Litter and street cleaning

As with so many other issues, street cleaning can feel a bit incendiary, so part of me hesitates to post this. But here goes…

I had a couple of weeks where I had a small flurry of emails from residents concerned about the appearance of our streets. Not a huge quantity, admittedly. And emails about this, and all kinds of other issues aren’t exactly uncommon. But getting emails from different people (who I don’t think know each other) with a set of overlapping concerns but primarily about street sweeping, raised a bit of a red flag for me.

When I get an email request from a resident, the ‘standard’ way to deal with it is to send it in to a Council service called Members’ Enquiries. This lucky team acts as a central conduit for all the questions, queries, complaints and ideas that come via Councillors and via our MPs, they maintain a central system where they are logged, sent on to departments, and actioned or replied to as needed. The usual turnaround time is about 10 working days. I will then send a holding message to the resident, letting them know I’ve sent it, on, and encouraging them to get back to me if I’ve not replied after two weeks so that I can chase it up.

But I had myself also noted more litter on the streets, on the school run, and when out running errands. And this seemed to point to a wider problem, not just a one-off location where something had gone amiss. So rather than just send the queries off separately and wait for a replies, I decided to try to understand a bit more about what might be going wrong.

I got in touch with the Cabinet Member for Environment and Highways, and Director of Highways, as well as various other officers particularly those who work in street cleansing, or road sweeping / litter picking as we might call it.

I went for a ‘walk about’ the ward with an officer whose role is a kind of trouble shooting one, and we visited various roads including those that had been flagged up to me as particularly problematic (in this case, Cranmer Road, Station Road, Sebert Road, Kuhn Way and others), checking on the presence of litter, on fly tips, seeing where weeds had or had not been removed, and generally doing a kind of quality check.

I also found out that, as I had suspected, at the time staff sickness levels were very high, largely due to Covid and the Omicron variant, and the then requirements for isolation. There was some ad hoc agency cover being arranged (which in itself is not ideal, and can result in a lower standard of work as the agency cover employees do not know our streets and routes and systems as well), but also some shifts were left without cover temporarily, which resulted in the litter and inconsistency that we all noticed.

I also got in contact with the Officer who is leading on street cleaning (who I was actually on the interview panel for, who arrived from another borough very experienced and also ambitious to make some improvements) to find out more about some of the additional resource that I had been told was going into street cleaning.

He told me about the following:

  • The current ‘rounds’ (the routes taken by each member of staff) are not fit for purpose, and we do not have sickness or absence cover which leads to inconsistency. Having brought the three separate companies for street cleaning back in-house, we now have a new Head of Street Scene who is leading a borough wide project to transform the service. This includes using software for the first time to plan the best and most efficient routes. This is going to take around 6 months to implement, and in the meantime we have taken on nearly 50 agency staff on a permanent basis to give more consistency, and also created 3 ‘Newham Tidy Teams’ to do proactive cleansing and enforcement of fly-tips on major roads.
  • We are currently in the process of finding an external enforcement contractor. This process has been agreed, and the tender will be out in March, and I’m told that we should see a ‘hugely increased litter and fly tipping pro-active service’.
  • Previously, inspection of streets to see the effectiveness of our cleaning and litter picking was done by a small team of Newham employees. This is quite standard, but also could be described as ‘marking our own homework’. Now we have been using Keep Britain Tidy to inspect and rate our streets and give us a baseline for our current standards, and a robust way of measuring improvement.

I went out around the  ward again last week with an officer, to the same locations, and although we did pick up some litter and reported various fly tips, there was a definite and marked improvement in the appearance of the roads.

The officer also told me that she had advised the street cleaners to be particularly assiduous around schools, knowing how high the pedestrian footfall is here, and that the condition of these streets has a particular impact on everyone. I know myself how much more aware I am of litter when I have a small person next to me, and my attention is right down at her level, or when I used to push a buggy, trying to avoid dog mess etc. We also specifically went to and walked along the border between Forest Gate North and Waltham Forest, to pick up some comments one resident made about a perceptible difference when you cross into Newham.

I then (although belatedly) got back to each of the people who’d messaged me, letting them know what I’d done and what is planned.And once I’d done that, I thought I’d write a blog post too, to share the information more generally. So here we are.

Now, I’m not claiming to have solved litter. Absolutely far from it. But I have seen some noticeable improvement. I’ve also become better attuned to whether litter is new or old. Brightly coloured litter, dry and holding its shape, has probably been dropped recently by someone who walked along after the road had been swept. Discoloured, squashed litter, that has been ground into the road, or leaves which are breaking down into mush, or plastic that is cloudy or faded, suggests that the litter has been there for longer, which can point to a road being missed out.

(A quick reminder, which I know is tedious, but it does help: please do report litter on the Love Clean Streets app. Under the ‘street cleansing’ option you can report a wide variety of unpleasant things, including fly posting, litter, blocked gullies, damaged litter bins and more. This all helps to give a picture of the ward, and where problems are occurring, so that officers can try to improve systems to prevent them, as well as physically sending out a team to clean up.

Take care all, especially those with friends and relatives in Ukraine x

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