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Parking, bins and dog poo: how to up the ante on ‘liveability services’

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Commentary on how councils are addressing residents’ priorities

The services on which the most money, attention and worry is spent – social care in its various incarnations – are not necessarily the same services that crop up most often in residents’ minds.

Here’s a historical example. The San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk – the first non-incumbent, openly gay man to win an election for public office in America – failed in his first two attempts at running for office in the mid-1970s. But famously, Mr Milk’s third and successful endeavour in 1976 rested in part on his commitment to rid the city of dog mess; a unifying mandate that boosted his mainstream appeal. He maintained that anyone who could rid the city of dog mess could “be elected mayor of San Francisco, even president of the United States”.

The furious rhetoric “what do I pay my council tax for?” is most likely to be deployed in relation to what Paul O’Brien of the Association of Public Service Excellence calls “liveability services”: clean streets, waste disposal, and well-maintained roads with ample parking or at least the public transport infrastructure that can ease traffic congestion.

Senior officers are not in the business of winning elections, but their council leaders are, and chief executives certainly are interested in improving resident satisfaction levels in their organisations. So, while chiefs and leaders must naturally focus their efforts on the essential, statutory services they provide, what can they do to improve the services about which residents are most likely to write an angry letter to the local paper?

Litter, graffiti and of course, dog mess are major indicators, in the public’s eye, of an area’s prosperity. Aside from redoubling efforts to clean streets, some councils deploy novel tactics to deal with litterbugs: human, canine and avian. Barking & Dagenham LBC leader Darren Rodwell (Lab) wrote for LGC on the borough’s trial use of DNA testing of dog mess to help identify irresponsible dog owners and deter future soiling of the streets. Barking & Dagenham also issues fines to people who spit in the street, while Calderdale BC fines smokers who drop their butts in the street – unless they commit to packing in the fags.

Sometimes, bringing the public on board in finding the solution can help. Scarborough BC issued a public consultation on how to deal with the problem of herring gulls and kittiwakes soiling the streets, as well as causing a racket and stealing food, to reassure residents the problem was on the agenda.

Waste and recycling is a core part of local authority service. Former communities secretary Eric Pickle’s attempts to ensure every council collected bins weekly, rather than fortnightly, may seem to have bordered on the obsessive, but it was actually a shrewd placement of political priorities because waste services are close to the nation’s heart. Lee Marshall of the Local Authority Recycling Advisory Committee has written for LGC on the phenomenon of “bin envy”, which arises when residents see neighbouring areas’ waste services as better than their own. This in turn leads to complaints and residents’ inability – or refusal – to dispose of their waste properly.

But some councils have tackled the problem head on. Warwickshire CC, for instance, invested £100,000 in an intensive marketing campaign about recycling food waste, which, thanks to savings on disposal and treatment of food waste, cut the councils’ food disposal bill by £450,000 per year.

Inadequate parking is also a favourite bug-bear with residents. Last week, LGC published an Idea Exchange article from Nottingham City Council, which launched the first workplace parking levy in the UK in order to deter parking in the city centre and raise money for public transport infrastructure in the city. This, coupled with Nottingham’s previous work on public transport such as the tram system and the self-funding bus network, is designed to ease congestion and improve air quality. Nottingham claims the income from the levy has helped raise millions for the tram network and train station regeneration, as well as eased traffic.

However, there is a note of caution to this tale. Although the council proudly presents this project as a success, it would seem there will always be non-believers. When we tweeted the levy article last week, Nottingham residents came out in force to deride or defend the project – a sure sign of its controversy locally. It would seem a few complaints about liveability services are par for the course.

By Rachel Dalton, features editor

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