Southwark Council has been criticised for cutting the number of street cleaners it employs over the past decade by nearly 20 per cent, as rubbish piles up on the borough’s streets.
When Labour took control of the council in 2010, Southwark employed some 205 street cleaners, data shared with the News shows. By 2021 this figure had fallen to just 169, a drop of about 18 per cent.
That’s despite a rapid rise in the borough’s population, from about 283,000 in 2010 to 317,000 in 2018, according to the most recent figures published by the Office for National Statistics.
Meanwhile, data released at the most recent full council meeting in response to a question from Liberal Democrat councillor Maria Linforth-Hall shows Southwark’s budget for street cleaning has fallen by about 21 per cent, since 2010, adjusted for inflation.
The council had an annual street cleaning budget of about £7.8m in the 2010-11 financial year. This fell to around £6.1m by the 2012-13 financial year. Although street cleaning spending has risen again in the intervening years, the budget is still considerably lower than in 2010 when adjusted for inflation.
Spending rose to some £8.1m in 2020-21, finally getting back to and above the 2010-11 level, before stalling in 2021-22. Although the number itself is slightly higher than a decade earlier, in real terms it is nearly 21 per cent lower.
While cutting spending on street cleaning, the council introduced a charge on bulky waste disposal in 2015. These charges have added nearly £2m to the council’s coffers over the intervening six years, but Southwark is among the worst local authorities for fly-tipping in the country.
Government figures show there were 17,872 fly-tipping incidents in Southwark in 2019-20, placing it twelfth out of more than 300 local authorities in the UK.
The new figures have drawn the ire of community group the Litterati, a group of volunteer litter-pickers who walk around Bermondsey and Rotherhithe picking up rubbish several times a week
Roger Mallett, who helps run the group, said the cuts were “very frustrating” but “not surprising”. He added: “The amount of rubbish we see on the street is enough to make you despair sometimes.”
The Litterati applied to speak at the November full council meeting but were not successful. The group wanted to ask for more street cleaners in Southwark and to put forward the idea of having bigger bins on council estates.
Mr Mallett said that bins and street cleaning “are not seen as that important”. The Litterati were offered a chance to speak at this week’s cabinet meeting instead.
Despite his criticism of the council, Mr Mallett was reluctant to place blame for the issue solely at the doors of Tooley Street.
“I don’t think Southwark is particularly worse than anywhere else in London… we need a nationwide campaign to educate people on the importance of not littering,” he said.
The Lib Dems also put forward a motion calling for more waste management staff at the November full council meeting, but this was unsuccessful.
Cllr Hamish McCAllum, who leads the Lib Dems, said: “Southwark Labour are failing to deliver basic services and are refusing to listen to residents asking for something as simple as emptier bins.
“These cuts to the council’s budget and street cleaning team are having a direct impact on the cleanliness of our pavements.”
Much of any council’s money comes from central government grants, as well as from taxes on residents and businesses. Money from the government to all local authorities has been slashed heavily since the election of the Conservative-led coalition with the Lib Dems in 2010 – by 37 per cent over the decade from 2009-10 to 2019-20. Covid-19 has exacerbated the pressures on Southwark’s finances.
Cllr Darren Merrill, Southwark’s cabinet member for a safer, cleaner borough, said: “Over the last ten years the council has faced relentless cuts in government funding, and we have had to make difficult choices to protect the most in need in our borough.
“Like all services, the street cleaning service has seen some reductions in funding, but despite this, our excellent street cleaning team continues to maintain high standards of cleanliness across the borough, with 92 percent of our roads found to have either no or very little litter last year.
“This was despite the pressures of COVID-19 which meant the street cleaning team had to scale back most of its service to keep staff safe during the pandemic.”