A load of rubbish


Today's Select Committee report on local authority refuse collection took me back three decades to my

Today's Select Committee report on local authority refuse collection took me back three decades to my

first full time job as a street sweeper for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

Clocking-on time was 5.30 and even as a teenager with a mind on girls, punk rock and soft drugs, I couldn't help being impressed by the view from Chelsea Bridge in the early morning summer sun.

The only other people I remember seeing were Brighton-bound bikers stopping for a strong tea and cigarette at the tiny snack hut on the south side of the river.

On my first day I was allocated to Pat, a short wiry Irishman of few words. We walked down to the Kings Road, pointing down the side of a posh residential square and he gave me my broom and set me to work.

Half an hour later I was wondering what I had let myself in for; dripping in sweat, eyes and nose full of dust and with a hatred of irresponsible dog owners that was fast becoming pathological.

At this point Pat strolled up to me. Gently removing the broom from my red hands and glancing back at the couple of hundred yards I had covered, he uttered possibly the ten most influential words I've ever heard: 'Listen son,' he said, 'this is a job not a bleeding vocation.'

Two hours later we clocked off for an elevenses which ended at the conventional time despite beginning just after eight. When I asked another fellow sweeper - a drug addict who used to hide stolen car radios in his dust trolley - whether we might ever be caught out for our five hours off in every eight hour shift, he reassured me that the council inspector made it a matter of pride that the timing of the weekly round on his motor scooter never varied.

As long as I was hard at work behind John Lewis on Friday at 10.00 the rest of my time was my own. We used to give him a friendly wave as his Vespa turned the corner and we looked for somewhere to hide our trolley.

I have to admit this experience of the public sector ethos did leave a mark. But over the years my main argument for reform has not focussed on efficiency, I have instead majored on the need for 'empowering'


By this I mean services designed around the idea of the user as the joint producer of the intended outcome. Thus, health services are better if patients have greater choice and control, results improve when pupils and parents feel engaged with the school, the police have a chance of success if the community accepts a role in delivering the crime prevention strategy.

This idea is now very popular with pundits, politicians and progressively-minded managers. But not everyone is so convinced. For many hard pressed public employees the task is keeping the public at bay rather than inviting them to get more involved. While for critics of the state the idea of empowerment is just a cover for a continued failure of basic service delivery.

More than once I have heard members of the latter camp respond to my idealistic vision of state-citizen collaboration with the stark assertion: 'People don't want to be engaged or empowered they just want their bins emptied on time.'

Preparing for a speech the other day to Kent County Council managers I was wondering whether I would face this line at attack again. When it struck me - in my house we have a bag for recycling, a bag for the compost heap I recently established in the garden, and we try to keep the remainder down to no more than one black bin liner a week - I am a co-producer of waste services in Lambeth.

Indeed, the amount of time my family spends separating, rinsing and bagging the rubbish is probably as great as that spent on my household by the council's refuse collection service.

What was once cited as the classic example of a 'delivery' service of which the public would be mere passive recipients, wanting little more than reliability, has turned into a partnership.

Instead of council officers needing only to think about when the cart turns up and whether the collectors tidy up after themselves, they must now carefully work out how best to cajole residents to be

responsible waste managers.

The thrust of today's Select Committee report was that councils are using insufficiently strong incentives to encourage residents to recycle.

Imagine how revolutionary it would be if responsibility for service outcomes in schooling, primary health care and policing were shared as equally with the public as is increasingly the case with refuse collection.

So, the next time I am waxing lyrical on the need for the empowering state and someone shouts out 'rubbish' I'll know they are agreeing with me.

All of which gives me the excuse to recall a favourite TV comedy moment, one which uses rubbish to raise the most profound of philosophical questions. For surely no amount of innovation or empowerment will match the efficiency of Trigger's broom?

As you will recall he won Southwark public employee of the year for having had the same trusty sweeper throughout his career. As he boasted to Del Boy and Rodney: 'Maintained it for 20 years. This old broom has

had 17 new heads and 14 new handles in its time.'

Be the first to write a comment


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

Related articles

  • RSA Catalyst Awards 2022: Round two winners announced

    Beth D'Elia

    Announcing the eight innovation projects receiving RSA Catalyst funding in round two of 2022's awards.

  • Recognising reciprocity

    Al Mathers

    Al Mathers, former RSA Director of Research and Learning, explores the importance of introducing reciprocity into the work of social change organisations like the RSA.

  • Super-nature: shaping how cities feel

    Tamsin Hanke Sash Scott

    Super-nature was one of 10 commissions to feature in the 2022 global exploration research project, Collective Futures. Learn about the work and its outputs in this field note.