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High Sheriff of Essex: why I’m targeting the menace of litter


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Pick it up! The message from James Bettley, High Sheriff of Essex, is clear

The High Sheriff joins the 4th Rochford Scouts!

Dr James Bettley, High Sheriff of Essex, has chosen to make litter one of the themes of his year in office. Here he writes for CPRE Essex on why he feels so strongly about the issue and tells how he has been joining volunteers across the county as they tackle a seemingly ever-present scourge.

For many people I suspect litter is something of a first-world, middle-class problem, all about keeping our villages and countryside neat and tidy.
The very name Keep Britain Tidy, with its Great British Spring Clean, suggests the living room rather than the great outdoors – which is perhaps unfortunate, given the very important role played by that organisation in combatting litter and similar menaces.
But most people interested enough to be looking at this website will know that litter is about very much more than keeping the place looking nice.
Now that the verges along our roads and lanes are being given their summer cut, the horror of what has accumulated since last year is being revealed. There are glass bottles, which can cause serious injury or, in extreme cases, start fires. There are plastic items of all sorts, which, if left to decay, will eventually find their way into watercourses and out to sea and into the guts of fish and other sea creatures. There may be toxic waste such as asbestos, which is a hazard and expensive to remove. Aluminium cans, so easy to pick up and recycle in their original state, are shredded by the tractor mowers and present a different sort of problem.
Why should the High Sheriff, the Queen’s representative for law and order in the county, be interested in this, other than on a personal level?
As High Sheriff, my remit includes helping to reduce crime and antisocial behaviour, and, in very broad terms, encouraging those who make our communities safer places in which to live. At a basic level, leaving litter is a crime and its big brother, fly-tipping, is a much greater one.
But there is more to it than that. Litter breeds litter – people are more likely to drop litter where litter already is – and studies have shown that areas blighted by litter are more likely to be the setting for antisocial behaviour, just as broken windows and graffiti both indicate and engender criminal activity. Communities free of litter are likely to be safer communities, and more pleasant places in which to live in all sorts of ways.
So I decided I would make litter one of the themes of my year in office, and to do so in a hands-on way, by joining litter-picks across the county. The most encouraging thing I have discovered is that there are a great many groups in existence, some meeting regularly and frequently, others on an ad hoc basis at any time of year, others in response to the Great British Spring Clean.
One or two have even achieved a degree of fame: the Wickford Wombles, a group started in February 2018 by Tracy Menzies, now boasts more than 500 members and was featured recently on the BBC News website. I’m hoping to go out with them one day soon.
As it is, my experience so far reflects the variety of what’s going on. Back in April, I caught the tail-end of the 2019 Great British Spring Clean at Waltham Abbey, where Epping Forest District Council had organised a Community Clean-Up Day on the open space round the leisure centre.
It felt like the first warm day of the year and as it was the school holidays quite a few families had decided to make a day of it. The edges of the grassland were dotted with blobs of yellow as the volunteers went about their work in hi-vis tabards provided by the council.
Then in June, my wife Lucy and I spent a rather damp evening with the 4th Rochford Scouts, litter-picking round the playing fields at Hawkwell. Again, this was facilitated by the local council, in this case Rochford, thanks to Councillor Julie Gooding.
The rain did not dampen the enthusiasm of the Scouts and we ended up at the recycling bins, where they cheerfully sorted as much of the rubbish as they could (a drawback with litter-picking can be that the rubbish is not sorted and recycled).
I’m now discussing with the County Commissioner of Essex Scouts a plan for a mass litter-pick by Scouts as part of next year’s Great British Spring Clean.
The other Sunday saw us on the beach at Jaywick, where Tendring District Council had organised a litter-pick in association with the Marine Conservation Society.
This meant that as well as picking up the litter, we recorded what it was on a form with tick-boxes ranging from pens to pallets to paint tins. By weight, the bulk of what we collected was plastic of one sort or another; cigarette stubs were the most prolific items.
So it’s fair to say that a lot is being done to pick up other people’s litter, both by individuals and by local councils, and this may in itself discourage people from dropping more – but there’s always going to be a job for litter-pickers.
I hope that as High Sheriff I can support those who are already doing it and encourage others to join. It’s actually a very social activity, like going for a walk in a group but with a practical purpose of benefit to the wider community.
I’m also using my litter-picking to raise money for the High Sheriff’s Fund; to find out more, and to make a donation, please go to my Virgin Money Giving page.

Dr James Bettley JP DL FSA, High Sheriff of Essex 2019-2020: Originally from Kent, Dr James Bettley has lived in Essex since 1991. He is an architectural historian with many publications to his merit; his particular interest is church buildings. He was appointed Deputy Lieutenant of Essex in 2013.
Dr Bettley recently walked the Essex Way from Epping to Harwich and at one time or another has covered most of the county’s coastlines and riverbanks.