HC Deb 02 December 1959 vol 614 cc1335-44

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. E Wakefield.]

11.5 p.m.

Mr. Rupert Speir (Hexham)

I feel that I ought to apologise for detaining the House and raising a subject which, at first sight, must appear to be a matter of small concern. It is a subject which, nevertheless, has been the concern of the Minister of Housing and Local Government for some time past. Indeed, he issued a special circular dealing with this problem, Circular 52/59 of 21st August last. It is a subject which is of considerable concern to many local authorities throughout the length and breadth of Great Britain.

The Litter Act, 1958, has now been in operation for some fifteen months. The Act has been operating more effectively than I myself, who had the privilege of sponsoring it in the last Parliament, ever expected. The public, the police, the local authorities and the magistrates have been taking it more seriously than its sponsors imagined would be the case. Indeed, there have already been about 2,000 successful prosecutions under the Litter Act, and I would add that there have been some rather hefty fines.

I believe that the Act has got off to a surprisingly good start. It has had more support from the public than was anticipated, and I believe that it is true to say that the public have felt that the time had come for effective action to be taken to keep Britain tidy. Of course, the sponsors of the Act never imagined that the mere passing of an Act of Parliament would solve this difficult problem. They realised full well that it would take many years before the bad habits of the nation could be cured. When the Act was going through Parliament, and people used to ask me whether I thought the Act would work, I used to reply to them in the same way as Lord Hugh Cecil used to reply when he was asked whether the League of Nations would work. When he was drawing up the constitution of the League of Nations, and he was asked whether it would work, his answer was, "Think again. Does a spade work? Of course, the answer is, it has to be made to work."

It is the same with the Litter Act. I think that in this packaging age, this age of cartons and wrapping, it is obvious that unless we pander to the public we cannot hope to make a success of this Act. It is all very well telling the public that they must carry their litter about and take it home, but we only need look round this Chamber, at the end of a long debate, to see that, where litter bins and baskets are not provided, people are careless and they do not have much regard for tidiness unless they are pandered to. Therefore, I say that we must pander to the public and we must provide ample litter bins and baskets in the right places if we want to get rid of the litter lout.

Many local authorities have been active in providing sufficient litter bins. The Westminster City Council is a very good example. It has provided litter bins throughout the length and breadth of its area. But several local authorities have been lagging behind. Perhaps they do not care sufficiently. Perhaps they cannot be bothered, or perhaps they cannot bear the expense of providing enough litter containers. But no matter what the reason may be, I should have thought, and I would have hoped, that the Minister of Housing and Local Government would have done everything possible to encourage the provision of an ample number of litter bins by local authorities.

Nevertheless, this is not what he has done. Instead, he has issued Circular 52 of 1959 which I can only describe as very vague and wishy-washy. The circular rightly points out that the Minister has had a number of appeals before him from local authorities against the refusal of planning consent for the use of litter bins carrying small advertisements. The Minister, in his circular, says that, so far, his attitude has been that advertisements so displayed would have an undesirable effect on the street scene.

I challenge that suggestion that the exhibition of very small advertisements on the outside of litter bins can have an undesirable effect on the street scene, at any rate, in our shopping centres. I ask the Minister to reconsider the matter. Is it not carrying planning control to absurd lengths to deny local authorities the use of these litter bins with small advertisements on them in our main shopping centres? After all, the shops themselves with their window displays are little more than advertisements.

Does my right hon. Friend realise that, today, about 650 local authorities are making use of small litter bins with advertisements exhibited on them? In his own borough, Hampstead, such bins are freely used, and have been so used for a long time now, without any adverse comment. Does he realise that, when I go home along the King's Road, in Chelsea, to my flat, I see that nearly every lamp-post carries a litter bin with advertisements? They have been used by Chelsea Borough Council for a long time, without complaint and with considerable success, and, of course, Chelsea Borough Council has great regard for amenities.

In my constituency, Hexham, the urban district council has been refused planning consent to use advertisement-carrying litter bins. The same is true of many boroughs and urban districts. They may not use these bins although there are firms prepared to provide them free of charge, to erect them free of charge, to maintain them free of charge, and even to insure them free of charge. With some of the larger fibreglass bins costing about £15 apiece, that is a free service which the ratepayers should not be denied.

There is today a rather ridiculous situation where about 650 local authorities are using these bins supplied free, and receiving no complaints for so doing, whereas others are denied their use and are refused planning consent.

The firms which are prepared to offer this free service of providing litter bins are sensible concerns. They are quite prepared to adopt a reasonable attitude and be as co-operative as possible with the local authorities. They are prepared, if so desired, to limit the advertisements to bins placed in town centres, in shopping centres, and not to put them in places where there are no other forms of advertising at present. They are prepared to limit the advertisements on the bins, and they go so far as to say that they will use advertisements on only one in four bins, that is to say, there would be one bin with an advertisement for three bins without advertisement. Thirdly, they are prepared to use rigorous control of the advertisements themselves to ensure that an inappropriate advertisement is not put up in any place.

The siting of the bins, their colour and the wording they carry can all be settled by joint discussion amicably between the firms providing the bins and the local authorities which are to make use of them. I therefore do suggest that ancient and attractive towns such as Abingdon, Hexham, and Harrow, apart from many others that I could mention, are proud of their amenities and their appearance and are not likely to indulge in a rash of litter bins in inappropriate places. They will not distribute these bins like some infectious rash. At the same time, we must have more bins if we are to make headway with the anti-litter campaign and I therefore ask the Minister to reconsider his circular and to look again at this whole problem.

If my right hon. Friend can do that, and arrange for bins to be used on a more widespread basis, he will be encouraging the campaign to keep Britain tidy. Albeit, these bins will carry some advertisements; but if one walks along Victoria Street there will be seen bins which have not been provided free, but by the local authority. Although they do not carry advertisements, they carry all kinds of notices about keeping the streets clean and I submit that the bins along King's Road, Chelsea, are much to be preferred.

11.17 p.m.

Mr. Edward Short (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central)

I should like briefly to add support to what has been said by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir). Indeed, on this occasion, I can address him as my hon. Friend. After a year of the operation of the Litter Act which he introduced, country lovers should say a word of thanks to him. He struck a bigger blow for cleaning up the countryside than anyone else, and as a country lover myself I express my thanks to him for what he did in piloting his Bill through the House.

I pass through the hon. Gentleman's constituency—an area not unknown to yourself, Mr. Speaker—and as I go over the fells to the Lake District, some of the sights which I see on that lovely mountain area and along the side of Lake Ullswater, appal me. As the number of motor cars increases, so the litter menace increases, and I think that the Ministry must face up to this fact. More people are travelling to the countryside each week-end and, in spite of the hon. Gentleman's Act, they are leaving a great deal of litter behind them.

I see no objection to small bins with the advertisements. Because of our fantastic system of taxation and rating, our citizens bear great burdens and any relief which they can have should be given to them. I see no harm in these bins being erected and I say that local authorities should be able to accept them.

In my view, the greater part of the litter comes from picnicking in the great open fells and woodlands, and lake-sides. I have travelled many thousands of miles in the United States and I have always thought, when there, that we do not make sufficient provision for the people who wish to picnic. The Minister should send out a circular urging local authorities—and especially those in the districts I have mentioned—to set up picnic areas; there could be some of the tables one sees in America, and fixed chairs and, perhaps, facilities for cooking, and also the bins into which the litter could be put. If these facilities were provided, and there were provision for the litter, a good deal of the unsightliness now defacing our countryside would disappear.

I ask the Minister to consider urging local authorities, especially in the beauty spots, to make some provision for picknickers.

11.20 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Sir Keith Joseph)

My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Speir) has put the whole country in his debt by his initiative with the Litter Bill and anything that he says on this or allied matters carries the greatest weight. He has taken the country with him. We are all anxious to reduce litter. That is the aim of us all.

Obviously, for this purpose, litter bins are necessary. As my hon. Friend said, a large number of local authorities have already provided them. My hon. Friend must, however, agree that we need proportion in this matter and that if the litter bins were to be, in my hon. Friend's phrase, like an infectious rash upon the street scene, some disadvantage might have to be set against their success in reducing litter. What we want to do is to get the maximum possible number of litter bins with the minimum possible disturbance to the street scene.

I must disagree with my hon. Friend and with the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Short) in their constant reference to advertisements on litter bins as being small and unobtrusive. The fact is that understandably, when advertisements are permitted, they often cover the whole of a litter bin, and since it is the purpose of an advertisement to call attention to itself they are rarely unobtrusive. If it were so, there might have been less dislike of them. It is the object of my right hon. Friend the Minister at once to reduce litter and to reduce clutter. That is why I cannot see eye to eye with my hon. Friend in his point of view.

Local authorities, as my hon. Friend knows, are free in their handling of street furniture—they were given freedom under the General Development Order of 1950—but they are not free concerning advertisements except for functional advertisements, which can still be challenged on amenity grounds if they are too obtrusive. My hon. Friend referred to advertisements concerning the enforcement of byelaws in one of the streets near here. If those advertisements are too obtrusive and intrude upon the street scene too much, they can be challenged by the planning authority. They must, therefore, conform with the street scene as much as possible.

It is the policy of the Government in all these matters to leave as much as possible to the decision of the local authority. I am sure that local authorities, particularly in the areas of picnicking, for instance, to which the hon. Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central referred, are aware of the problems. I expect that they will read with interest his suggestions of a picnicking area serviced with a minimum amount of equipment such as there is to be found on the Continent of America and elsewhere.

It is as a result of the policy of lack of interference that local authorities such as Chelsea and Westminster are perfectly free, unless challenged by a planning authority, to allow advertisements on litter bins. Public opinion, however, is, mercifully, beginning to be very concerned about the street scene and, at a time when there is a great deal of interest in the improvement of design of such things as lamp standards, telephone boxes and all the other equipment which we take for granted in the streets, it would be retrograde if my hon. Friend were to encourage yet a new sort of clutter.

It may seem at first sight as if local authorities and private enterprise have a common interest in the provision of free services of litter bins plus advertisements, but this is only a common interest if the advertisements are kept so modest as not in any way to obtrude on the street scene and create yet a new sort of clutter. That is why my right hon. Friend, while he has not intervened when a planning authority has permitted advertisements, has backed up those planning authorities who have opposed advertisements on litter bins. Many planning authorities have taken the view that since litter bins are provided by a number of local authorities without the help of the financial concession that goes with advertisements, there is, therefore, every reason to hope that other local authorities will also provide litter bins, even if they have to pay for them.

For the future, each case will continue to be decided on its merits, but my right hon. Friend, in an attempt to suggest a compromise, has proposed, in the circular to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham referred, a modest sort of internal advertisement 8 in. by 1 in. inside the far facing of litter bins, so that anybody using the bins would see it. My right hon. Friend was most careful not to give the impression in any way of directing local authorities about this, because he has no power to direct, but he did suggest this as a compromise. It is far too soon at this date to judge whether this compromise will be acceptable.

It may interest my hon. Friend to know that my right hon. Friend is at the moment between two fires. While some people, like the two hon. Gentlemen who have spoken tonight, think that he has not gone nearly far enough and that advertisements should be allowed, to gain some financial advantage, on the whole of the outside of litter bins, there are other people, equally vociferous, though not in the House tonight, who think that he has gone too far in permitting any advertisements even on the inside of litter bins. Perhaps my right hon. Friend, being shot at from both sides, is in a reasonable position between supporting the fight against litter and that against clutter, those two enemies of the street scene.

The fact is that street furniture should be improved, and there are encouraging signs that the public takes this matter very seriously. We all know of the enterprise of the Civic Trust, in combination with Norwich, where a complete street, a main shopping thoroughfare, was given a treatment of paint and removal of clutter, to the delight of the local inhabitants and to the interest of, I believe, more than a hundred other local authorities who are now contemplating some form of follow-up action in their own areas. That is a sign that public opinion really is roused. I understand that the Civic Trust would be glad to advise any other local authorities who want to combine service to the public in reducing litter with avoidance of clutter.

I very much hope that the manufacturers of litter bins—and I am sure that they are sensible people, as my hon. Friend said—will concentrate on providing litter bins at prices attractive to local authorities. My hon. Friend referred to £15 for a litter bin. I am advised that that would be a very large litter bin. In fact, the normal litter bin which hangs on a lamp standard probably costs between 40s. and 50s. It is quite true that it is an attraction for a local authority to get it cheaper or for nothing, but if we follow that argument too far we shall have the Post Office reckoning to build pillar boxes free because it could cover them with advertisements. I am not suggesting that my hon. Friend would go as far as that, but if we allow advertisements on litter bins we may then have other people saying, "Let us have advertisements on other parts of the street scene."

It is quite true that shop fronts are in themselves to some extent advertisements of the goods within them, but that is what they are for. We do not want advertisements in a rash rather than in concentrated places where they are permitted. I very much hope manufacturers of these bins will consider whether a small inside plaque advertisement suggested by my right hon. Friend may not perhaps be acceptable to advertisers. There is no evidence yet either that it is or it is not. It is too soon to judge.

I have the assurance of the Council of Industrial Design that it is already very glad to help manufacturers of these litter bins in the pursuit of the aim of attractively priced, attractively designed litter bins, possibly with this internal small plaque advertisement. I am further able to announce that the Council of Industrial Design intends soon, possibly in the new year, to conduct a competition for the design of all sorts of different bins for different applications, and it may well include in the competition a prize for a litter bin which serves my right hon. Friend's purpose of having a small advertisement plaque inside the bin.

I am sure that this debate will be valuable in drawing the attention of local authorities and manufacturers to the policy of my right hon. Friend, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham will accept that it is not ministerial policy to discourage litter bins in themselves in any way, or to intrude on local authorities' own discretion in these matters, but will bear in mind, whenever the Minister is asked to intervene, that in the street scene as a whole this is a war not only against litter, but clutter as well.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Eleven o'clock.