Blair to trashy Brits: Clean up your act

Prime Minister Blair announced a plan last week to crack down on antisocial behavior.

Stranded on their bare axles, the two cars have been smashed up, stripped, and stuffed with refuse on a suburban street corner that runs between a public-housing project and a neat row of red-brick Victorian townhouses.

"People are slovenly, and the [borough] council never gets round to tidying up after them," says Internet manager Katherine Hartje, passing the scene on her way to work. "This wouldn't happen if people were prouder of where they live," she says.

A walk around this ordinary North London neighborhood offers more evidence of why British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the British public are taking notice of the seemingly trivial issues of garbage and graffiti. A dumpster the size of a small truck overflows with abandoned furniture and household trash stretching halfway across the road.

As the queen opened a new parliamentary session last week, Mr. Blair promised to crack down on loutish behavior including "low-level aggression, vandalism, fights in town centers on Friday and Saturday nights, antisocial neighbors, fly tipping [illegal garbage dumping], abandoned cars, graffiti, [and] truancy."

In a move reminiscent of former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani's zero tolerance policy, the government has suggested a sweeping range of measures to deal with these "low-level nuisances" - including welfare cuts for unruly families, fixed fines for petty crimes, and restrictions on the sale of aerosol paint.

Some observers, however, say the initiatives are a Band-aid approach to larger societal problems.

Blair's campaign comes at a time when Britons, despite recent declines in actual crime rates, remain especially concerned about crime. This concern is reinforced by what Home Secretary David Blunkett called "low-level thuggery that makes people's lives a misery."

"However much schools and hospitals improve, if people walk out of their doors and are confronted by abuse, vandalism and antisocial behavior, they will never feel secure or able to take advantage of new opportunities," wrote Mr. Blair in a recent newspaper article.

Social-services officials throughout the country say that they would welcome any help they can get in addressing the problem.

"Every public meeting I go to, every residence association I go to, every problem-solving group that I set up, the main issue is people causing annoyance and antisocial behavior," says Paula Field, a local Antisocial Behavior Officer in the Tameside area, near Manchester.

Functioning somewhat like a gang-control officer in the United States, Mrs. Field mainly deals with unruly teenagers. For example, she hands out antisocial behavior orders that ban troublemakers from frequenting certain areas or having contact with certain people. Field says she favors a controversial proposal to fine nuisance tenants and parents of persistent truants.

But some social-welfare activists argue the hard-line approach will not solve complex and deep-rooted social problems. "Reducing the income of families living in poverty is not going to make the difficult job of parenting any easier," says Martin Barnes of the Child Poverty Action Group, which lobbies on behalf of low-income families. Mr. Blair's critics say that by bundling together disparate problems into one package, the government risks failing to find an answer for any of them.

"Lumping them together as "anti-social" makes it easy to avoid thinking about their social causes," wrote columnist Judith Williamson in the Guardian newspaper, arguing that many of the issues on Blair's list of problems have been exacerbated by failings in the education system and budget cuts to services such as libraries, youth clubs, and local sanitation departments.

Writing in the conservative Daily Telegraph, columnist Janet Dailey blamed Britain's "yob [lout] culture" on liberal ideas of education and childrearing: "Much of the most problematic behaviour is simply obnoxious, rather than criminal, and is a reflection of a society that has lost any sense of the rightness of discipline."

But waste-management expert Chris Murphy sees problems like littering and fly tipping as part of a wider lack of personal, public, and corporate responsibility. "People see these things as a problem - but it's not their problem. We need a huge education program to make them change," he says.

John Rees, of the Local Government Association, says that educational campaigns will only succeed when they are backed up by local spending - and, if necessary, the threat of tougher, even penal, actions by local authorities. "We need to address why people feel that public space isn't theirs and why they think it's perfectly all right to drop litter and abandon cars or throw a match into a pile of rubbish. But we also [have] to be able to take effective action where it's necessary."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.