Michael Neubert – 1978 Speech on Litter in London

Below is the text of the speech made by Michael Neubert, the then Conservative MP for Romford, in the House of Commons on 16 May 1978.

Well over 10 million people now come to visit ​ the British Isles each year, many of them to London. About 10 million people live in London, many of them working, as we do, in Westminster. At the centre of our capital city we are surrounded by a wealth of historic buildings and Royal parks, rightly renowned world-wide. Yet all too often the state of our streets is a disgrace. It used to be said that the streets of London were paved with gold. Too often these days too many of the streets of London are paved with plastic ​ bags, empty Coke cans and cigarette packets.

As a Londoner, with some interest in travel and tourism, especially I regret the adverse impression that this must leave with many visitors to our city. There is one feature to which I particularly object and that is the new established practice of leaving refuse on public pavements and private forecourts for long periods for later collection. This has the effect of detracting very much from the London street scene. Unless it is vigorously resisted and arrested, the appearance of London can only get worse.

It is not only the fact that we have litter in our streets that causes me concern. That is a more evident problem. At least the strewing of litter is usually thoughtless and inconsiderate, whereas the practice of dumping rubbish on our streets in plastic bags and cardboard boxes is deliberate and becoming more widespread. This process must not be allowed to continue. If it does, the contrast between our noble buildings and our slovenly streets will widen, and the disparity between taxpayers’ money spent on restoring the fabric of our buildings and ratepayers’ money spent on the cleansing of our streets will sharpen. The amenities of living in London will be severely damaged.

For all these reasons, I seek to raise this issue tonight, in the hope that the process can not only be arrested but reversed. Unfortunately, even this apparently simple point, which I take the opportunity to put to the Minister, is not really as simple and straightforward as it might seem. There are many complex factors involved and it is not possible within the scope of this short debate to include all of them.

What are the main reasons for this state of affairs? There are three major difficulties facing anyone attempting to maintain high standards of cleanliness in London’s streets: the nature of our historic buildings, the inadequacy of access to older property, and the traffic congestion which inhibits and slows down refuse rounds. These factors in themselves are not peculiar to London.

There seem to be three other factors which are particularly pertinent to this problem. The first derives from the ​ origins of this practice, namely, the lowering of standards which took place in the 1969 “dirty jobs” strike, which is an illustration of how a strike can do damage that lives on long after the dispute is settled. The outward effects of this dispute were most unfortunate. It led people at that time, of necessity, to deposit their rubbish on the streets. They saw, day after day, rubbish and rotting refuse at their doorstep. They thought nothing of it. It became almost acceptable. Ever since that precedent was established there has not been the same resistance to such a state of affairs which there would otherwise have been and which existed before. In the past nine years or so this trend has been increasing.

We have then to consider the inadequacy of the present law. Many of these matters are still governed by the provisions of the Public Health Act 1936. It is not surprising that, 42 years later, those provisions are not meeting modern needs. Circumstances have radically changed in so many evident ways and the regulations under that legislation are no longer satisfactory to deal with the problem.

Let me give one example. “Waste” is defined as being in two categories—either domestic or trade. Hotels and restaurants are not apparently committed to the latter category, and they often enjoy a free service, whereas the demands made on that service by hotels and restaurants are by their nature exceptional and heavy. In the centre of London where we live and work that consideration is especially the case. There is a need to update the legislation, and I shall return to that matter later.

There is a third thread which is important. In such a service as refuse collection, which is labour intensive, the attitudes of the men working that service will be critical. This will require a constructive and co-operative approach to the problem by trade unionists, members and leaders alike, if the problems, are to be solved, particularly in central London.

I wish to draw the Minister’s attention to the implications of the Health and Safety at Work, Etc. Act. I know that that legislation is not his responsibility, but I think he will agree that he will need to take those provisions into account. The provisions of that Act, if fully carried through, could prove calamitous to refuse collecting services in central London.

The principles of the legislation are unexceptionable, namely, the wish to ensure healthy and safe conditions for men and women at work. But the detailed provisions of the Act, if carried to the extreme, will prove highly costly and counter-productive in many respects in the service that is being undertaken. It is clear, for example, that any one of a number of objections could be made on present practice to dangerous steps to basements or to high rise buildings, defective back alleyways, low ceilings, inadequate lighting, ice and frost on stairs, rotting refuse, rodents, and broken handrails. Any one of those reasons could be taken by an eager beaver union representative, eager to make his mark, as an objection to carrying out the collection. If carried to extremes, it is clear that the practice of kerbside collections, so far from diminishing, will increase. Therefore, we have all these factors in the background.

What needs to be done? First, a higher priority must be accorded to this Cinderella service. Attitudes to refuse collection have always been gently derisory, and probably always will be, but the service is the very essence of our standard of living. Amenities play a very important part in that standard of living. Living standards depend not just on the size of the cigar or on the cubic capacity of the next new car, or even on holidays in Spain. Standards of living depend on humdrum, everyday events which all too often we take for granted. I refer to the twice-daily delivery of post, the daily delivery of a pint of milk, and, of course, the regular cleansing of our streets and the collection of refuse.
Greater priority must be given within local council budgets to this service. I pay tribute to the work that has been done in the face of enormous difficulties by the directors of cleansing in the three central London authorities which I have consulted. I refer to the City of Westminster, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and the City Corporation.

Nothing in my remarks should be taken to disparage the work they are doing or the policy of their authorities. But it is clear from figures given to me of expenditure on the service in the past four years that, although expenditure has increased substantially in cash terms, in real terms it has shown a cut-back. ​ Although some of that may be due to special circumstances, or even perhaps to greater efficiency and achieving the same amount of work at smaller cost, I suspect that in a period of economic restraint inevitably this service has suffered, and it is all too easy for it to suffer.

I should like to see a recording of priorities not only by the councils themselves but by the Department, too. I make the point to the Minister that, as local government nowadays is so much Government-directed, he, too, might play some part in reordering priorities in this matter. Although humdrum, commonplace, everyday and taken for granted, this service is vital to the well being of our community, and especially in central London.

Second, and specifically, I draw attention to the fact that, four years after the passing of the Control of Pollution Act 1974, there remain outstanding provisions in Part I still to be implemented. It is regrettable that after this lapse of time they should remain unimplemented. The Act itself was a successor to the Protection of the Environment Bill introduced by the last Conservative Government, which fell at the time of the General Election early in 1974, and it is now time to consider early implementation of its outstanding provisions.

Those provisions would allow powers to councils to ensure that there were adequate facilities for the storage of refuse and its eventual disposal and that there were adequate facilities for the disposal of waste. In addition, the councils could levy charges, in particular on hotels and restaurants, which are the principal, though not the only, offenders.

Here is an example of how the present system works to the disadvantage of London. There is a small hotel in South Kensington which enjoys twice-weekly free service from the Royal borough, and it does so by means of an accumulation of bags of refuse which, during the course of the week, can total 500. There is a considerable amount of refuse, and there can be 250 bags at any given time, stacked neatly on the hotel’s own ground but none the less an eyesore to those who pass down that side street on their way to the hotel or going about their business or pleasure in London.

If a charge were levied, it could provide revenue for a self-financing ​ scheme, or the potential ability to apply a charge could be used as a deterrent to encourage such hotels and commercial enterprises to invest in compaction equipment which could reduce the volume of such rubbish by a ratio of four to one, thereby making better use of their own space and also removing some of the worst eyesores when rubbish overflows on to forecourts and pavements. In that way, a great deal could be done.

I call on the Minister tonight to bring about early implementation of those provisions. Although he is not directly responsible for the service, he has a vital role to play because only he can bring in the full implementation of Part I of the Act, and only he can effectively co-ordinate a campaign to improve the appearance of London. He must show a determination not to tolerate a lowering of standards in our capital city. I hope that he will take that opportunity tonight.