Clark Gable was once voted the best-looking film star in the world. He only had one problem: bad breath. Four weeks ago, Rough Guide readers voted Scotland “the most beautiful country in the world”. Our tourism bosses were beside themselves with glee. Malcolm Roughhead, chief executive of VisitScotland said: “We are delighted that Scotland has received this remarkable accolade from Rough Guide readers, but of course it will not be a surprise to anyone who has encountered our wonderful country.”
It’s true. In August, Zsuzsa and I picnicked on Bosta Beach on Great Bernera, just off the island of Lewis and Harris. The views across the dunes were breathtaking. Our photos looked amazing on Instagram. But what we found at our feet was sickening: discarded crisp bags, wet wipes, cigarette packets, sanitary items, you name it. The rubbish dumped everywhere in Scotland is a bit like Clark Gable’s breath: you don’t see it in the publicity shots. But when you look closer, it’s everywhere. And it stinks.
You’d think that, at least around the Scottish Government’s own HQ at Victoria Quay in Leith and VisitScotland’s swanky office block at Ocean Terminal, some effort would be made to keep the streets cleared of rubbish and the drains and gutters weed-free. You’d be wrong.
On our litter-picks around Victoria Quay and Ocean Drive, we’ve collected bags of litter that have been mouldering there for years. We’ve been appalled at the weeds that choke the drains and spring up around traffic islands. What must foreign delegations think when they arrive to meet Scottish Government or VisitScotland officials? Or are they blindfolded until they’re safely in the building? And what about the staff? Is it beneath their dignity to pick up other people’s litter and put it in the nearest bin? The truth is, litter isn’t sexy. Our bigwigs don’t care enough to invest the necessary resources to get rid of it. They seem perfectly happy to let it lie where it falls, even around the very office buildings they enter and exit each day.
However, the powers-that-be may have met their match in George Niblock. George is a tireless anti-litter crusader who is about to take the Scottish Government and Scottish local authorities to court, saying, with some justification, that they’re in breach of the 1990 Environmental Protection Act, Section 91, which states that a Sheriff Court “may act on a complaint made by any person on the ground that he is aggrieved by the defacement by litter or refuse of: any relevant highway, any trunk road, any relevant land of a principal litter authority . . .” (and on it goes, I won’t bore you with the full list). I caught up with George to find out what’s driven him to take legal action against his own government:
George, you’ve devoted around 50 years of your life to litter. What keeps you going?
I had a very demanding job, latterly as the director of Environmental Health (and a depute director for years before that). For 15 or so years I acted as an adviser to the Scottish Government, to CoSLA and to SEPA. I also assisted Keep Scotland Beautiful and was invited to join them last year at the European Litter conference in Brussels. In the years up until I retired, I had the chance to influence things and make them right on a local and national scale. But over the past 14 years I have witnessed this decline in the state of our streets and public spaces. I am aware of these breaches in the law and I can’t in all conscience allow them to go unchallenged.
Do you appreciate that there might be another side to the story? In other words, that our local authorities might be doing the best they can with ever-shrinking resources?
I know the budgets inside out. I know that there are certain things that councils have to do by law, irrespective of cost: a) educate every child b) house the homeless c) look after those in social need and d) keep streets and open spaces clean. All of these and more are mandatory and money is not a factor. Street cleansing impacts on public health, both physical and mental; on community wellbeing; on crime; on tourism; on business investment; on road safety and so much more. I am frankly ashamed of the state of our capital city, my own birthplace. I’m ashamed of the state of the rural landscapes in Scotland and the roads that lead us there on holiday, their verges littered with crisp wrappers, coffee cups and worse.
As a last resort, you’ve decided to take your local authority (and the Scottish Government) to court. Surely they’re just going to turn round and say: “Here are the days on our official cleansing schedule when the bin motors and barrow boys go out and on those days, the streets are clean. If people dirty them again, you can’t pin that on us.”
I don’t believe that’s a valid response. The Code Of Practice On Litter And Refuse has timescales for rectification and we can demonstrate that they have failed. In fact, on many occasions the evidence is not just of failure but of total collapse of the service – or even a service that is chronically dysfunctional.
What chance do you stand of winning? The local authorities will spend a fortune to clear their names. You’ve launched a crowdfunding exercise to raise just £5000. That’s a drop in the ocean compared to their financial resources, isn’t it?
Each case will cost £80 plus legal fees. Our claims are expected to be several hundreds of pounds and if we win we can claim our expenses back. We’ll lose some cases but we’ll learn and do it better next time. The Act Of Parliament and the guidance are clear: these aren’t actually court cases, they’re applications to a Sheriff in Scotland for an order to get all these messes cleared up. We’ve appointed our legal team and we have our plan in place. We’ve come this far; we’re not stopping now.
If you’d like to help George Niblock take the Scottish Government and his local council to court for failing to keep our roads and streets clean, please donate to his JustGiving page at: www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/aberdeenshire-litter-initiative?utm_id=2&utm_term=29pVRVXek