Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Civic Consciousness - Quality of Life

A few years ago, I was spending a lot of time in the Czech Republic. When a country is unfamiliar, there are always small things which strike you. A group of neighbours emerging from the entrance to their block of flats with brooms and bin bags and proceeding methodically to tidy the grass and paths around their block. A young man, rough and tough, peeling cellophane from a pack of cigarettes and walking ten paces to a litter bin to deposit it. Bottle deposits and a Bottle Returns counter at Tesco to get your money back.

The United Kingdom has a reputation as a dirty country. Dirty streets, dirty hospitals. Sometimes it's exacerbated by public policy. In the seaside resort where I live, domestic waste is collected by the council. Pubs, restaurants and shops pay to have their waste collected by private contractors. The result is that an individual street is never clear of rubbish and rubbish bins, since the council and the contractors all have different collection schedules. There is never a day when the landgulls, the pigeons and the rats can't find something to eat in every street.

But, of course, the people who pass through those streets just chuck their rubbish on the ground. It is amazing to watch what people drop. Even if there was a single collection for the whole street, "the public" would undo the work within hours.

We don't have much civic consciousness. In the Czech Republic, they probably do. It may be part of the legacy of Communism. It probably also goes with being quite small and quite homogeneous - more so since the peaceful separation from Slovakia.

You could probably develop an Index of how anti-social people are in different communities and countries. But first you would have to agree on what counts as anti-social behaviour. To me, anyone who keeps a dog in an urban area thereby announces their intention to deposit shit on the pavements. Sometimes they clear it up, but clearly not all of them and not always. We are probably not the worst offenders. In Paris, I have walked behind elegant women with elegant little dogs. Studying these promenades, I have become convinced that the dogs have been trained to shit on a disliked neighbour's doorstep. Here, it is only on council estates that dogs are used as an offensive weapon.

Recently, we had a lot of snow here on the south coast. Not one householder in a hundred emerged to shovel or sweep the snow into the gutter while it was still soft. With thawing and freezing, the pavements soon became ice rinks. I have never seen anything like it, anywhere. The local hospitals had to declare an Emergency since they were overwhelmed in A and E with people who had fallen down.

Civic and civil go together. Civic consciousness and quality of life likewise. Mr Cameron talks about a "broken society". I would say it is a society in which too many people are locked into private agendas which define anything outside their front door as none of their business. Public spaces - the streets we walk - are places which get trashed because no one thinks they own them or takes pride in them. It's the Council's job.

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