Litter louts are free to pollute some parts of Northern Ireland with little or no chance of being punished, new figures suggest.
More than 3,200 fines were handed out to offenders in the last year — but the prospect of being caught varies widely depending on where you live.
A quarter of local councils issued less than one fixed penalty notice a month for littering, according to statistics obtained by this newspaper.
One authority, Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council, issued just one fine in the whole of 2011/12.
The figures emerged as a new survey reveals the filthy state of some Northern Ireland streets.
Tidy NI found more than one in 10 streets still fails to meet the government standard for litter.
It was the most comprehensive survey of litter in Northern Ireland, covering 52km and collecting data from all 26 council areas.
However, it’s not clear if there is any correlation between enforcement and less litter as the cost of cleaning up continues to rise across all council areas.
The latest littering figures have revealed that councils were forced to spend a total of almost £40m on street cleansing in 2010/11 — a shocking 14% increase on the previous year when it was £34m.
In 2008/9, the figure stood at £31.4m, showing the surge in litter clean-up is rocketing well above the rate of inflation.
Tidy NI’s chief executive, Ian Humphreys, called for more action against litter louts.
“Without adequate enforcement there is a minority of people who will continue to rubbish Northern Ireland unchecked and we all end up paying the price,” Dr Humphreys said.
He added that the law needed to be applied by every council.
“Currently this is not the case and in some places dropping litter is highly likely to go unseen and unpunished,” he said.
“The term postcode lottery comes to mind.”
Figures collected by the Department of Environment show 3,268 fines were issued across Northern Ireland during 2011/12.
Around 80% of those were issued by two councils — Belfast (1,534) and Craigavon (1,046).
Yet many other authorities appear to be more lenient.
While Dungannon council issued just one fixed penalty notice, Ballymoney, Limavady and North Down issued only four each.
Moyle handed out just five fines while Fermanagh issued eight.
The results come after it was revealed that many of the councils are also not making full use of anti-littering laws.
Environment Minister Alex Attwood recently said that there have been 176 council prosecutions for littering since 2010 — yet 16 of the 26 councils have not prosecuted anyone for littering in the past two years.
Of those prosecutions, 106 were made by Belfast City Council alone, followed by Craigavon with 36 cases and Newtownabbey with 14. The rest were in single figures. The councils insisted that they were committed to punishing litter offenders when contacted by this newspaper.
However, Green Party MLA Steven Agnew said it was clear that some councils take littering more seriously than others.
“There is no point having legislation to deal with littering if it is not being enforced,” he said.
“This is not a trivial issue. The state of the environment plays a key role in not only public health, both physical and mental, but also on the local economy.
“If towns and cities are in a state of disrepair through dereliction and littering (they will be) less likely to attract tourists or business investment."
Tackling anti-social littering behaviour is essential, particularly as we see the annual cost of street cleansing, now at £38m, continuing to rise.
But cost is just the tip of the iceberg.
People are less likely to want to walk in dirty neighbourhoods and their health suffers. Tourists are less likely to want to return to a country where its people show no love of where they live and our prosperity suffers.
Businesses will not invest in a place that is strewn with litter and employment rates suffer.
Thankfully, campaigns such as the Big Spring Clean, supported by the Belfast Telegraph, Department of Environment and all 26 councils, have shown that many people want a cleaner, greener place to live and are willing to do something positive about it.
Civic pride is alive and well and is already helping the guilty litterers to change their habits.
There is certainly more we can do here that will make a big impact.
Sadly though, there are still people who will continue to drop litter and for them the only ‘cure’ is enforcement.
This needs common application across Northern Ireland so that everyone understands there is a chance of being caught and fined or even prosecuted.
Currently this is not the case and in some places dropping litter is highly likely to go unseen and unpunished.
The term ‘postcode lottery’ comes to mind.
Of course, fixed penalty notice figures for councils cannot be viewed in isolation.
It would be expected that areas with cleaner streets would need to issue fewer fines, but the reality is that not all areas seem to be providing sufficient resources for enforcement.
Are we really willing to tolerate this behaviour?
Without adequate enforcement there is a minority of people who will continue to rubbish Northern Ireland unchecked and we all end up paying the price.
Ian Humphreys is chief executive of Tidy Northern Ireland
Dungannon & South Tyrone: 1
Newry & Mourne: 89
North Down: 4
TOTAL: 3,268* Source: Department of Environment