It is clear that the current system of cleaning the nation’s trunk roads does not work leading to the UK’s roads being amongst the dirtiest in Europe.
Cleaning of the trunk roads should be a normal part of overall maintenance and for this to happen effectively the duty should be transferred from local authorities to Highways England. This would enable a streamlined service to be provided tied in to vegetation cutting schedules and other road maintenance programmes. Experienced teams and specialist equipment can then be employed moving seamlessly along the routes with one overall body co-ordinating all aspects including road closures.
Such a system would have the added advantage that members of the public will have one point of access to lodge complaints or observations rather than the current situation where different authorities can blame each other for failings.
This proposition has been raised in detail with the Secretary of State and with Baroness Vere at the Department for Transport (DfT) by the A27 Clean Up Campaign and is supported by key MPs and all local authorities along the route. It has also been recommended by others in the past including by consultants Atkins in their 2009 Roadside Litter Research Strategy and in 2015 by the Communities and Local Government Select Committee in their report on “Litter and fly-tipping in England”.
In response to the A27 Group, the DfT on 17 July 2020 said, amongst other things, that a transfer of responsibility to Highways England can only be made if Highways England makes such a request. This is a surprising response as, surely, it should be for the Government to decide who undertakes the cleaning of our national roads and not a government company. As far as is known Highways England has not volunteered to take responsibility for cleaning and there is therefore no apparent progress in achieving the optimal outcome.
Local authorities receive no extra funding for cleansing the trunk roads so additional costs would probably be encountered in any transfer of responsibility to Highways England. However, should this prove problematic, there is always the prospect of sponsorship for such important work although this would require a change of approach by Highways England who currently do not permit sponsorship.
A further issue that needs to be addressed is to ensure that the new Office for Environmental Protection has powers to investigate and, if necessary, penalise where authorities (whether local authorities or Highways England) have failed in their duties regarding roadside litter. As currently drafted, the Environment Bill may exclude roadside litter despite this being a major source of environmental damage.
With good will and a more committed approach than heretofore it should be possible to achieve a speedy transfer of responsibility to Highways England, at least in relation to a pilot project such as the A27 could provide. (One interesting point here is that the Havant section of the A27 is cleaned by Highways England at no cost to the local authority – so why doesn’t this apply to the other 6 local authorities along the route?)
It is imperative that we have, at the top of Government, someone who is committed to cleaning up this country. This is particularly appropriate in the year when the UN Climate Change Conference will be held in the UK and when the whole world will be watching.