Lord Henley's speech at the Eco-Schools Conference

It's a pleasure to be here and applaud this successful initiative.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The Rt Hon Lord Henley

It’s a pleasure to be here and applaud this successful initiative. Eco-Schools was launched in this country 15 years ago, and there are now around 15,000 schools in the programme. Of these over 8000 have achieved an award. And over 1000 are flying the Green Flag. 

Why do we need Eco-Schools?

For the same reason we need an eco-Government.

Because if we don’t start respecting the natural environment, we will damage it beyond repair.

The prime minister has pledged that this government will be the greenest government ever. A big promise - but it’s also an imperative. Everything and everyone is connected by a reliance on natural resources, on nature. We have to understand these connections and work with rather than against the natural world. As we recover from the recession our new economy must be low carbon, resource efficient and environmentally friendly.

My department, Defra, is, if you like, the green heart of government. We work on all the topics the Eco-Schools programme promotes, with other government departments, with our partner organisations, and with businesses, local authorities and NGOs.

And, just as schools assess their environmental performance, so do government departments. Defra works to ensure that all of government leads by example: reducing our carbon and environmental footprint in the running of our buildings, in our procurement choices, in our use of resources and in our travel.

I and my fellow ministers at Defra have been in post for around six weeks now. And we’ve already started work. Waste is one of the biggest environmental challenges facing this country. We’ve already announced a full review of waste policy, to find the most effective ways of reducing waste, and how to help the waste and recycling sector thrive. And also how waste policies affect local communities and individual households, how to encourage local effort, local innovation, local pride.

In the Coalition Programme, Defra is specifically charged with working towards a zero waste economy, encouraging paying people to recycle - and working to reduce littering.

Changing behaviour and attitudes is of paramount importance here. If from an early age children are taught to do the right thing then it becomes second nature. There’s even an increased chance they’ll continue with this type of behaviour into adulthood. Who knows they might even show their parents how they can change their behaviour.

It’s clear Keep Britain Tidy see the connection here. That’s why they’ve campaigned so hard to improve local environments and reduce litter through the Eco-Schools programme.

A high number of Eco-Schools saw the benefits in this approach too. Many chose to tackle litter first. It’s a very visible problem, so it’s easy to see collective behaviour change produce real, tangible results. And those results can inspire the community as a whole.

I also want to make litter an early priority. It’s a massive environmental problem. But it has a wider impact too. This type of behaviour is symptomatic of our “throwaway culture”. It’s having a direct effect on how we as a society react and relate to our surroundings. 

We just have to look at the amount of food litter that blows around the streets of our towns and cities to get an idea of what we are up against. Add this to the health hazards from the rats, foxes and other pests, attracted to the litter and you get an idea of the scale of the problem.

And litter is incredibly expensive. The cost of street cleaning is £780 million a year. That’s around £35 pounds for every single household that pays council tax in England. For that we could build three new hospitals, 32 new schools or put another 20,000 constables on the beat. Every single year.

And litter is self-perpetuating. What happens to pile of rubbish on a street corner? It grows. Within a day or two, a small collection of drink cans and food wrappers can double. If a place is already dirty and litter-strewn, why bother looking for a bin?

Conversely, in a tidy, litter-free area, people will stop and think before they drop something on the ground.

Stopping litter is totally dependent on changing individuals’ behaviour. And this is a challenge because, in a litter-strewn area, the individual person thinks, I’m not going to change anything by not dropping this thing on the ground. One person can’t make a difference.

The challenge is to get the message through that, yes, one person can. Because if that one person joins with others, a huge difference can be made. Collectively people can stop litter and regain pride in their neighbourhood and community.

And this is where Eco-Schools can be so valuable.

Children are the generation who need to get it right. If we are getting the message across to children, instigating habits, attitudes and values right from the start, then we are creating a future for the environment, and for them.

But Eco-Schools are not just getting messages to children. They are spreading the word much wider. A school is often the heart of a community. The attitudes and behaviours emanating from the school will affect the aesthetic and the atmosphere of its surroundings. A school can be a perpetrator of litter and vandalism, for example - or it can lead the way in tidying up.

And what is government’s role on litter? 

Of course local authorities have their own powers and responsibilities regarding litter, which is as it should be. All local areas are different, and it’s the people who know and work in that area who will come up with the best solutions to its problems.

So central government must support local authorities by empowering them. And also by challenging them. By asking the question, “Are you making full use of your existing powers to address the problem?”

We also need to challenge business, particularly retail and fast food businesses, to help them contribute by changing the design of their products, packaging and services to reduce their ‘litterability’ - to reduce the possibility of litter from the outset.

Fast food litter is a blight that spoils 1 in 4 of our streets, parks and shopping areas. Companies such as McDonalds and Greggs are taking the challenge of fast food litter seriously and targeting money at helping to make it easy for their customers not to drop litter. It would be great to see more businesses of this kind follow their lead.

I also want to encourage businesses to support and sponsor the local efforts of others. Again, Eco-Schools provides a leading light. The EDF sponsorship of the energy topic. The HSBC’s staff volunteering project. And the pilot project with Homebase. All partnerships that work for everyone involved, with the common aim of protecting and enhancing the environment. And, very importantly given the public deficit, at no cost to the taxpayer.

The litter problem must be solved. At the same time, given the economic climate, we have to question current levels of spend. In the autumn we’ll be reviewing with local authorities and some of our most engaged businesses what has been achieved and how to move forward. I want us all to work together to create a joint approach that is affordable and sustainable, and make a real difference to people’s lives.

Litter is one of the many hugely important issues eco-schools are tackling. It is also one of the many hugely important issues government is tackling.

Eco-Schools must keep up the good work, growing a new generation of environmentalists, and making connections throughout local communities. As this eco-Government does all it can to, through green businesses and communities, to grow the new green economy.

Published 23 June 2010