For years, my almost daily walks to local bus stops and shops have warmly affirmed London’s energy, variety and ever-changing history, expect for one thing – the stubborn and accumulating signs of street misregulation and decay.
In my little bit of Hackney, phoney phone boxes and intrusive adspace megaliths are the worst examples – eyesore obstacles on an urban footway that should be welcoming, wide and clear. To these we can add edifices of shop waste uncollected for too long and, most recently, casually-dumped Lime bikes, that new, heavy metal form of litter.
Move deeper into the city and the clutter and neglect agglomerate: the overspill signage of eternal road works; traders’ A-boards hampering and tripping; more abandoned e-bikes, plus e-scooters; sacks of business refuse heaped hopefully by kerbs; patched, uneven pavements. Everywhere you look, the street scene betrays the shortcomings of authorities that either cannot cope or do not care.
These things are not, for the most part, the responsibilities of London’s Mayors: councils, utilities firms, individual businesses and others have powers to curtail erosions of the public realm. But overlapping issues can slip between jurisdictions, public funds are short and incentives to act are often weak.
Some of this could be corrected quickly, some would need changes to the law. But although perched at a high “strategic” table above this hyperlocal bread and butter, Mayors can bring influence to bear on neighbourhood ills that degrade the capital collectively.
At an event at the DoubleTree hotel on Southampton Row last week, Alexander Jan, chair of the Central District Alliance business improvement district (and eminent On London contributor) described the let down visitors must feel when emerging from Elizabeth line cathedrals to be greeted by grunge and detritus. Nicholas Boys Smith, founder and creator of Create Streets, illuminated causes and effects of “street scars” that disfigure paths and roads. Centre for London senior researcher Millie Mitchell set out solutions to such ills from the think tank’s recent study.
They covered a lot of ground, and audience members covered more. There is good practice to be pooled and avenues of action to be explored, but pulling disparate threads together, setting an agenda and applying pressure to the right places to get results needs a focal figure with a big voice.
Step forward, candidates for London Mayor.
There have to be votes in recognising the creeping, sometimes galloping, degradation of the streets in so much of the capital, where we consume and socialise, dragging the place and the spirits of its people down. These are quality of life themes that start, at most, a few minutes from too many Londoners’ front doors, atrophying the environment and knocking the shine off being out and about. They feed and are augmented by other ills, such as street begging and shoplifting and low-level ASB, which are themselves symptoms of civic fracture and neglect, and fall under the same broad umbrella.
Political will is a prerequisite for sorting this stuff out. Mayors have an ideal platform for exerting it. No, they can’t make good the loss of funds London’s boroughs continue to experience 14 years after the advent of austerity. No, they can’t alter national guidance and law. But they can convene coalitions of good will and they can make themselves and others heard. Moreover, the likelihood of London still having a Labour Mayor and the country having a Labour government by some point later this year means critical stars will be more aligned.
Turning back the tides of scuzz and scruffiness will certainly take money, but it will also take better organisation, smarter co-ordination, greater devolved powers and a more willing attitude on the part of all parties involved. A brisk competition between candidates for City Hall to gather up this cluster of everyday concerns and show they care could only be a good thing – not least for those candidates themselves.
Dave Hill is the editor and publisher of OnLondon.co.uk. Support the site and its writers for £5 a month or £50 a year and get things for your money too. Details HERE. Threads: DaveHillOnLondon. X/Twitter: OnLondon and Dave Hill.