by Chris Cornell
It’s 7.45am and my phone has already lit up 27 times with photos of bins along Reeves Beach.
Bins, full to bursting, have seemingly thrown up their contents on the beach and now lie surrounded by their beer bottle mates, perched along the harbour wall, like their drinkers were the night before. The summer problem of litter on our beach is back, so how do we solve it or who should we blame?
Whilst the problem of littering has been going on for years; this year is something of an imperfect storm. With the pubs closed, holidays cancelled and furlough making for an early summer for many, visits to our beaches at night are definitely up. As lockdown is gently released, police report that those breaking the law are either oblivious to their crime, murmur something about Dominic Cummings or aware that the police are largely powerless to move them on. What I am hearing from frontline officers is that the ‘perpetrators’ are neither under-age, nor often breaking the law: it’s not illegal to drink on the beach and it is not currently illegal to take nitrous oxide, however bad it is for your health.
I think it is important to highlight that there are two distinct issues at play here. The first is about bins – how many we have, how often they are collected and whether they are fit for purpose. The second is about anti-social behaviour, because regardless of our pleas in town, most ‘half-cut’ people aren’t looking for glass recycling facilities.
I understand that as an elected official people expect me to be able to sort this. Trust me, I’m as frustrated as you that I can’t. I do however believe you should be able to hear me try and explain to you how complicated it is.
So, let’s look at the issue with anti-social behaviour first.
Claim 1: Don’t we just need more police?
Before I was elected I campaigned for more police and now we have a dedicated Town Constable. It is nice to see a uniformed presence in town and I believe most people think Andy is doing a good job.
I understand people would like more police but even if we were to triple the number of uniformed officers on our shores I am not sure that they would prevent large groups from forming.
Recent news coverage of the policing of Black Lives Matter protests in the UK and US recently draws into sharp focus that our police, police large groups through consent. Last Friday when we had a group of over 200 on the beach there were four uniformed officers on patrol. Their approach, which I support, is to ‘Engage, Explain, Educate and then Enforce’. This approach understands widespread enforcement action on large groups can itself cause a disturbance and in doing so draw resources away from 999 calls.
Neither should our police ‘babysit’ groups on the beach that aren’t doing anything illegal; they are proactive in engaging with large groups, but when these groups are not doing anything illegal their hands are bound.
Claim 2: Can’t the council just send out enforcement teams?
The council has a Public Sector Protection Order (PSPO) on the beach which allows it to issue spot penalty fines for people breaking certain rules. The Coastal PSPO covers a range of activity including refusing to stop drinking alcohol or hand over containers when asked to, do so in order to prevent public nuisance, swearing in a manner as to cause alarm, urinating in public and tombstoning off the Harbour Arm. Unfortunately, these rules, whilst championed largely by the council and some councillors, aren’t much cop.
Many of our enforcement officers were recruited as traffic wardens and whilst their powers have increased, taking someone’s licence and registration from 20 yards away and engaging with a large group of drinkers to ascertain their names and addresses requires substantially different training. Whilst we have an evidence-led approach to deploying enforcement officers around the district, sending two enforcement officers into a large group without support from the police would also potentially cause problems.
This summer there will be a consultation on extending the PSPO to include lighting of fires on the beach, drinking from glass receptacles and use of pressurised cannisters. Whilst the later may give the police some additional powers to challenge people using nitrous oxide cannisters (won’t they just use pre-filled balloons that they bring with them from home?), the former two I think will be largely challenged by the vast majority of people who enjoy a bottle of wine and barbeque safely on the beach once in a while.
Claim 3: Wouldn’t extra enforcement officers just pay for themselves?
Many people complain that enforcement officers are all to adept at making money for the local authority by enforcing parking violations. However, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request last year showed that between August 2017 and January 2019 Canterbury City Council only issued 45 fines for breach of the PSPO; six of these related to swearing and 12 for urinating in public.
PSPOs, like most laws, work best as a deterrent. Whilst breaches currently warrant a £150 fine, to pay for extra officers, if we were to deploy extra officers to just deal with this problem they would need to take a far more disproportionate approach. Despite popular thinking it is also not the council’s aim to gain financially from non-compliance.
So, now to bins:
Claim 4: It’s all SERCO’s fault
I have to say that I have nothing but respect for the SERCO guys who work long days in the baking sun clearing rubbish on their carts. It is a tough, physically-demanding job and most of them have a real pride in what they do. That our social media streams are full of images of bins overflowing at 6am says nothing for the fact that most days this has been picked, bagged and taken from the beach by 8am.
The staff are also sometimes hampered by poor equipment such as flimsy bags, staff sickness and only being able to safely work during daylight hours. They start at 7am so as not to wake up people who live on the seafront.
The cleaners on the beach are employed under the council’s wider grounds maintenance contract which runs until December 2022 – unless they surrender it early – to coincide with the council bringing the wider bin collection service back in house from next January. Both contracts have unfortunately been dogged by poor performance with council handing over an additional £140k and making targets easier to hit so that SERCO could just move a little closer to delivering the service is was contracted to provide. The current contract states that SERCO must keep bins below being 75% full during ‘working hours’ and gives little consideration to problems we have after 5pm.
It is clear to many that SERCO massively under-bid in the first place and when the service comes back in house it is widely expected to cost us more. Until then, SERCO are thinly spread and often find it impossible to deploy even one or two more operatives to the coast on sunny days; crews are managed remotely over a large area, including other seaside locations, and difficult to directly get in touch with.
Whilst protocols do exist for the council to liaise with SERCO and ensure that they have crews in the right place for good weather, these are often poorly enforced and not locally accountable. Having seen SERCO managers appear in front of the Community Committee once every six months to show us some meagre improvement or explain away their continued failure has led me to believe that the organisation just doesn’t care about jumping through hoops for a contract about to end. Good riddance I say.
Claim 4: The council don’t care
Generally I find that most officers do care about the problem of bins in our town, although I admit they all live here. The council’s approach, perhaps rightly, is largely to focus on messaging to prevent the problem in the first place. If people were to heed the stickers and posted asking people to take their rubbish home, everything would be good.
Believe it or not, there are some councillors (not Labour’s to be honest) who believe that actually we should be piloting having no bins as research seems to suggest that this can change people’s behaviour.
Over the last couple of years, the council have invested in new bins in Tankerton and on Whitstable Harbour. In 2018 they tried larger bins in the car parks by the sea wall, but local residents complained about these being unsightly, people tipped hot barbecues into them causing fires and people still left rubbish by overflowing bins rather than search out ones which were empty.
I still think we need to change the behaviour of people first, it’s the cheapest and most effective way of solving the problem; just asking people to take home their rubbish isn’t working. Our campaigns need to more hard hitting and focussed at tourists, who don’t care as much as we do about keeping our home clean.
Claim 5: Local businesses should just pay for them
We are blessed with some very responsible business owners as the commitment of many of them to go ‘Plastic Free’ shows. Discussions are happening encouraging food outlets to deploy staff to litter pick for an hour between 4-5pm but we can’t force them. In Canterbury, the Business Improvement District, does levy a charge that businesses must pay to help cover additional tourist services and rubbish collection. However, the BID in Canterbury is contentious, with many smaller independent traders complaining that they can’t afford the charge as easily as many of the larger retail units who are prepared for it. It is also not clear that this would work in the geography of our town, or carry the support of over 50% of businesses who would have to opt in to get it started in the first place.
Claim 5: We need more bins
This is fundamentally the issue in my mind. The current bins are just not up to the job, if they were bigger we wouldn’t have people piling up bags by the side of the bin and half the trouble with seagulls and foxes splitting these open.
After some lobbying, the council are deploying some larger 1100l bins, the size we often hold back for Oyster Festival onto the seafront and I am working with them to take up the offer of a free trial of some ‘big belly bins’ along the seafront. We might even be getting somewhere.
These bins are solar powered, have 8 times the capacity of a normal bin and report to SERCO when they are full meaning they can deploy operatives better. There were some operational issues about gaining access to the beach to empty them when the council last looked at them a couple of years ago but the operators say this isn’t an issue anymore. They do cost more (between £3,500 – 5,000 per bin) but I don’t understand why we shouldn’t at least be exploring if they work and could potentially even save us money in the long term before we look at taking the contract back.
I mean, I’d even donate a few quid towards buying these bins, if it helped stop the number of times my phone lights up with photos of rubbish before I’ve even sat down for breakfast. To stop me banging on about rubbish at home all the time, I expect my long-suffering, amazing wife would double my contribution!
So that’s it, rant over. Lockdown has been rubbish, literally.
Chris is a youth worker, school governor, university lecturer and proud dad of three. He has lived in Whitstable for over 10 years.
Chris is a former chair and current trustee of Whitstable Umbrella, where the impact of government cuts to front-line services inspired him to get involved in local politics. He takes an active interest in local youth services, whether as founder of a local dads’ group (Who Let the Dads Out) and scout leader at Long Rock or school governor and member of the PTA executive at Swalecliffe Community Primary School. After a career working in housing and youth-work charities across the country, he now is a senior lecturer in business administration and social enterprise at two London universities.
He was elected to Canterbury City Council in 2019 as a representative for Gorrell ward with George Caffery and Valerie Kenny.
Chris sits on the Whitstable Forum, Whitstable Harbour Board, community and governance committees in addition to full council.
“Whitstable is drowning in litter we need Canterbury CC to take action now.”
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