Monday, November 30, 2020
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England, still the dirty man of Europe

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EACH summer I visit England to resuscitate my social and human skills, what there is left of them, after spending the winter in the Nordic region.

My first port of call is often Scarborough. Confronted by the shrill calls of seagulls and avoiding excrement from the sky or stepping in those packages already delivered by four-legged creatures, I am immediately struck by how rundown and dirty everything is.

In the side streets, rubbish is strewn. Bird detritus adorns the pathways of the main thoroughfare that was re-paved a few years ago at extortionate cost. Bird netting covers buildings, the rear ends of seagulls hanging over the edge. And this is supposed to be a tourist resort! Friends from Scandinavia recoil in horror at how deprived the place looks.

When I raise this issue with friends and relatives in the area as to why and how things have come to such a sorry state, the former scapegoat ‘austerity’ is now being replaced by ‘covid’.

I then venture inland to Bradford, where I spent my youth. I find the same deprived, dirty scenario. In Keighley, and that should carry a health warning, the streets are a mosaic of detritus littering the street and pavements. In Saltaire, where I was born, the side streets are a jungle of rubbish bins, the lids flapping in the wind. Such a gem of English history is now a wasteland of false facade with small businesses trying to promote some chic, niche market trades to hide the decay in the back streets.

Again, I ask friends and relatives what is happening, how can things have got so bad? Guess what the reply is: austerity this, austerity that . . . covid this, covid that . . .

But where is individual and community responsibility? Has British society become so addicted to abdicating responsibility that people are incapable of cleaning up after themselves? That they believe the tax they pay or the benefits they claim absolves them of self-decency and that the other is always responsible?

I left the UK in the early 80s and it was called the dirty man of Europe. The expletives I would use now are not printable and the blame lies firmly with the people. It is not restricted to one community or another being held responsible. It is everyone and they need to look in the mirror and ask why they want to live in a toilet.

Those who cannot be bothered to clean up after their dogs, those who discard their litter in the belief that they are accountable to no one, are responsible for this mess. Austerity and covid have nothing to do with it. It is just scapegoating to avoid taking responsibility both for themselves and the community in which they live.

Perhaps it reflects the fluidity of community identity. Mobility is a prerequisite for work today so people cannot put down roots. Communities have become transient populations in which the workforce is constantly changing. So here is the justification for those who want to abdicate responsibility and see no point in investing in the community. They will not be there for a long time or if they do stay they do not identify with their surrogate community; they hark back to the sense of belonging in another community in another locale.

But this is just academic snowflake spiel. There is no justification for throwing rubbish into the streets or using the pathways as a sewage farm. It is common decency, common sense and respect for the community that is lacking. Maybe we are not educating young people to embrace these values, but that is another story . . .

I have lived in the Nordics for many years, especially Finland. The country I see there today is a shadow of the country in the early 1980s. Back then, squadrons of public workers would clean the streets. Times have changed, but the capital city Helsinki still has some semblance of refuse collection and individual and community responsibility. The streets are relatively clean. But the population has no choice, tax levels are high and the Stalinist method of tax administration means the public purse eats more and more of family income.

So before people in the UK call for more public money to increase waste collection and provide more litter bins, ask yourself one question: is it easier and cheaper for you to dispose of the mess you create or pay someone else to clean up after you? Need I really give the answer?

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Dr Graham Wood
Dr Graham Wood is a lecturer at the University of Helsinki.

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