Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of Croydon

By - Tuesday 19th January, 2016

Robert Ward couldn’t keep away from another story about rubbish, politics, and statistics

A recent story on street cleaning in Croydon combined street cleanliness, fairness, analysis and politics. Even two of them would have been hard for me to avoid, four was irresistible.

The report in the Croydon Advertiser told how Croydon Council had cut street cleaning in the south of the borough and increased it in the north. Most residential roads in the south are now cleaned every six weeks instead of every four, while parts of the north are now cleared every fortnight, three times as often as parts of the south. There was no consultation, not even an announcement on the change, contrasting sharply with Labour election pledges to be clean, green and transparent.

When challenged, Councillor Stuart Collins claimed that the changes are sensible and logical given that the litter hotspots are in the north. He attributed this to the more transient population who toss things on the floor because they don’t feel that they have a stake in the area. He also threw in the usual ‘Tory cuts’ line used by the council to abdicate responsibility for everything.

 We can only try to influence the wrongdoers through education, peer pressure and fines

Before venturing too deep into the politics, let’s look at the problem and try to figure out the right thing to do. We can start by accepting that parts of the north of the borough had a litter problem when the street cleaning frequency was uniform across the borough. Clearly more litter is being dropped in those areas than in others, assuming that it isn’t being blown in from elsewhere. Our options to improve the situation are to reduce the amount being dropped, pick it up more often or some combination.

Reducing the amount dropped is the most attractive but also the most difficult. We can only try to influence the wrongdoers through education, peer pressure and fines. Different options for litter bins can also play a part, giving the litterers less of an excuse to just drop on the street. The quick-fix of more frequent collection carries with it the risk of making things worse because by doing so we may encourage more bad behaviour – I drop it, but who cares because the council picks it up anyway?

The council, to its credit, is trying all of the above in some measure, although Councillor Collins excusing litter louts because of their lack of a stake in the area is not helpful. There are many areas where I have no stake. I do not drop litter in any of them.

The council need to be held to account particularly strenuously on this matter

A targeted temporary increase in collection frequency in this context is not, in my opinion, an unreasonable option, and nor is reducing frequency in other areas. Again a personal opinion, I do not believe that on such a matter we need to be consulted. I do think we should have been informed. But consultation notwithstanding is this fair?

I look out of my window and see one small piece of paper on my neighbours’ lawn in an otherwise clean street. This is not unusual. Nobody here drops litter. A nearby bus stop causes extra litter and the bin men usually scatter a few items but someone from the street usually picks it up. Do we need street cleaning every month? No, but should we pay more so that others, more lazy and inconsiderate than us, will have less dirty streets? No also. One for the Fairness Commission perhaps (I jest)?

There’s no simple answer here, which is why we elect councils to balance conflicting needs and to make judgements. Their job is to strike a balance and every four years to subject those choices to the electorate. The opposition’s job is to hold them to account and at election time to put forward an alternative. On the matter of street cleanliness Labour made great play of the performance of the previous Tory-led council. They therefore need to be held to account particularly strenuously on this matter.

To their credit, the council is publishing statistics on flytipping. But not on this

Council press releases claim that the problem is being attacked on all fronts. What we don’t know is whether the tools at the council’s disposal are being deployed in the right areas at the right level. If more frequent collection is the only change in the hotspots then this is unlikely to change the behaviour of the litter louts. My comparison with other London councils shows Croydon still lags behind on the ‘stick’ of issuing fines. In areas of significant littering this should be an effective weapon because it is by definition a target rich environment. Let’s see some more of that being deployed.

Ultimately the question is whether all this is making a difference. Unlike flytipping on which (again to their credit) the council is publishing statistics, there is no published measure. Councillor Collins quotes the number of bags of rubbish picked up at the hotspots so there is an option, although cost may be an issue.

In the long term success can be measured by whether the frequency of street cleaning in the hotspots can be reduced over time. If that happens I shall not complain about my reduced street cleaning; if not then it’s not working, for which the council must be held responsible, along of course with the litter louts.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Anne Giles

    Litter louts will always be litter louts. Years’ ago, when I was a member of the Selsdon Park Hotel open air pool, the hotel were offering cheap week-end breaks. The week-end guests used to lie and sit on loungers near the pool and often near a rubbish bin, yet would chuck their drinks cans and cigarette ends on the grass, by the bin!

  • Sean Creighton

    The litter problem is a complex one.

    Part of it is people dropping litter as they finish their sweets, snacks and take-away food as they walk along the street even when passing by bins.

    Some motorists put the rubbish from their cars in the gutter when they park or just before they drive away.

    Some shopkeepers do not keep the pavement clean outside their premises; rubbish gets caught up in their pavement display and sitting areas.

    None of this is helped by people who leave black sacks on the pavement which foxes rip open. The wind does not help blowing litter all over the place.

    Overflowing bins which are not collected frequently enough add to this problem.. Bins are not adequate for many multi-occupied properties meaning they get overfull with the wind catching items.

    Street cleaning that does not happen the day after dustbin collection means that litter dropped or blow about from bins being collected is not dealt with for several days.

    Finally there is accidental dropping of litter when people take something out of their pockets and do not realise small items of e.g. paper or wrappers fall out at the same time.

    The denser the population the greater the amount of litter.

    When he started the anti-litter campaign Stuart Collins made it clear that if the new approach did not work it would be back to the drawing board. If the Tories has been ere-elected in 2014 they would be facing the same set of challenges, which they had not been on top of and was one of the reasons why they lost the election. It is in all our interests, regardless of our political views to see the problem reduce.

    Are there methods used by other Councils which Croydon could learn from? A mini-Scrutiny review by a Labour and Tory Councillor working together might be a useful initiative to find the information out.

    One issue that should looked at is the priorities for fixed penalties and why Croydon and other Councils are not following Government advice not to treat with fines very minor incidents like dropping a cigarette butt or a sweet wrapper, but e.g. by asking people to pick up what they have dropped rather than issuing a penalty notice.

    On the more serious issue of fly-tipping a major problem is having the evidence that proves that people are identified as culprits. The confiscation of vehicles that Croydon has been doing sends a powerful message.

    It may be that a law change is needed so that instead of financial penalties serious level offenders should have to do community service picking up litter and helping to collect fly-tipped items.

    • Robert Ward

      Thanks Sean.

      Although provision of suitable containers positioned in suitable places for people to put their rubbish is part of solution, ultimately it is the responsibility of the people who drop the litter. How to change their behaviour is the issue.

      Regarding the responsibility of the Council, they are put in power to do things to improve the situation. Money has been spent so far to little effect on flytipping, it has in fact got worse (article coming soon). Labour got in claiming that the Tories were not dealing with the problem. Labour must be judged on their performance.

      An interesting thought on a joint initiative. Thinking about it, this isn’t the way our political system works (not to say that is either good or bad). We elect a Council whose job it is to set priorities, make choices and implement them. They have the resources of the not inconsiderable number of Council employees and some pretty big budgets. If they make bad choices or fail to implement properly then we kick them out.