Filthiness in Camden stems not from budget cuts or litter louts but from a widespread culture of laziness, apathy, and a willingness to accept anything as ‘inevitable’.
When living in Camden one becomes accustomed to a certain level of filth on the streets. After a while it becomes so usual that seeing a road with only a dozen pieces of litter on it comes almost as a miracle. Not to mention the piles of bin-bags and abandoned roadworks equipment – local landmarks that really ought to be listed.
However once in a while one gets the opportunity to leave the confines of Camden and venture into the outside world. Upon returning, it is obvious exactly when one crosses the border from say Islington, or Westminster, and back into the cesspit of filth known as Camden.
Camden’s streets are paved with litter. And it’s always quite clear that this filth has been building up over several days, if not weeks or even months.
I have been observing and learning about Camden and Veolia’s street cleansing operation in Bloomsbury for almost half a year now. I have met with officers and managers, almost weekly, touring the area, picking up on problems. Observing how problems are approached and solved, or not as the case may be. Listening to officers talk about Veolia and Camden, about litter and waste, the streets, and how to keep them clean. Identifying problems myself, and attempting to get them resolved.
I have branched out and talked to other officers from other departments about different problems. I have listened to them talk about Camden and their work and observed how they go about solving problems. As it stands, I have now interacted with dozens of officers from several departments.
I haven’t done this because I am particularly interested in say, litter. Of course, it is interesting to see how these operations go about keeping (or attempting to keep) Camden clean, and I really would appreciate it if Camden could keep my neighbourhood in a respectable state. But principally I am interested in answering one fundamental question, one which has been bothering me and many others for some while:
Why is Camden just so incompetent?
In more sophisticated language, why is it that Camden appear to fail at almost everything? Why is it that people are so angry at Camden? And why is it just so difficult to get anything done?
Why is Camden just so incompetent?
Of course when we ask these questions we usually receive a barrage of the same old mumbo-jumbo – everything, they say, is down to budget-cuts. And I think that in a way when people say this they are touching on an element of truth of which they are not entirely aware.
Take the street cleansing operation for example.
Compared to ten years ago, less money is spent on keeping the streets clean. But so what? Sure we have fewer street cleaners, fewer cleaning vehicles and less money to run them. But how does this explain the fact that the street cleaners that we do have are so often seen sitting around picking their noses? How does this explain one road getting swept daily, when the next road is only swept once a month? How does this explain the widespread abandonment of roadworks equipment throughout the Borough?
‘Budget cuts’ – it isn’t that Camden can’t afford to solve these problems, but ‘budget cuts’ is a widespread and acceptable excuse for simply doing nothing in any given situation. More than an excuse, it has become a mindset – a ‘budget cut mentality’ that pervades essentially every aspect of Camden’s dealings. Officers simply don’t believe that they can make any sort of difference, because to do so would contradict the fact that their department has received X reduction in their budget over the past ten years. How could a single individual turn the tide against years of central governmental ‘oppression’?
In other words, officers simply believe that every problem encountered is an inevitable result of ‘budget cuts’. In this worldview, there’s simply no point in trying to resolve anything using common sense. Because the problem arose from ‘budget cuts’, and it will only go away by reversing ‘budget cuts’.
Take the example of Veolia not doing what they’re paid to do. There is quite evidently a widespread problem throughout Camden with this. However let’s just ignore that and try to fix the situation in Bloomsbury.
I notice that a sweeper isn’t sweeping the roads – a problem. I follow him to see what he’s doing, and he’s doing nothing. I take photos of this behaviour. For the following three days, I take photos of this sweeper walking the same route through Bloomsbury, doing absolutely nothing. I send it off to Camden.
In a rational world, the recipient in Camden would respond to this: a sweeper not doing his work. What a waste of taxpayer money! And thank you for bringing this to our attention!
But in Camden? No. Common sense stands for nothing. After a long wait, I get back the response: ‘but you didn’t consider that he might be on his daily break’.
Not only am I rebuffed for identifying and trying to solve a problem, but I actually get criticised by a councillor for ‘inappropriately following’ the sweeper and making ‘inappropriate assumptions’ about his break time. Pretty astounding stuff, but entirely natural to Camden.
One day an officer and I spot this sweeper on a road which we were reporting for being below acceptable standard. Camden’s standards of cleanliness are by no means high, so to be officially ‘below standard’ is quite an achievement. Beyond just litter and leaves, it has broken glass on it, and looks as though it hasn’t been swept for weeks – this despite this particular sweeper supposedly sweeping it daily. The report which we are about to make will be sent directly to him through a reporting system. But the fact that we are making the report in the first place means this sweeper hasn’t done the work assigned to him, apparently for a number of weeks.
So common sense says – why not approach this sweeper, who is only a few footsteps away? Why not confront him about his crimes? Why not try to directly solve this problem?
But this simply isn’t the way that things are done in Camden.
‘Well – he might be coming back later’ says the officer.
‘Yes but it’s pretty obvious that he isn’t.’
‘Well, if I try to raise it with the manager that’s what they’ll say. That he might have been going to come back later.’
‘Yes but this has evidently been building up for days.’
‘Well, you don’t know that. It might have all happened since this morning.’
‘Yes but that’s obviously not true.’
‘But if I raise it with the managers, that’s what they’ll say. That it might have become this way since this morning.’
This is exactly the sort of logic that pervades Camden and totally paralyses any sort of rational action. Despite it being obvious to us both that the sweeper is dossing around, because we cannot absolutely prove that, it’s apparently impossible to pursue. If there is any sort of ‘Yes but this might be the case’ it’s time to shrug your shoulders and move on.
This sort of absurd problem arises time and time again and causes real and substantial problems for individuals.
During construction work a resident reports construction noise outside permitted hours. They take a video which clearly shows a breach of regulations. ‘Ah,’ they say, ‘but the wind might have made it sound louder than it is.’ The case is thrown out.
An individual notes that a shop beneath their flat is being converted into an eating establishment which is not permitted under local regulations. ‘Ah’, but they say, ‘the owners might be making it look like an eating establishment, when actually it won’t be an eating establishment.’ The case is thrown out.
The examples are endless and increasingly absurd.
But what if we can absolutely prove that the sweeper isn’t doing the work set? What would happen?
I recognise this sweeper’s routine and over a number of days visit a spot where he sits down to smoke a cigarette at the same time every day – a bench in front of Holy Cross Church on Cromer Street. This area has a number of bits of litter around it. So each day I take a photo of him sitting on the bench with the litter around him, and report it on Clean Camden. Each day the litter is getting a little worse. Each day the sweeper does absolutely nothing to sweep it up.
The reports are such that the sweeper should be tasked to clean the area up immediately, and certainly within twenty four hours. Each report clearly shows the sweeper sitting on a bench smoking surrounded by litter. The evidence could not be more damning.
But what I find is that instead, the sweeper simply marks the report as complete without doing anything.
Shocked by this I try to raise it with Camden, but it comes to nothing.
Week after week I try to push the same point. ‘Obviously’, I say, ‘there’s something wrong with the sweeper. He just isn’t doing the work set. Doesn’t it make sense to tackle this?’
But for some reason officers aren’t at all keen on this suggestion, showing a profound aversion to confronting the problem directly, but I never get a straight answer about why – just bits and pieces of information, and seemingly endless technical reasons as to why they can’t do anything.
‘Well, our job is to monitor the streets, not how Veolia keep them clean.’
‘Well, they do have contractual obligations but they aren’t paid as much anymore.’
‘You should try to help the sweepers, not criticise them.’
Although the problem is quite obvious to everyone – including residents – there seems to be some sort of a culture which prevents officers from tackling the problem in a straightforward way. It makes perfect sense – we see a sweeper dossing around, so why not confront him? Why not attempt to solve the problem directly? But instead there is an endless web of technicalities and reasons as to why apparently nothing can be done.
There has to be something causing this. One could quite easily say that ‘well, that officer is just incompetent.’ But speaking honestly, this simply isn’t the case. Camden’s officers generally don’t suffer from incompetence and are quite often enthusiastic and motivated – but they do find themselves in a system which constricts their ability to actually solve problems in a reasonable and direct way. If a problem arises, officers generally do want to fix it. But they always seem to have to resort to contrived and indirect methods which in fact consume so much energy that it eventually comes to nothing.
With the sweeper, I was told that the best way to solve the problem would be to use Clean Camden daily to document the streets. That way, evidence would build up and then eventually a manager in Veolia might start to get annoyed and ask questions about why so many reports were being made in an area. Then they might investigate individual sweepers and then conclude that one particular sweeper was causing problems and then that sweeper might be spoken to.
It’s evidently absurd. And all the while, Camden’s streets are piling up with litter and the root cause of the problem is quite obviously that Veolia’s sweepers are simply dossing around and not doing the work that they’ve been set. Sweepers dossing around and skipping out roads is something which is widely observed by residents and indeed known to Camden’s own officers. It is a problem, so why won’t Camden just do something about it?
The problem is that although it’s obvious to us that sweepers are dossing and getting away with it, to Camden this is simply another manifestation of ‘budget cuts’.
The logic goes something like this – ‘if we didn’t get budget cuts, Veolia would get paid more. Then the sweepers would get paid more, they’d work properly. But because we have budget cuts the sweepers don’t get paid enough, so they don’t work properly. Therefore without more money we won’t solve anything.’
So from Camden’s point of view, identifying problems with Veolia and attempting to fix them is completely missing the point. To them, it all comes down to Veolia not being paid enough. And nothing that you do will make any difference.
I don’t think though that officers really think in this way consciously – it is simply a mentality which has become so widespread throughout Camden that it is now second nature – a part of the culture of working for Camden. The budget cut mentality.
Whilst no doubt ‘a decade of austerity’ has caused a genuine shortfall in funding, the real problem is that it has caused a surplus of excuses. The issue is that councillors also don’t really want to do anything, and their position as ‘leading’ the council has led Camden into a black hole of apathy. After all, when problems are brought to their attention they can either respond, or sit back, do nothing, and parrot back the party punchline: ‘a decade of austerity has drained the public purse’.
Whilst no doubt ‘a decade of austerity’ has caused a genuine shortfall in funding, the real problem is that it has caused a surplus of excuses.
In other words, councillors have found a cheap way to gain political points from every problem that arises in Camden. Solving a problem would run entirely counter to the narrative of crisis brought about by austerity – it’s far easier and more effective to allow a problem to run its course and continue to blame austerity for everything.
Now I’m not entirely sure if councillors are as conniving as this to actually strategise in such a logical and effective way. Honestly, I don’t think that the Cabinet could muster enough IQ points between them to bake a cake. But it doesn’t matter – many of our Labour councillors respond to every problem by automatically blaming something external rather than accepting the burden of real responsibility – and this appears to have trickled down to every level of Camden. There simply is no notion of responsibility and accountability in Camden, at any level, at all. Anything that goes wrong is ultimately caused by the spectre of ‘austerity’. After all, wouldn’t all of our problems be solved if we just had a few extra million, or if that thing in the past didn’t go wrong, or this, or that?
There simply is no notion of responsibility and accountability in Camden, at any level, at all. Anything that goes wrong is ultimately caused by the spectre of ‘austerity’.
‘Austerity’ has become an invincible shield behind which Labour Party politicians can deflect and dodge responsibility for any sort of poor decision, and make poor decisions with no real consideration of the consequences of their actions knowing that if it goes wrong, they can just blame austerity.
It can become infuriating when we band together and kick up a huge fuss about some failing or other in Camden, but Camden doesn’t seem to really acknowledge the problem, even less address it. The problem is that by kicking up a fuss about a problem we aren’t really doing much to solve the problem but actually further ‘prove’ just how much damage austerity has done to public services and ‘public trust’. In some sense, by kicking up a fuss we are simply scoring further political points for exactly those individuals which we are protesting against. We are all stuck in a political Catch-22.
Is there anything that can be done to break out of this?
In my view, Camden is in some sense a sinking ship, and it’s hard to see how anyone or any group could break Camden out of its stupor – at least not in the short term. It seems that years of this austerity parroting has caused a widespread proliferation of laziness, apathy, and evasion of responsibility. In trying to combat problems where an individual officer has been negligent the whole body of Camden closes ranks to protect this officer behind layers and layers of bureaucratic nonsense. It’s just too easy for this to go on – after all, why would officers want to break out of a system in which it’s impossible to put a foot wrong?
Why would officers want to break out of a system in which it’s impossible to put a foot wrong?
Perhaps the monumental defeat of the Labour Party at the latest national elections will put an end to the credibility of this austerity narrative – if the narrative had any local credibility at all in a borough which has earned hundreds of millions in the property market alone.
But do people even care?
Whilst people may not care about political strategy or give a toss about whether austerity really did do this or that, there does appear to be a widespread contempt of Camden and its endless portfolio of spectacular failures. And more and more, contempt appears to be directed directly towards Camden and particularly the Cabinet and even individual politicians. We are hopefully seeing the end of the ever weakening and pathetic narrative of ‘austerity made us do it’.
What is clear though is that the only way anything will really change in Camden is by taking political action. It only remains to locals to take up the gauntlet and try to hold our local politicians accountable for the shocking decisions they have made over the past decade, by getting them thrown out of office in 2022.