Dirty Old Town
Our recent Brighton walkabout with Civic Voice president Griff Rhys Jones raised a theme that’s coming up again and again lately. Why, Griff asked, are visitors to this iconic, tourism and business centred city confronted with dirty, weed-ridden pavements, overflowing bins and graffiti almost everywhere?
This degraded ‘visitor experience’ is even finding its way into the local media as holidaymakers send in letters to the Argus. Lately, they’re dismayed to find public toilets locked (1). Typically Brighton and Hove residents become immune to their shabby city but increasing homelessness and rough sleeping, the unresolved issues of drug dependency and associated criminality combine into a spectre much harder to ignore. A dead weight hangs over residents’ natural inclination to feel civic pride in the city they love. When the city’s stalwart housing and homelessness campaigner Andy Winter (eminently level-headed and fair minded) can state in the Argus, “Sadly, today the city looks like a tip, an embarrassing disgrace”, we know we’re in trouble.
“In the last few weeks I have walked around a number of towns in the South East. In Eastbourne, Hastings, Shoreham and Canterbury there was little evidence of tagging or graffiti, the streets were clean and tidy, and no weeds were growing through the paving slabs. It brought back memories of somewhere I used to know. Where could that have been? Oh, that’s right, it was Brighton”.
Andy Winter, Argus 5th October 2023 (2)
This is going to be an election issue next May. The newly formed Brighton and Hove Independents Group are fielding candidates and their 3 minute short film on the tragedy engulfing the city is worth a look.
This summer we sent a number of questions to Cityclean. They asked that we take the Freedom of Information route for our enquiry. A reply came on August 24th acknowledging, “…improvements are required to the communal bin system and collections” but pointing out that efforts to remedy the situation were on-going. (3)
The question of how the council regard the problem of seagulls tearing open bags of food waste overflowing from communal bins is not answered: “BHCC does not have an official position on this”. Our question on the connection between rough sleepers, residents with mental health problems (including those suffering increasing poverty) and reports of bins raided and the contents scattered was replied with “BHCC does not collect the data to comment on this”.
On the graffiti issue, we were referred to a 2018 report (‘Graffiti Reduction Strategy’). It seems that as fast as graffiti is removed it returns. Big surprise! The council did at least confirm that it will provide resources to community or resident groups to begin the endless process of painting over graffiti again and again.
The recycling enigma.
It can come as a surprise to learn that plastic yogurt tubs, butter tubs, food trays, ‘hard’ plastics and tetrapak cartons contaminate the recycling process. The amount of contamination present in recycle bins can be as much as 18 percent. Hollingdean Materials Recovery Facility assure us that most of the contamination is successfully extracted by machines and by hand as part of the depots’ sift and sort process. But why are we urged not to recycle yogurt pots (etc) when other councils are accepting them? If there was a past decision not to invest why would a council that’s constantly proclaiming its green credentials do this? Alongside this question, we presented the council with the recycling guidance leaflet of another English local authority. Frustratingly, Cityclean argued that, because we were likely to publish the answer to this question, it had to be referred to the council’s press office.
That was in August. Four months on, and despite our best efforts to chase the press office, it seems it’s not only the recycling depot that operates a sift and sort system. As the Brighton Society is all too aware, the public’s right to know what its council knows is granted reluctantly. Our questions drop onto an elongated Freedom of Information conveyor belt, whereby 20 day legal deadlines are routinely doubled, and, whether by machine or by hand, awkward questions are plucked out.
Early in October we joined local residents on a tour of Hollingdean Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) run by Veolia (a controversial French transnational ‘waste management’ corporation). This gave us the opportunity to ask our question. In Brighton and Hove, we were told, making yoghurt pots (butter tubs, food trays et al) recyclable would need additional machinery retrofitted. This begs the question, why the Hollingdean MRF (described as ‘state of the art’ when it opened in 2009) didn’t have these machines in the first place. However, the answer seems less about a past decision not to invest than the futility of plastics recycling in the first place.
Most plastic simply cannot be recycled, a new Greenpeace USA report concludes (4). The report, released on October 24th, came with a press release that was pretty blunt. It was titled “Plastic Recycling Is A Dead-End Street”. The findings are summed up in this quote:
“Mechanical and chemical recycling of plastic waste has largely failed and will always fail because plastic waste is: (1) extremely difficult to collect, (2) virtually impossible to sort for recycling, (3) environmentally harmful to reprocess, (4) often made of and contaminated by toxic materials, and (5) not economical to recycle.”
If Greenpeace agrees that recycling plastic makes no sense then it’s probably safe to say it out loud, lets stop wasting our time. How about we liberate ourselves from the moral obligation to rinse and separate our plastic rubbish day after day and concentrate on something more useful? The Veolia official on our tour was candid about it all. Something like 70 percent of recycling ends up where the black bag waste goes – Newhaven incinerator. The take home message seems to be ‘Green’ Brighton and Hove recycles less plastic than certain other councils but (whisper it) it really doesn’t matter. A cynical view from the town hall might hold that it’s good to keep the decent, green-minded of the city permanently engaged in their daily, albeit delusional, toil.
Veolia’s good news was that the Newhaven incinerator (which I’m told should properly be termed ‘Energy Recovery Facility’) takes most of the waste that once headed for landfill and converts it into a continuous output of 19Mwh of power for the National Grid. Even the ash from the burned-out waste is good news because it is later transported by fleets of trucks to Stoke and made into building materials including road aggregates. The resulting emissions from incineration (less so the trucks) are so well filtered at the Energy Recovery Facility, say Veolia, that they exit from the Newhaven chimney as a clean gas dispersing into the atmosphere (5).
‘A troubled Service’.
It was positive that our tour of Veolia’s facility at Hollingbury included a very honest account of the city’s waste management from Cityclean. In terms of its past and, sadly, its present, refuse and recycling collection in Brighton and Hove was described as “a troubled service”. On this, the council are willing to admit that successive administrations have neglected the service for years. Lack of investment (including in staff) and a very poor replacement programme is part of the story. But failures in legal compliance, in industrial relations and even corruption (the police are still involved) add to this tale of woe.
The officers dedicated to fixing the service make no bones about their task but do nonetheless have progress to report. They are achieving some visible results such as removing commercial bins from highways. They feel confident that new better designed bins will soon produce visible results as will new procedures to address fly-tipping. Exciting enhancements are on the horizon, say Veolia, with a ‘Resources & Waste Strategy’ in development which will bring about change to kerbside collections and waste treatment for many of us. Veolia tell me that even though Brighton and Hove are ranked 303rd out of 338 UK authorities (just 29.2 percent of our total household waste – including green waste – is sent for composting, reuse or recycling), national recycling rates don’t reflect the challenges of coastal towns and cities with universities. Veolia also point out that less than 1% of waste is sent for disposal at landfill (all other material is reused, recycled or sent for energy recovery). So how much of our waste (recycled or otherwise) feeds the incinerator? Most of it. (6)
Apples and Piers. Probing the dirty old town theme will require a look at air pollution. According to a 2019 report, nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution exceeded air quality standards on several of the arterial roads passing through Brighton. Yet, in the case of the A259, the council’s own consultants warn that the T-Junction soon to replace the Palace Pier ‘Aquarium’ roundabout will cause congestion. The public have tried in vain to get answers from the council – via FOI, from officers and from leading Green Party members. Why, they ask, is this roundabout (which has an annual flow-rate of over 18 million vehicles) considered ‘the most dangerous junction’ in the city. Its a good question. In the context of its enormous flow-rate, a handful of collision related casualties (none fatal and most on approach roads up to 25m from the roundabout itself) means that it is one of our safest junctions. What the questioning public get back are ‘computer says no’ replies… the roundabout is the most dangerous junction in the city. Even when the public ask Green administration leaders this question in-person a robotic answer follows as happened recently at the Environment, Transport & Sustainability Committee. Brazenly ignoring the flow-rate factor, Cllr Jamie Lloyd re-asserted the Council’s ‘preferred truth’ on the matter – the roundabout is the most dangerous junction in the city – pronouncing the debate on the matter as closed. In the style of a beleaguered dictatorship, Cllr Lloyd read out his preferred ‘facts’ with a contempt for public scrutiny that he seemed to relish (7). Attempts to “debate” the matter were, he said, “really getting quite boring”.
For their sake, one can only hope that Green party leaders and council executives know for a fact that the new T-Junction will not only produce fewer accidents but somehow handle the flow without congestion tail-backs and years of soaring noxious fumes. Given that pollution will drift to nearby pathways designated for cyclists, the physical exertion intensifying their breathing means the pollution will go deep into their lungs. This group will be one of the worst affected by policies intended to encourage more cycling.
Whether it’s the air, the refuse or any of the other ‘dirty old town’ themes chipping away at our pride in this city, the arduous task of getting the council to quit the spin, confront public questions honestly and disclose what they know grinds us down further. The answers, like those tetrapaks and food trays overflowing from recycling bins, really do seem to be blowing in the wind.
As resident frustration increases, the Green administration appear to have pulled up the draw bridge on any further contact with the pesky public and tough it out until the May elections where they hope their loyal layer will see them through. Andy Winter describes our council’s approach to its citizens as a laager mentality, a defensive circling of wagons ready to repel attack:
The Greens themselves appear more obsessed with identity and gesture politics than sorting out the mess they have created. … [They] increasingly withdraw from debate, live in their own echo chamber, and ignore constructive criticism.
Andy Winter, Argus 5th October 2023
As Andy ruefully muses at the end of his Argus piece party politics in Brighton and Hove are “a sorry state of affairs, a bit like the state of the streets”.
See also Andy’s blog: https://andywinterbn1.wordpress.com/2022/10/05/the-state-of-brighton-and-hove-its-filthy-streets-and-the-consequences-for-next-mays-local-elections/
Exactly how to combat graffiti, fly-tipping and other anti-social actions is, of course, a complex question – but if other towns and cities can do it why not Brighton. Chichester is currently addressing a rise in this problem and a good example to monitor: https://www.chichester.gov.uk/article/36660/Council-moves-forward-with-plan-to-tackle-increase-in-graffiti
(3) See: FOI Reference: 11399689
(5) See ‘Transforming your waste into a resource’ (Veolia’s pamphlet: www.veolia.co.uk/sothdowns)
(6) From emails to the author from Veolia; also see https://www.letsrecycle.com/councils/league-tables/2020-21-overall-performance-2/