Gavin Corbett highlights five lessons from a morning on the street cleaning barrow cart.
My regular correspondents will know that I am a bit obsessive about litter. Already in 2018 I’ve organised or taken part in around a dozen community clear-ups. But for a while I have also wanted to get a better insight into the work that goes on, day in, day out, to keep streets clean. So I was delighted, this week, to spend a morning carrying out street cleaning duties.
In the Hutchison part of my ward we have had a street barrow cart for over a year now. It has been a longstanding request of the community council in the area and has been hugely popular.
Paul is currently the barrow cart man and has been in post since May. Formerly a storeman until getting made redundant, Paul applied for this job because he wanted to work outside. He is also brilliant as an ambassador for the council with a natural cheeriness and a real can-do approach. He is as wiry as you’d imagine, with not a spare ounce of flesh on him and brown Mediterranean-type tan, as reflects the long hot summer.
After a health and safety run through with Paul’s team leader, Chris Orrock, at the Murrayburn depot, I spent about three hours street cleaning (about half a normal shift). Most of it was clearing out dead leaves and weeds from footways and gullies, with a fair bit of litter thrown in.
Firstly, it is hard work (as I had expected). I am a fairly fit person, used to physical work (although not in 25 degree heat if I can help it). Even Paul looked taxed by the heat when I met him later on in the day. In the obligatory high-viz vest and heavy work trousers it’s not long before you are dripping in sweat. So when you see a street cleaner taking a pause bear in mind that they are doing it for several hours a day, every day.
Secondly, that people appreciate it. All the comments we got from passing residents were positive, although Paul tells me that very occasionally, people seek to unload on him wider frustrations with the council. Back at the depot, Chris tells me that cleansing staff are sometimes subjected to threats or abuse, which is shameful.
Thirdly, hedges. At this time of year a street cleaner’s job is much harder if an uncut hedge is protruding halfway out on the pavement as well as offering a safe haven for countless crisp and sweetie wrappers. That is leaving aside the accessibility issues for people in wheelchairs or kids in buggies. I took a note of addresses with uncut hedges and they will all be followed up. In the meantime, please keep your hedges clear of the footway. Please!
Fourthly, cars. When the Hutchison council estate was built between the wars, there were, in effect, no cars. Most of the streets are narrow and are now lined with vehicles although the problem of pavement-parking is not generally as much of an issue here as elsewhere. Looking up the line of footways we had cleaned is satisfying with the one taint that we could not access areas where cars are parked to the kerb. Paus is pragmatic about this. Being in the area every day he says eventually he will get to every kerbside as cars come and go. But if you see a street with areas that appear untouched, that will be why.
Fifthly, that keeping our city clean is one for all of us. From my three hours spent with him, I could see that Paul takes real pride in his job. But he also has moments of weariness on stumbling across fly-tipping or heedlessly discarded waste. There is no solution to cleaner streets that involves council staff traipsing behind litter-throwers. That is why I have been so enthusiastic about the Clean Green Hutchison campaign: partly about getting local people, from primary school kids to pensioners, involved in practical tasks like community clean-ups; but equally about getting over the message that if we want cleaner areas it is in our own hands as well.
Of course, my few hours are only a small taste of what staff do day after day. But my thanks to Paul and Chris for letting me share in their work. Next time, I’ll make it a winter’s day though!