Published: 16:45, 23 June 2020
| Updated: 17:29, 23 June 2020
Litter and nitrous oxide cannisters strewn across a beach pose a "public health risk" amid the coronavirus pandemic, residents say.
Furious beach-goers, councillors and the local MP have called for action to tackle the issue in Whitstable as more people flock to the seaside amid an easing of lockdown measures.
It has further angered locals amid reports of anti-social behaviour, speeding cars and nitrous oxide-use in central Whitstable.
The surge in litter has been blamed on large groups of up to 70 people blaring loud music - who have been gathering on the seafront near The Pearson's Arms and the west quay at the harbour.
On Saturday, police were forced to use a dispersal order on various areas of the town to clear groups from the seafront and deter further disturbances.
But the aftermath shocked beach-goers the following morning as they arrived to find piles of litter - including balloons and cannisters - scattered across the beach and surrounding areas.
Author and local campaigner, Julie Wassmer, says residents are being exposed to a public health risk from the coronavirus with the "unacceptable amount" of litter being "recklessly" dumped.
She alluded to a study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, that found Covid-19 can live for up to three days on plastic and steel surfaces.
"Although cases of coronavirus have decreased, there is still a risk to those who remain exposed to this rubbish - whether it’s young children walking past it or those at Serco who have to pick it up," the 67-year-old said.
Locals have called for drastic action in a bid to tackle the issue and have pleaded to the police and local authorities to help.
Volunteers at Whitstable's Marine Environment Group have picked up nearly three tonnes of litter from Whitstable beach since 2016 and have been left "dismayed" by the recent surge in litter.
“Most weekends the beach is well used and more so when the weather is warm," a spokesperson said.
"But of late, large groups of up to 70 people have congregated on the beach to drink and party irrespective of the social distancing rules still in place.
"To be honest, if they left nothing but footprints it wouldn’t be so bad - but the amount of debris left needs to be seen to be believed."
The group have not been able to do its usual monthly beach cleans since lockdown started.
But volunteers say they are trying to do the best they can.
Many have demanded more enforcement in the area - by both police and the city council's enforcement officers.
Cllr Ashley Clark (Con) branded the litter culprits "selfish and irresponsible" - and called for more police officers to patrol the area.
"The odd thing is the people seem to have the strength of Russian weightlifters when it comes to bringing their drinks," the Seasalter councillor said.
"But the process turns them into four-stone weaklings when it comes to taking it away."
He blamed the issue on the government for not continuing to impose a geographical limit on how far people can travel.
Cllr Clark has proposed implementing public space protection orders to be imposed on the beach - which includes measures to restrict people using nitrous oxide cannisters in the area.
They allow the council’s enforcement officers and the police to issue fines for anti-social behaviour.
Whitstable MP Rosie Duffield has called for police and councils to take urgent action after a "huge rise" in littering and antisocial behaviour.
In a letter penned jointly with local councillors, she has demanded action be taken after reports boy racers and yobs binging on laughing gas are causing a "nightmare" for residents.
Ms Duffield also urges councils to try out new "big belly" bins and larger rubbish collection, in an effort to clamp down on litter which has blighted the town's seafront following recent sunny weekends.
In the letter - addressed to Kent's Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Scott, county councillor Mark Dance, and Canterbury City Council chief executive Colin Carmichael - the MP says the issues have been exacerbated by the lockdown, which has left many people "with little else to do apart from come to the beach".
"We know the police moved one group of around 80 people away from three different locations over the course of the evening of June 20," she writes
"Despite this, local residents are reporting that they feel increasingly scared and intimidated to walk down by the beach at sunset, describing it as a 'no-go area' for their family and friends."
She also brands current bin arrangements along the seafront "insufficient", and calls for Canterbury City Council to trial "big belly bins", and to introduce more litter receptacles at spots with high footfall.
She writes: "These solar-powered bins compact rubbish, taking up to eight times as much waste as conventional bins. They communicate with authorities to 'tell' rubbish collection services when they are nearly full.
"We are also asking that there is extra capacity in the seafront refuse collections during summer weekends and sunny weekdays until the end of August.
"With so many people working from home and furloughed, the beach is an attractive and cheap day out; we need to adapt our own practice so that it stays a clean, welcoming and safe day out too," she adds.
Ms Duffield's letter is co-signed by Whitstable Labour councillors Valerie Kenny, George Caffery and Chris Cornell.
Responding to the letter, Canterbury City Council's chief executive Colin Carmichael said the relaxation of lockdown has exacerbated litter issues.
He said the council have tried using bigger bins over the years - but residents complained to say they are "ugly" and make too much noise when they are closed.
"Emptying larger bins poses logistical challenges for Serco as it is virtually impossible to get the larger vehicles needed along the beach walkway," he added.
"Then there is the danger as the pandemic eases that bigger bins will get in the way and make social distancing much more difficult especially on very busy days in and around the most-popular areas which also act as pinch points."
He said the council is hoping to consult on whether public spaces protection orders need to be strengthened in order to tackle problems like the increased use of nitrous oxide canisters.
"Not only is their use dangerous but it inevitably generates enormous amounts of litter," he added.
Insp Guy Thompson, of Canterbury's community safety unit, said police received reports of a group playing loud music near Island Wall and in other areas of the seafront on Saturday evening.
"Officers attended and a dispersal order was put in place at 7.50pm to clear the area and deter any further disturbance.
Watch: Fight at Whitstable west quay earlier this month
"A team of officers remained in the area for the rest of the evening, carrying out visible patrols and engaging with and dispersing some groups of people.
"We do not underestimate the impact that anti-social behaviour can have on people's lives and we are tackling the issue along with partner agencies."
He said officers are working to strike a balance between allowing people to enjoy themselves but intervening when their actions make an area "frightening".
"We ask residents, as well as parents and guardians, to continue to work with us and report any incidents so we can ensure Whitstable remains a safe and happy place to live and work," he added.