Terence Blacker: I spy a fly-tipper. And a litter bug ...

Nothing exercises the British more than interference with their rubbish

Some surprisingly positive news has emerged from local government. Across Britain, councils have been reviving the spirit of adventure and self-entertainment which many thought had died in the age of the computer; I-Spy, that game for all the family, is back.

At least 17 councils are encouraging adults and children to play I-spy when it comes to litter, fly-tipping, graffiti, excessive noise and other environmental crimes. Having made a note of the details, they then make a little report to the authorities. With a bit of luck, this amateur sleuthing will bring environmental villains of one kind or another to justice.

The recruitment of citizens as "environment volunteers" has caused a flurry of concern among those who are alarmed – quite rightly – about the erosion of individual liberties. They see the policy as a sneak's charter, the final triumph of the Crimewatch culture. They argue that enrolling children as young as seven to be "Junior Street Champions" will turn them into sanctimonious little Esther Rantzens, forever scolding us for our sins.

Yet, rather to my surprise, I find myself warming to the project.

The idea of getting people involved in the running of their community is eminently sensible. Belatedly, councils have begun to realise it is the alienated who tend to behave badly. A spirit of positive nimbyism is needed: a campaign to show that taking action to make one's backyard a fairer and more pleasant place has greater value, and gives more personal satisfaction, than any amount of pointless, generalised moaning.

The volunteers – 8,442 and rising – are not snoops or grasses. They are people who have woken up to the fact that becoming involved in small-scale community activity is a direct, unfussy way of countering the selfishness of a wider society.

Unfortunately, a good idea has been badly presented. Because we live in a culture hooked on punishment and revenge, the message has been about enforcement and getting others into trouble. The grim spectre of people spying on their neighbour's recycling habits has been invoked – and nothing gets the British more exercised than interference in the way they disperse their rubbish.

It was naïve of Islington Council to give its volunteers the sinister-sounding name of "Eyes for Islington". That "Junior Street Champions" tag for young recruits is even more Orwellian, echoing rather creepily the Junior Anti-Sex League of 1984. It is hardly surprising that critics, and possibly some volunteers themselves, have begun to see the policy as the government encouraging citizens to police their neighbours – the polar opposite of community spirit.

It is not too late for councils to shift the emphasis. The idea that doing something for one's own community is more useful and satisfying than gazing with impotent rage at the bigger picture is not such a stupid one. Those who report litter may even one day do the thing which is commonplace in other countries, but not our own – pick it up.

Encouraging children to be environmental observers is not to corrupt them. It is a long shot but, just possibly, handing out pencils, giving them badges and encouraging them to think of others may help them grow up to be happier, less selfish adults.