This post was first published by The Croydon Citizen on 22/03/2017.
The emotional impact of fly-tipping
The decision was practical: on my money, the Webb Estate wasn’t an option. West Croydon is convenient, with its super-handy transport links. I’ve never been an uptown girl, so the lack of a local branch of Fresh & Wildly Overpriced isn’t a concern. And whilst I could see that it was dirty, the Westfield (coming soon, so they said back then, and just down the road) was all set to sort it out.
That was six years ago.
In many ways, they’ve been happy years. But I want to leave West Croydon now. Falling out of love happens gradually then suddenly, and at the end you leave for reasons that were obvious from the start. Quite frankly, the place is a tip, and what’s obvious is that nothing will be done about it.
Broad Green, where I live, is not just a tip, of course. It’s an area of considerable history, with notable landmarks. I’m involved with a community project, Big Local Broad Green, looking into the idea of creating a heritage trail here. It’s foodie, and getting foodier. My neighbours are nice. There’s a residents’ association. People engage, reach out to others and seek to make a difference. I think that politicians care too, or at least some of them do. But none of this changes the fact that the pavements we walk every day are disgustingly dirty, clogged with abandoned furniture and frequently strewn with filth. It seems that nothing changes it.
THCAT is leading the way in community action for cleaning up the streets, and this Thornton Heath initiative has inspired others. I attended the inaugural meeting of the resident-run, non-partisan Campaign For A Cleaner and More Beautiful Croydon, to which its founders invited Councillor Stuart Collins, known on Twitter as @cleanstreetstu – and he turned up. The meeting began with some anger: we live in the mess but we don’t make the mess, so this response is understandable. Then, knowing that finger-pointing solves nothing and that if a thing has been tried and has failed, doing more of it just won’t work, the community started to think outside the box.
How about providing information about mattress disposal at mattress shops? (For a while I engaged in a lively exchange of tweets with an account called @MattressWatch – it’s clear that this wretched problem is bigger than west and north Croydon.) What about changing street furniture and lay-out to encourage better behaviour around the disposal of waste? It was such a constructive discussion. It’s a shame that no one will take any action, or fund one single idea that we proposed.
But acting a little still means more than talking a lot. That’s why I’ve concluded that Labour in Croydon cares about litter more than the Tories do, with over 150 fly-tipping prosecutions to the previous administration’s zero. Labour has also created the My Croydon app, through which tips can be reported. As a frequent app user, believe me – action gets taken, and fast. I’d say it’s been money well spent. Except that the tips are removed so promptly that some have appeared to conclude that dumping their trash in certain places is a legitimate way to get it cleared. Hotspots have developed. It’s called the law of unintended consequences.
Those who blame others (others with far less of everything than they have themselves) will never acknowledge one thing: that if you are very poor, your life can become such a grind that you don’t give a damn about litter. The morale of marginalised people can fall so low that I’m put in mind of the poet Sylvia Plath, suffering from deep depression: ‘The reason I hadn’t washed my clothes or my hair was because it seemed so silly. I could see day after day glaring ahead of me like a white, broad, infinitely desolate avenue. It made me tired just to think of it”.
Plath, of course, is a figure of literature: even if crumpled and smelly, she represents complex and educated despair which is met with compassion. Not so the mess in the streets. Worse: when a rubbish-strewn, brutalised landscape reflects your inner world, you feel quite at home there. I reckon that Sylvia would have agreed about this. The bursting bin bags that lie in my road, the stinking spilled refuse of half-gnawed chicken bones and streaky nappies, the piss-stained mattresses, the grease-caked black oven that hadn’t been cleaned in this century before finding its way in the night to the pavement outside my house – they are the detritus of human wretchedness.
(A second kind of tipper, of course, is the one who drives into the area, often at night, and dumps large items from vans, frequently including unwanted and broken furniture. This type more often gets spotted and – these days – prosecuted.)
But whatever its causes, whatever the solutions might be, month after month and year after year, the state of the place has worn me down. My children are so sick and tired of it all that they want to go and “live in the countryside. You keep saying Croydon’s not a shitheap, mum, but our part sort of is, isn’t it?”. When I open our living room curtains and look outside, I don’t have an answer to that any more.
Finally, one Saturday in February, we were subjected to the tweeted thoughts of a bunch of ‘community’ litter pickers in my area. Local politicians responding to tips by delightedly nose-thumbing opponents isn’t unusual, though a more immature or less constructive approach is difficult to imagine. On this particular day, they could barely conceal their excitement as they made their way from pavement dump to flytip to litter-strewn alleyway. What a great chance to have a go!
Those gleeful, day-tripping political tweeters made me feel ill. Fly-tipping isn’t some Katharine Street roust-about – it diminishes the lives of many and makes us miserable. How dare they respond to it like this? I realised, my rage increasing with every glance at my phone, that my tightly-clenched stomach and fists were a sign that change is needed. It’s starting to seem easier to remove my family from these rubbish-strewn streets than to actually remove the rubbish.