxpayer to turn around and say, “This isn’t working.”

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that point. Most weeks, I drive up the A1 and M1 to my North West Durham constituency, so I know exactly the issues he is raising. I will write to him about the specific issues around the roads in his constituency.

I want to go into a few more details, but we all want the issue to be addressed. Obviously, safety is paramount when clearing litter from the network. The roads are often fast running a lot of the time, with high volumes of traffic. Litter picking usually requires traffic management and sometimes overnight working as well. Relevant organisations across Government work closely with other litter clearing organisations to improve the operational effectiveness of clearing wherever possible.

National Highways has previously utilised the Ministry of Justice’s community payback project scheme to assist with those clearances. Offenders have been involved in removing graffiti and rubbish at service stations as well. As my right hon. Friend will know, the Government still own a significant number of service stations on the national highway network. The scheme was suspended during the covid pandemic; I undertake to write to him about that and about what we are doing to push National Highways to make more use of it going forwards. Due to safety considerations, the opportunities for using offenders can be limited.

More broadly, the simple fact is that if litter was not dropped in the first place it would not need to be picked up; that is why influencing behaviours is an essential component of tackling the issue. My hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent South and for Dartford made that point as well. To answer one of the questions posed by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, I had a meeting with the chief executive of National Highways today and raised the issue of littering. In fairness to my officials, I have meetings every couple of weeks with the National Highways chief exec, and this was one issue that was raised today.

I have also spoken with National Highways about a broader awareness campaign. I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford who made the important point that there is aggressive littering and more passive littering, and it is particularly important that we do all we can to make people aware of the impact littering has on not only the environment but everyone’s enjoyment of travelling across the country and our rural environment. There is a campaign currently in the offing to tackle this, because National Highways is aware of how much of an issue it has become.

National Highways uses research and evidence to inform anti-littering interventions, such as car and lorry-height bins, which people may have seen as they leave motorway service stations; anti-littering posters; and signs to encourage positive littering behaviours. I will write to hon. Members who have attended today’s debate about what more National Highways is doing in that space. Campaigns and messages such as “Don’t Drop Litter, Bin It” and “Keep It, Bin It” have been shown on electric message boards across the National Highways network, and there have been digital display sites at traffic hubs and motorway service stations across England. Feedback from road users has shown that that type of messaging can make a difference in reducing the amount of littering on certain parts of the network, and I want National Highways to do more of it.

We are continuously looking for other ways to influence littering behaviour, and we work with anti-littering charities, such as Keep Britain Tidy, and use their research to develop other interventions. National Highways supports the annual Great British Spring Clean, which raises awareness of roadside litter and encourages people to dispose of their litter correctly or to take it home. This year’s campaign was the seventh year that National Highways has been involved, and over the previous six campaigns it has collected over 60,000 binbags full of litter across the road network. National Highways also engages the commercial transport sector via its recently established professional driver experience panel, and littering behaviour campaigns throughout 2022 were aimed at road user groups who admit to having a propensity to litter, which includes commercial vehicle drivers.

Road users are also encouraged to report any instances of littering on the network to National Highways. There is also guidance available on many local authority websites, as well as other applications, to assist members of the public in reporting litter. All those interventions work towards engaging the public and preventing littering on the network in the first place, but this is a societal issue that does not just affect the wider road network. It will take work across wider Government and anti-littering organisations to continue to drive change in how littering affects areas.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

I get the feeling that Minister is coming to a conclusion. All that work is taking place for the future, but unless we address the KSI issue, and unless there is some penalty for the agency not doing what it is required to do, the regulator cannot intervene, because fulfilling its legal requirements is not a KSI for the agency.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I will come directly to the point about the KSI later. I have made a note of my right hon. Friend’s comments.

The debate has focused on litter on the motorways, but I must briefly highlight the work National Highways does with local authorities to combat litter on the roads. National Highways works closely with local authorities to resolve issues as far as is practicable. I will go into a bit more detail momentarily, but there is some good work with local authorities across the country, and the issue requires that interaction between National Highways and local authorities. To continuously improve collaboration and partnership working with local authorities, National Highways shares its maintenance and traffic management plans to allow litter collection to be carried out safely and simultaneously with maintenance, to help bring efficiencies to the process. NH provides a single point of contact to facilitate the co-ordination of litter clearance and provides an induction programme for local authority staff, which includes guidance on how to work with NH and signpost to further information and best practice. The Department expects NH to work with and support local authorities as much as possible to tackle litter on the wider strategic road network, and also at junctions, as litter does not stop at authority or National Highways boundaries.

Performance monitoring is one of the key drivers of the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead. The importance of litter to the Department and National Highways is highlighted by the fact that it is one of the performance indicators against which National Highways is monitored. The percentage of the strategic road network where litter is graded B or above under the DEFRA litter code of practice is measured. Grade B is defined as a network that is predominantly free from litter and refuse, apart from some small items. National Highways has committed to reporting against that metric annually. However, performance is monitored more regularly by the independent Highways Monitor, at the Office of Rail and Road. I will ask National Highways to write to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South about its policy regarding his council.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

If my right hon. Friend will allow to continue for another minute or so, he can jump in, if he needs to, on the KSI.

The Highways Monitor provides monthly advice to the Department on the performance of National Highways across all its performance metrics, and there is continuous dialogue between the three parties on opportunities for improvement.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South

I want to ask the Minister about the accuracy of that data. As we heard earlier, we have serious issues with grass and other vegetation disguising litter. Once it is cut, it reveals huge amounts of litter. I therefore question the accuracy of the data, and I wonder what the Minister’s view is on that.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

As I said, I will write to my hon. Friend about that, because it is an important point. If there is not proper monitoring, we cannot know what is going on. I want to get to the bottom of policies on grass cutting and other things.

National Highways and the Highways Monitor will report litter performance to the public in their annual reports, providing increased transparency. That happened only in road investment strategy 2. That is the era we are in now—between 2020 and 2025.

As hon. Members know, in 2021-22 National Highways reported that 61% of the network was graded A, which is no litter, or B, which is a small amount of litter. That means that a large proportion of the national highways—39%—has a significant amount. Although that is an improvement on 2020-21, which was about 49%, there is clearly still a lot of work to do. I do not underestimate that. Those grades are alongside DEFRA’s litter code of practice. The data for 2022-23 will be published this summer, so I ask hon. Members to keep an eye out for that.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

I think what the Minister is saying to me is that, since I was the Minister, the regulator has not been allowed to look at the individual performance indicator, which is part of the KSI—it can look only at the KSI. Is he saying that the regulator can now look at the performance indicator on its own, or is it still allowed to look only at the KSI? If it is allowed to look only at the KSI, litter will not be on its agenda. He can write to me if he wants.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

If my right hon. Friend gives me a short amount of time, I will come to exactly what he is after.

NH believes that this improved practice over the past couple of years is due to sharing best practice between regions, more detailed data on targeted litter collections, and improved engagement with local authorities and authorities that clear litter on A roads, including Transport for London. We are currently developing the third road investment strategy, and continue to explore further metrics for inclusion in it—my right hon. Friend might want to put some specific KSIs in. That will include a performance specification and possible improvements to the specific metrics, including on litter. I will write to him on the specifics of what National Highways has to report, on what it is held accountable for and on those KPIs.

Photo of Louie French Louie French Conservative, Old Bexley and Sidcup

I have a constructive suggestion for the Minister and the Department on producing new metrics. They will be familiar with the job of clearing up TfL’s mess by now—excuse the pun, but it is very deliberate. On the issue of responsibility and the impact of litter going on to motorways, we must consider consumer behaviour. However, there is an issue with some of the junctions that we have all spoken about, where litter is being blown through boroughs from TfL roads—I have mentioned the A2 and the A20. Certain boroughs want to clean the roads and some do not, and that is adding to the problems on motorways. When producing KPIs and working with other bodies, I suggest that the Department ensures that they have their own practices in place, so that this does not add to the pressures on National Highways.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. This is about local authorities working together at TfL level in London and with National Highways, and I will ensure that his views regarding key performance indicators are taken into consideration.

I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead that the performance indicator is there. There is not a target; this is about monitoring at the moment. That is for RIS2, but KPIs might be exactly where we want to go at the next stage—I want to make that clear to him. We are working to ensure that there are targeted metrics in RIS3 and that the KPIs focus on the things that are most important to road users, and it is quite clear from today’s debate that keeping the highways litter-free is one of them. The current situation is not tenable, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford said, and I will speak to National Highways about the specifics as we look at its KPIs for RIS3. Progress will involve considering responses to the forthcoming public consultation on the National Highways strategic road network initial report, and I urge right hon. and hon. Members, and interested parties, to feed into that. As I said earlier, there are discussions about introducing an awareness campaign going forward.

Regarding enforcement and the use of technology, I have spoken about using education and awareness to influence littering behaviours, and about the work and performance of National Highways in clearing litter from the SRN. I want to cover enforcement and penalties, because right hon. and hon. Members also mentioned them. The Government understand that enforcement plays a key role in this regard, especially for litter thrown from vehicles. The enforcement of penalties for littering is owned by DEFRA, and we work closely with it and National Highways to improve enforcement options. Local authorities may issue fixed penalty notices for littering offences committed in their areas where it can be proven that litter was thrown from a vehicle.

The Littering from Vehicles Outside London (Keepers: Civil Penalties) Regulations 2018 make provision about reporting littering from vehicles in England. In recent years, the Government have bolstered local authority enforcement powers by raising the upper limit on fixed penalty notices for littering and by introducing powers to issue the keeper of a vehicle from which litter is thrown with a civil penalty. As I said, I recently spoke to National Highways and visited its site at South Mimms, where I saw some of the cameras in action. National Highways passes on evidence of the most egregious cases of littering and fly-tipping, but more could be done to co-ordinate its work with local authorities. I will come on to some of that work, on which we are doing a pilot at the moment. In the end, though, it is for local authorities to decide whether to pass on that information and whether they believe they have sufficient evidence to take enforcement action in any given case.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South

I was going to ask the Minister about enforcement powers. As he has alluded to, National Highways does not have such powers. Is there no possibility that we could consider giving National Highways some of those powers? I have previously had discussions with the organisation about other offences being committed on its network that it is totally powerless to deal with.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

That is a broader debate, and it is up to Parliament to decide where these powers lie.

I would like to give a shout-out to a few local authorities. I will mention a couple of other examples later, but North Lincolnshire Council, Newark and Sherwood District Council and North West Leicestershire Council are three that National Highways has said it works very closely with. In the majority of cases, they do prosecute when information is passed on. National Highways is also working closely with Brighton and Hove City Council and East Hampshire District Council too, and I will come on to East Hampshire again.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

This is very important. Is the Minister saying, as I think he is, that if an alleged offence takes place on the motorway, a local authority can prosecute that individual or vehicle?

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport)

I am, and in certain cases the police might prosecute if it is something more dangerous. National Highways can pass the information to local authorities so that they can prosecute. For the fly-tipping of some larger items, where for example people pull up at the side of the motorway and dump large quantities of rubbish, although the financial responsibility for clearing it up would be with National Highways, the local authorities could prosecute. For local authorities, it could be a win-win in terms of prosecution. National Highways clears it up, but the local authority can issue fixed penalty notices. Government guidance is available for local authorities on dealing with litter and issuing fixed penalty notices in the code of practice on litter and refuse.

Litter may also fall from vehicles that have insufficiently secured loads, as hon. Friends mentioned. That comes under section 8 of the Road Traffic Act 1991, and enforcement in that area is conducted by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency and the police, as it is a more serious offence. Road users can contact the DVSA if they wish to report incidents. Hon. Members will probably be aware of people increasingly using dashcams to make such reports to the police and local authorities.

National Highways works with local authorities and the DVSA to ensure that enforcement is carried out where particular issues are evident. That has included providing evidence to local government and the police authorities from its camera network. That is the most effective method of enforcement, because the police and other authorities can look at a range of potential infractions in one go, rather than National Highways doing so in isolation. Currently, National Highways does not have the power to issue fines or prosecute, as it is not an enforcement agency; its focus is on safety and maintaining the road network.

The Government have no plans to give National Highways enforcement powers in tackling litter offences; however, the company is keen to use technology to help transform the roads it manages and create a road network that supports a modern country, and it is keen to work with local authorities to prosecute. I undertake to write to all local authorities after today’s debate to say, “When National Highways pass information to you, please do use it to prosecute,” so that they are all in the same space on that. In answer to the point made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough, National Highways does not itself issue fines; it is up to individual local authorities to do so.

The Government and National Highways are exploring the potential to harness technology to tackle littering, such as using numberplate recognition cameras for littering enforcement and to influence littering behaviour. We are trialling the use of geofencing to push anti-littering messages to customers’ devices at 29 lay-bys on the A50 and the A180. In lay-bys where no bins are provided, we will push the message to encourage people to take litter home. Where bins are provided, their use will be encouraged. That activity will also enable us to better understand lay-by use. We will help to monitor those messages and their impact on the build-up of litter.

In partnership with East Hampshire District Council, in one of the more interesting developments in this space, we will shortly trial the use of CCTV to capture evidence of people littering in lay-bys in the south-east. We often have more issues in those lay-bys when there is stationary traffic. That is also one of the reasons more issues tend to occur at road junctions. East Hampshire will then issue fixed penalty notices or pursue prosecution —some cases will be very egregious—as appropriate. National Highways is unable to do that, because it is not the litter authority, but it wants to work with the council on it. Litter and vegetation will be cleared at sites so we will have the best ability to monitor the effectiveness of this approach. I will monitor the issue closely and, if it works well, I will happily look at rolling the pilot out more broadly to other local authorities across the country that are keen to do more work in this area.

We have also looked at using dashcams on National Highways vehicles, as well as artificial intelligence from moving vehicles. However, we have not yet found a cost-effective approach that works on littering.

For any approach to work, we need the relevant litter authority to partner with National Highways. I really hope that more local authorities will follow the lead of those local authorities who are working with us on this.

I will write to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead on driver awareness courses for littering offences. There have been some increases in fines in recent years, and I will write to him on what we are doing in that space as well. On community service, I will make sure that National Highways reaches out to authorities more, particularly post pandemic.

Let me finish by reaffirming my thanks to colleagues for this insightful debate. I hope that my right hon. Friend is satisfied, at least to some degree, with my response, which makes clear that we recognise the importance of tackling litter and holding National Highways’ feet to the fire to do more in this space.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough mentioned the deposit return scheme. I understand her criticism. It is important that we get it right. We can see from what has happened in Scotland that not getting it right can cause more problems than it addresses. I want to make sure that we are in the right place on that scheme.

On private company contracts, my understanding from a conversation I had earlier today is that some of those privately managed contracts on parts of the motorway are in areas that are most clear of litter. If I find any specific issues on those contracts, I will write to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough.

We will continue to work hard to support the Government’s wider ambitions around litter. We are confident that National Highways shares that ambition. As we move forward, it is important to continue to improve how we can hold it accountable for preventing and tackling litter on England’s strategic road network.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead 5:52, 25 April 2023

Having sat in his seat, I know how difficult that must have been for the Minister. In good faith, he has espoused what the Government would like National Highways to do. I do not think I am going to hold my breath on that. I know that is sceptical, perhaps even arrogant, but National Highways makes so many promises, not just in this area, but in others too, and does not come through on what it promises.

It is very simple. I do not want a special project in my part of the world—I guarantee that the junctions I have alluded to in this debate will get done in the next couple of days. That is not why I wanted this debate. I wanted to highlight that this country is blighted by rubbish. I specifically picked on the motorway system because there is one organisation that has a legal responsibility. This place put a legal responsibility on it to protect the environment and clear this mess up. Up until now, that has not been happening. Wherever the figures come from—that almost two thirds of the network is clear of rubbish—I am really sorry, but someone needs to go and check. All they need to do is drive down the motorways in my part of the world, under the junctions, and they will see.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered litter on motorways.

Sitting adjourned.