Streets Ahead

Eunomia’s senior local Government specialist, Neil Greenhalgh, turns his attention to street cleansing and the role it plays in reducing the environmental impact of plastics. He says a high quality, effective and efficient street scene service has far-reaching benefits

Heightened public awareness of the problem of plastic waste, especially in our oceans, should make us stop and wonder how all this waste gets there in the first place. There is growing evidence that littering on land, which is carried downstream to our beaches and oceans, is one of the major causes.

The Government launched its Litter Strategy in 2017 but there is little evidence of any reduction in litter present on the streets of Britain. While each of us can help with this issue by disposing of waste responsibly, local councils take the lion’s share of responsibility for maintaining cleanliness standards (in their role as Principle Litter Authorities).

Every local authority in the UK therefore has a role to play in reducing the environmental impact of plastics by improving the cleanliness of the streets and verges for which they’re responsible. But, faced with deep and long-lasting cuts to funding, street cleansing is under pressure. Perversely, the need to fund better kerbside recycling systems can result in resources being diverted within the waste management budget.

Street cleansing services tend to receive relatively little attention, but a high quality, effective and efficient street scene service has far-reaching benefits. It can improve the economic value of an area, ensure the public feel safe in their local community, protect the local environment and improve the health and well-being of citizens. So how can local government provide improved front-line street cleansing services with less money?

Some have turned to local community volunteers to help out. Having a small army of environmentalists can be a valuable support, but it is no substitute for regular and effective cleaning by professional staff.  Innovation and greater efficiency are required.

One way to improve efficiency is to invest in more effective equipment. Take litter bins, for example: they come in all shapes, sizes, purposes and – unfortunately – levels of usefulness. How many times have you conscientiously taken your litter to a bin only to find it already bulging with last night’s takeaway wrappings? A responsible person will take their litter to the next bin, or even home – but many won’t.

“Faced with deep and long-lasting cuts to funding, street cleansing is under pressure. Perversely, the need to fund better kerbside recycling systems can result in resources being diverted within the waste management budget.”

Installing more litter bins might seem like the answer. However, bins cost money to purchase, install and empty, and need maintaining. Broken bins, wrong sized bins, a lack of recycling bins and bins that are simply collected on a ‘round’ whether full or empty – all are potentially a waste of valuable time and resources.

Instead, many councils could benefit from a strategic review of litter bin provision and associated policies to complement the street cleansing service they provide. A review can check whether bins are appropriately placed, maintained and emptied and produce an effective litter strategy. The investment needed to complete a review can often be repaid in less than a year; but with limited in-house resources and expertise, reviews tend to go by the wayside, even if they would save money.

Carmarthenshire Council recently decided to review its in-house street cleansing operation to contribute towards the significant savings needed in 2019. They sought advice from Eunomia, to bring a fresh pair of eyes to a formal review that covered mechanical sweeping, manual cleansing, collection of fly-tipped materials and the provision and emptying of litter bins.

Finance and performance data from across the service helped identify areas of best practice as well as highlighting gaps and failings. Using the Code of Practice on Litter and Refuse (COPLAR), the whole county was mapped and resources targeted more effectively to provide a more efficient and consistent approach to the service.

The council’s Environmental Services Manager, Dan John explained the process: “The Eunomia team visited our depot and got involved with our service on the ground, and took the time to talk to our staff and understand the challenges they face in their day-to-day tasks. Eunomia’s technical insight into the challenges facing our street cleansing team allowed them to provide us with valuable advice on how we could make our service more efficient and improve the standard of delivery.”

The council is now in the process of implementing the changes recommended through the review.

Although street cleansing may not be at the forefront of peoples’ minds, it is an essential front-line service that underpins a lot of community strategies. The rising tide of concern over plastic pollution means there has never been a better time to take a long hard look at the way we maintain our cleanliness standards on streets, verges and beaches.

Faced with financial pressures on the one hand, and heightened public expectations on the other, councils may feel caught on the horns of a dilemma. However, a thorough review to help identify priorities, opportunities and good practice can often find ways to achieve better results at lower cost. 

Neil Greenhalgh is a Senior Consultant with Eunomia Research and Consulting, specialising in helping the public sector deliver more efficient and effective services.

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