By Derek Robertson, chief executive, Keep Scotland Beautiful

HOW a country supports and encourages its most disadvantaged is a major test of its priorities – and how well we look after our environment should be a big issue for us all. Put both together and you get to the heart of a striking piece of research which we at Keep Scotland Beautiful released today.

The report is an update to a previous version issued in the spring of 2016, which examined the quality of local environments in communities across the whole of Scotland. It identified that, for the first time in a decade, recorded levels of litter, graffiti, dog fouling, flytipping and detritus/weed growth had taken a significant turn for the worse. After an impressive 10 years of gradual improvement, Scotland’s streets and open spaces were dirtier than they were the year before. We called for a new sense of national purpose to change the behaviour that results in litter being dropped, and wider damage to our environment.

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The pursuit of a cleaner and greener environment is a worthy one in itself, but it has so many wider benefits. Cleaner streets are now clearly linked to better self-esteem, lower crime rates, enhanced health outcomes, and a better base from which businesses and employment are likely to flow. It’s a cause that we should all endorse, and want for all our communities.

All the more striking then that this year’s updated report has highlighted a further overall decline in standards, and that the cleanliness of the environment is falling fastest in our poorest communities. That highlights the significant public policy challenge that is a million people in Scotland living in communities that are blighted by litter, graffiti and the rest. That can’t be acceptable, and we should all be determined to change it. The question is obvious, what can we do to turn this worrying trend around?

The first challenge is to each and every one of us. We need to recognise that environmental incivilities – whether it is dropping litter, failing to pick up after our dogs, or flytipping – is an individual failure, and is usually illegal. Each is caused by someone having too little respect for our environment and too little motivation to do the right thing. We need to change that, and it’s a change that challenges each of us. Frankly, too few of us are angry about the condition of our local environment when it fails to meet the high standards we should expect.

Secondly, there is a challenge for policymakers and government to see the damaging effect of declining standards and take the action that is necessary to turn it round. Public sector spending reductions have inevitably impacted on our ability as a nation to clean up after those whose irresponsibility causes the problem. However, as the Keep Scotland Beautiful report makes clear, dirty communities have consequences, and cleaning them up will have real preventative spending benefits across a range of policy areas. To take just one example, given the focus on mental health awareness last week, how much might be saved by creating the cleaner and greener communities that encourage better mental health outcomes, without further intervention?

Most of all, it is the unfairness exposed in this report that should shock us all. Communities facing wider challenges of unemployment, poor health outcomes and fear of crime deserve our focus in turning round their declining environmental standards.

We cannot turn a blind eye to this social injustice, and need to up our game on improving personal behaviour and develop a national focus on tackling this problem. It’s time to get angry, and act.