Dirty borough: Greenwich’s street sweeping boss leaves council after complaints

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Victoria Way in Charlton earlier this month: the result of half-completed council sweeps
The man in charge of Greenwich Council’s street sweeping has parted company with the authority after streets in some parts of the borough were left unswept for weeks.

Matthew Norwell, Greenwich’s director of community services, left before Christmas “by mutual agreement”, the council has confirmed.

Councillors were frustrated at the failure of his department to respond to mounting complaints about filthy streets, with some streets still covered in autumn leaves in January.

Mr Norwell, who earned £140,000 a year, also resigned his directorships at two council companies – GS Plus and Greenwich Service Solutions – on 13 December.

A council spokesperson told 853: “Matthew Norwell left the Council by mutual agreement before Christmas. We would like to wish him well with his future endeavours.”

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A council worker sweeps leaves into the gutter in Victoria Way in Charlton in January. Past sweeps had seen these piles of leaves abandoned for weeks. (The bins blocking the pavement were left out by refuse collection teams.)
Local councillors had faced the brunt of anger from residents at the deteriorating state of their streets, particularly in Plumstead and Charlton, with the service sharply criticised at a scrutiny meeting in November.

There is no recording of this meeting available, but minutes state: “There was a general perception amongst the Panel that some areas of the borough received an inferior street cleansing service in comparison to others.

“Those Members of the Panel who represented wards in the Woolwich and Plumstead areas had received numerous complaints from residents and were finding it increasingly difficult to defend the perceived lack of street cleansing in these areas.”

The minutes also record Greenwich environment cabinet member Jackie Smith saying “a discussion needed to be had” about the level of resources put into the service, with just £29 per resident spent on keeping the borough clean – much less than neighbouring Lewisham or Southwark.

However, despite the historic underfunding of the service and the failure of her department, Smith decided to blame the  Conservative Party when questioned at a council meeting in December.

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In Plumstead, Smith insisted Plumstead High Street – the focus of many residents’ complaints – had been given a “deep clean” by council staff during the summer, even though it appears that the clean failed to have any effect.

And in Charlton, residents complained of streets covered in leaves for months on end, with sweeping  – when it was carried out – seemingly carried out on an arbitrary basis, and often half-completed.

While government cutbacks are unhelpful, the council’s previous underfunding of the service left it vulnerable to failings.

The council has stepped up its act by signing up to a customised version of the FixMyStreet app, which works across many UK authorities.

But while FixMyStreet allows the council to see where there are litter and flytipping hotspots, its response to them still seems to be influenced by lobbying rather than data, with areas of Charlton being ignored despite the introduction of a “taskforce” to fix street issues.

Town hall insiders say Norwell’s department had struggled after taking on responsibility for council housing in a reorganisation designed to slim down the number of senior management posts.

While Greenwich Council has traditionally resisted suggestions that it spin off its housing stock into an arms-length company, preferring to keep direct control and hold rents down, critics say this has left much of the borough’s council housing stock in a poor state.

Norwell’s successor will take charge of a department with a huge remit – from licensing and trading standards to parks, sport and leisure and the council’s mortuary.

Whoever takes over will need to deal with the legacies of past underfunding as well as government cuts. For the sake of the whole borough – because living in an area that looks like a dump has an effect on us all, frankly – hopefully they will have the skills to turn it around.

13 comments

  1. Its not the skills that need improving its more man power on the streets, and more supervision of those in the form of working team supervisors, and the inevitable extra funding as its been underfunded for years. Greenwich was not mentioned here but it is equally poor, with the increase in restaurants, (especially fast food and takeaways), large number of tobacconist/confectionery/general stores, hugely increased number of dwellings, increased tourist traffic, and the inevitable detritus from road traffic (lorries continue to traverse through Trafalgar Road even though their exit in Romney Road is supposedly banned-it is rarely if ever enforced, there is nobody empowered or available to enforce it! It is generally frankly a disgrace and a health hazard, frequently locally to my shop in Old Woolwich Road i will pile up detritus in the gutter for street cleaners but it is still not removed. (there are still piles there today from months ago which are just ignored! DEFRA considers Grade C or D is ‘unacceptable’ – our street as many others locally is frequently in those categories IMHO. But how many residents know what we are entitled to in terms of street cleanliness, and how many have to take the time to complain almost constantly, and eventually tire of it! We deserve much much better, and more funding is essential, The increased number of residential properties locally to SE10 is huge, and with that a massive increase in council tax revenue, but how much of that is going in increased spending on cleanliness. More people means more mess, which demands more funding. Finalluy I trust the senior leaving ws not given any form of golden handshake, that would be insult added to injury. This health hazard must be dealt with NOW!

  2. I am an advocate of the FixMyStreet app. However, I find myself ‘nagging’ the council after reporting of litter, flytipping and bad parking go unresolved for weeks sometimes. They have the temerity to ask me if a problem is resolved when it clearly isn’t. Is there no follow up or supervision? My oldest report took several months to resolves as it was only superficially addressed several times and I had to keep updating the issue as unresolved. I despair.

  3. My experience too Larry, think they are hiding behind the ‘fixmystreet’ method of reporting, I used to be able to contact the team direct and even the managers for ongoing or serious complaints, now its kind of been sidelined to a website which is great in principle if the cleaning team always react, but they rarely do!

  4. Just wondering whether schools can help at all with instilling in pupils that pavements are not a place to dump your fast-food wrappings, plastic drinks bottles and confectionary wrappers – how can we as a society sensitise school-age children to not be a litter-lout? And after leaving school this behaviour is continued by many young people I think. When i think back to the era when glass drinks bottles were recycled at the shops and encouraged with a return pence or two, children actually scouted around for empty bottles to return! A financial return obviously helps! When you see so much litter on the pavements, it’s easy to understand why our younger people don’t bother to look for a bin – or maybe it’s just not “cool” to be seen to do so. Maybe what we need is a national/ regional well-known hero to become our mascot for Keeping Our Streets Clean – someone the children admire and respect???

  5. The route for any resident aggrieved by litter that exceeds the levels set out in the guidance to the EPA is simple. Where the Council fails to respond, residents can make a complaint direct to the magistrates court under s.91 of the EPA. It is a criminal offence for the Council to fail to clear street litter. The Council must be given five days notice before the information is laid, and if they have not cleared the litter in that time the magistrate will issue the Council with a Litter Abatement Order, requiring the default to be rectified within a given time. The court can also award the costs of bringing the complaint to the complainant.

    Any resident who needs to take action themselves should speak to the clerk to the court if not legally represented – they are very helpful and will steer you though the action.

  6. Thanks for raising this. We have been trying to contact the council for weeks about the litter and mess at the Plumstead end of the Ridgeway. We have even offered to organise a community litter collection with volunteers who use the Ridgeway giving up their valuable time to clean up the pathway, but our emails and correspondences have seemingly fallen on deaf ears.

    Ridgeway Users Group

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/RidgewayUsers/
    @RidgewayUsers

  7. I live in Charlton and take a route to the station every day. Leaves and litter I can cope with and we do. The streets get little attention. But its the filthy individuals who let their dogs mess anywhere that really gets to me. This foul muck is not always easy to see and it is only when I am on the train and a nasty smell drifts upwards that I know I have trodden in it YET again. Greenwich council is not to blame for the disgusting habits of some dog owners but I wonder how much they do to penalize the offenders?

  8. The Fix My Street site is a brilliant resource for quickly reporting small issues and I have found that fly tips (like mattresses) and graffiti are generally dealt with quickly. Anything outside of this however takes weeks of prodding. A good example being -https://fix.royalgreenwich.gov.uk/report/848462 (area under the Woolwich Road Flyover requiring a good clean up). I was constantly being told that the work was complete when it hadn’t even been touched. RBoG must be able to tell from what is being posted on FMS where the issues are yet it is apparent that little or no analysis of the data occurs. If it did I wouldn’t have to keep on reporting the same sites week in week out (Chilver Street j/w Dandridge Close a perfect example). It often gets so bad here our little part of the world that I can often be seen out at the weekends picking up litter or like every Autumn sweeping up leaves. If the basics like street cleaning were kept on top of then I believe we would get less graffiti, fly tipping, abandoned vehicles and anti-social behaviour such as people weeing in the street too.

  9. Gordon – Yep the broken windows theory. If an area is visibly being neglected locals and visitors alike are far less likely to care for the space and act accordingly. It’s one reason to ensure good design in the public realm, to invest in it and then maintain. Much public space in the borough is badly designed or implemented and so keeping it looking decent is a challenge – enough staff or not. An example of this is the paving used along Plumstead HS – why use such a clumsy, cluttered and messy design to begin with on narrow paving with many service covers?

    TfL have a great street design guide which boroughs should follow. RBG doesn’t appear to and internal knowledge seems limited.

    As you note, getting them to acknowledge problematic areas is difficult. When funding is available to improve, through s106 developer contributions or TfL’s annual millions for example, it’s very rarely used in such a way as opposed to other boroughs.

    They often like to state its someone else’s responsibility, like the flyover, but many other boroughs work well with TfL or Network Rail, who can both be a pain, yet others do it. Is it RBGs inward looking nature? And that doesn’t explain all those areas in their direct control.

    Still, a shake up is good. Councillors being emboldened to ask tough questions of poorly performing departments and priorities is sorely needed.

  10. Gordon – you’re spot on.

    FixMyStreet is brilliant. (The people behind it, MySociety, are brilliant too.) It’s based on a system called Open311 which anyone can use and adapt for their own use. But it can only be as good as the authority that’s receiving the messages. A couple of years back I reported a massive pothole via FMS after nearly coming off my bike on Blackfriars Road – Southwark Council passed it to TfL, who rang me up to thank me! In Lewisham, you’ll often get a photo of an area that’s been cleaned up to prove it’s been done. (Lewisham helped pioneer this kind of approach when they had an app called Love Lewisham – their head of environmental services taught himself coding and put together a basic app himself many years back.)

    But while Greenwich made a big deal of getting its own version of FixMyStreet – I did hear that the previous leadership resisted such a system because they wanted to discourage complaints – it really doesn’t know how to use it properly. Some functions don’t work, so bent signs/ lamp post failures just get ignored. I’ve seen them wrongly try to pass off street cleaning issues to other organisations – where I live, they seem to think Charlton Triangle Housing should be cleaning council roads. And while Greenwich can obtain a lot of data from FMS about flytipping and litter hotspots, it seems to just ignore this aspect (see here https://www.fixmystreet.com/reports/Royal+Borough+of+Greenwich?filter_category=Street+cleaning), so areas with noisy residents’ groups get prioritised. And yes, it’s that whole insular culture that isn’t proactive and reacts badly to criticism, combined with the culture of low expectations that condemns all of us in this borough.

    They’ve certainly tried to play catch-up in cleaning up rotting leaves. I finally got an apology a few weeks back after months of failed complaints about the crap covering my street. But there’s still loads around in patches, in places where people haven’t complained or in unloved corners. The whole operation needs sorting out, because it’s clear that the supervision is badly failing, and they’ll just be in the same mess when next autumn comes around.

  11. Just having looked at the FMS site itself and several of the open issue I have logged are NOT displayed on the map. Cooking the books maybe?

  12. Many interesting comments. Larry mentions fly tipping as a problem the council fails to deal with. I wonder how many prosecutions they have put in hand to penalize offenders. There are some real flytipping blackspots in my own patch of Charlton which get used over and over again possibly by the same people. I look out in what passes for local papers but never see anything about prosecutions.

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