Funny, the morning after I posted about the state of Floyd Road, there’s a whole load of crap dumped on my doorstep… this was Priolo Road, Charlton, at midday today.
The council truck came within about two minutes of me calling them – now that’s service! – well, someone had already reported it. I suspect the dumpers planned to use nearby Wellington Gardens, a flytipping blackspot, but since that’s been taken over by Thames Water for its marathon session of roadworks, Priolo Road probably offered a more convenient spot.
This is, unfortunately, what you get when you don’t clean the streets properly – or, to quote the famous US example by James Q Wilson and George L Kenning, fix a broken window:
Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.
Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.
And this is exactly what has happened to Charlton over the past few years. The people responsible for this, you might like to know, are council cabinet member for neighbourhood services Maureen O’Mara – whose clean-up of weeds in nearby Highcombe led to them being strewn all over the road – and director of neighbourhood services Jim Wintour. And, of course, you and me, because we’re also responsible for keeping an eye on what goes on in our front yard. However, when the council fails to back us up, the whole system falls apart. I’ll give them some credit for there have been some small improvements in this area in recent weeks – a weekly sweep seems to have reappeared after whole months passed without the street seeing a broom, but even that’s not good enough, with the debris left behind from weekly bin collections left lying around for days.
I appreciate it’s tough for local councils. Across the water, Waltham Forest Council is lambasted for offering cash rewards to people who report litterers and fly-tippers by the Daily Mail, which decides to take the side of vandals because it gives them a chance to have a pop at a local council. Fly-tippers and the like should face the strongest possible punishments – at the very least, the vehicles they use should be confiscated. But in a country led by the opinions of the Daily Mail, the vandal is king, and the person who has the job of cleaning up is the loser.
So, in a climate where a right-wing media backs vandals and a Labour council can’t be arsed to pull its finger out, what can you do? From my experience, here’s some advice on the way to get things done.
1) Don’t e-mail the council – you’ll be left waiting days. This is where it all went wrong for me in the first place. Greenwich Council routes all its e-mails through a “contact centre”, which merely sends the e-mail to another inbox where it is likely to be left ignored. Unlike neighbouring Lewisham, communication via internet is not its strong point. Using web service FixMyStreet.com records the complaint in public, but council staff don’t seem to have internet access so can’t see photos uploaded there. If you e-mail the council, you’re wasting your time. (Take a look at the Love Lewisham blog to see how our neighbours are light years ahead of Greenwich – putting power into the hands of people.)
2) Call the council instead – 020 8921 4661. It’s a pain if you’re at work far outside the area, like I used to be, but the only real way to get a response is to call direct. The call centre staff, on the whole, are pretty good. They are, however, only a call centre so can’t answer queries, but can put you through elsewhere or, better still, give you a name.
3) Try to get the name of a council officer. If you can get someone’s name, you’re likely to be going places with your query. Drop them a friendly e-mail – firstname.lastname@example.org – and explain you’ve been having problems. Chances are, they probably haven’t been made aware of what’s been going on. One senior officer even told me he’d divert through my street on his way home to make sure it’d been cleaned.
4) Contact your local councillors. I give Greenwich councillors a lot of stick here, particularly Labour ones, because I don’t understand how they can stand under the banner of a local party that’s failing the borough so badly. But politicians are here today, gone tomorrow types, and they may well be hanging on and waiting for some more enlightened leadership under the same banner – some of those councillors were around when left-wing firebrands were running the place and getting ratecapped, and some may plan to be around when it isn’t sucking up to developers, publishing embarrassing propaganda rags and not clearing rubbish. In short – they may hate the system as much as you. And they can help. Drop all three a friendly line and see what responses you get. They may not be your political allies, but they can get things gone. Give them a chance.
5) Go public. All of the above fail? Start a blog. Didn’t you hear hyperlocal blogs are the new in-thing? Write to local papers (I know the Mercury and News Shopper aren’t brilliant, but they’ll appreciate the story ideas). Contact rival political parties if your leanings turn in those directions. If you can cause some embarrassment, some aggravation for someone down the line, you’ll eventually get the job done.
6) Go back to square one. You’ll have to do this from time to time. But it can be worth it, even if it’s arse-grindingly dull, and you end up feeling like the community pedant.
7) Use your vote in the next council election. Remember – you have the ultimate sanction over what gets done, and you’re due to get it on 6 May 2010. If all five options above don’t work, and you stay at home that day… don’t complain about a crappy council again.
Got any other tips? I figured I should try a more constructive angle on this issue, so it’ll be good to hear other people’s experiences.