In his book Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight Against Filth, Lee Jackson highlights an intriguing paradox. He recalls that “In 1899, the Chinese ambassador was asked his opinion of Victorian London at the zenith of its imperial grandeur. He replied, laconically, ‘too dirty.’” Jackson also notes the observation of American journalist Mary H Krout, when visiting London for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. She found Londoners’ response to the dirt on their city’s streets “strangely apathetic”. Jackson notes that Krout believed “if the same conditions were visited upon Washington or New York, some solution would have been found”.
Fast forward to century and a quarter. The current Chinese ambassador Zheng Zeguang could be forgiven for coming to the same conclusion about London as his predecessor. American journalists too might, at least in private or in dinner parties, muse about how it is that so many of London’s streets still look quite so forlorn – others might say squalid. And here lies the paradox. London is in overall terms, a prosperous city. It is also one of the most handsome. Whether you are into symmetrical neoclassical facades or glass and steel towers, central London is a cornucopia of architectural assets. The city is adorned with ancient palaces and pretty townhouses, fine hotels and high-end retail establishments. Many of its public buildings and infrastructure, too, are top end.
But ascending from one of the often cathedral-like stations on the Elizabeth line or, for that matter, the Jubilee line too often you will be met with levels of filth and squalor and a level of urban disrepair that would not have been out of place in Dickensian London. With the exception of, perhaps, the City of London, Canary Wharf and the various great estates, roads and pavements are frequently coated with abandoned phone boxes, unending piles of commercial refuse, poor utility reinstatements and half-finished roadworks. Then there are the strewn hire bikes and e-scooters, left-behind traffic signs, “rocking” manhole covers (the curse of hotel guests and residents alike) plus fly-tipping and overflowing bins.
Granted, they are not everywhere but they are sufficiently widespread to make walking, pushing a pram or using a wheelchair an unpleasant, wearing experience. The combination of street level chaos and detritus provides the perfect backdrop for bad people to do bad things. True to “broken windows theory“, many central London streets have become unregulated spaces where almost anything goes. This is despite the continuing, valiant efforts of the boroughs, Transport for London and business improvement districts (BIDs) such as my own, the Central District Alliance (CDA).
That is why a new report from think tank Centre for London – sponsored by a number of BIDs including the CDA – is so important. It gives a voice to Londoners, workers and visitors to Zone 1 who face an obstacle course on many of central London’s streets. The report looks at providing local authorities with enhanced powers for bearing down on the causes of many of the problems street users encounter. It suggests the increased use of penalties and charges to help provide the resources needed to help clean up the mess.
Annual charges on the utilities, stronger local powers to jettison phone boxes – surely one of the most egregious examples of corporate irresponsibility we know – and rationalising commercial waste collections are all explored. Better co-ordination, guidance and leadership from the Greater London Authority are highlighted. To these we should add encouraging more boroughs to use the powers they already have, such as punishing the utilities for late completion and shoddy roadworks, with the same gusto with which they bear down on parking and driving misdemeanours. New York City is stealing a march on London, rolling out radical plans to containerise street refuse and rationalise private waste collection services.
Without action, central London’s streets risk descending further into places of what economist J.K. Galbraith called “private opulence and public squalor”. At a time when London’s private and public sectors are investing in place-making schemes and fighting off competition from other world cities for investment, that would be a disaster. We owe it to all Londoners – not just the Chinese ambassador – to tackle this chronic problem once and for all.
Alexander Jan is Chair of the Central District Alliance and Hatton Garden business improvement districts. X/Twitter: Alex Jan and On London. Read the Centre for London report here. If you value On London and its coverage of the capital, become a supporter or a paying subscriber to editor and publisher Dave Hill’s personal Substack for just £5 a month or £50 a year.