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London is losing the battle to keep on top of ugly street clutter and mess

City Voices (ES)
City Voices (ES)

Last week the business pages of this newspaper reported the exciting news that London Tunnels plc is gearing up to float on the London Stock Exchange. This new company plans to transform a series of once secret tunnels under Holborn into an impressive new visitor attraction. It has earmarked a £200 million plus investment that will allow people to explore at first hand below ground, the history and drama associated with our secret services during both the Second World War and the during the Cold War years.

Meanwhile at street level in central London, a battle of another sort continues. It involves not so much spooks and spies, as business improvement districts and local authorities on the one hand and companies behind half-abandoned phone boxes, badly finished roadworks, commercial waste services and hire bikes on the other.

As many readers will know, too often, workers, visitors, residents and yes - prospective investors - in our city centre are greeted with levels of filth and squalor that would not look out of place in Dickensian London. With a handful of notable exceptions such as the City of London, Canary Wharf and the Great Estates, levels of street mess and chaos here are sufficiently widespread to make walking, shopping, pushing a stroller or using a wheelchair an unpleasant experience. Worse still, these conditions provide the perfect environment for other forms of anti-social behaviour and criminal activity to thrive. True to “broken window” theory, many central London streets risk increasingly becoming unregulated spaces where (almost) anything goes.

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This is why a recent report from the think tank Centre for London (sponsored by a number of business improvement districts including the Central District Alliance, South Bank BID and Heart of London) is so important. It gives voice to Londoners, workers and visitors to Zone 1 who face an often-unpleasant obstacle course when they use London’s streets. The report makes the case for tougher powers and penalties that councils could adopt to tame these problems. Not only would these act as a deterrent to bad behaviour, they could help generate resources needed to help look after our pavements and roads more effectively. Annual charges on the utilities, stronger local powers to remove phone boxes (surely one of the most egregious examples of corporate irresponsibility we know) and sorting out commercial waste collections are explored. Encouraging boroughs to use the existing powers they have with a greater sense of urgency to penalise the utilities for overdue and shoddy roadworks could also make a difference. Create Streets, a charity has recently launched a campaign on this very matter.

Some might argue that the state of London’s streets doesn’t really matter. That stepping over piles of rubbish or skirting round a foul-smelling phone box day in and day out doesn’t affect the economy much. But time and time again London businesses and residents tell us that offering a safe, clean welcoming environment for everyone is good for the environment and good for business. To leave things as they are risks long term damage to our city’s reputation and the quality of life of its citizens.

Travel further afield and you will see other cities are already battling to improve their public realm. New York City no less, has not only removed all its phone-boxes but is implementing radical plans to containerise all street rubbish and sort out the free-for-all in commercial collection services.

At a time when London’s business improvement districts and local government are trying hard to invest in place-making schemes for central London and attract jobs and investment to the city, ignoring the opportunity to tackle these problems would be a big mistake. In the words of the leading economist J.K. Galbraith, London’s streets risk becoming places of “private opulence and public squalor.” Whether we are trying to encourage investment above ground or below, for London’s sake, this is one war we need to win.

Alexander Jan is Chair of the Central District Alliance and Hatton Garden business improvement districts and chief economic advisor to the London Property Alliance

Link to report can be found here: https://centreforlondon.org/publication/reducing-street-clutter/

Alexander Jan (Alexander Jan)
Alexander Jan (Alexander Jan)