Turning over a new leaf

Being a councillor has robbed Gavin Corbett (just a little) of the joy of the seasons.

I love going through Harrison Park on a warm summer evening, with the park full of people picnicking, kids playing, the canoe club out on the canal.  But a very small part of me (1%, say) is blanching at the excess of rubbish that will have accumulated by 11pm or by 7am next morning.  Same with the Meadows. The council staff are very good at clearing up but cannot be hovering over people all that time.

Similarly, I love these crisp autumn mornings, with the colour on the trees and the leaves crunching under foot. But I also know that I’ll get calls from residents concerned about leaves choking gullies or making paths and steps slippery.  Streets like Hutchison Crossway (pictured here) are defined by the avenue of trees, and residents would not have it any other way, but they also don’t give many places for leaves to go.

Litter is in our hands.  It is preventable and the aim should be to work with everyone affected to stop the problem at source.  Leaves, and, likewise, snow, are as natural as the rising and setting of the sun.  The question is how best to deal with some of the adverse impacts.

Some of the responsibility lies squarely with the council, of course. Clearing gullies on main roads and keeping cycle paths clear, for example. Or areas near where there are lots of older people or others not as steady on their feet.  But, as a city, we are lucky to have so many trees throughout the year and it simply isn’t possible for council teams to keep on top of leaves in every location.

Luckily, they should not need to.  Returning to my snow parallel, during the big freezes in two consecutive winters in 2010 and 2011 I helped organise a couple of snow clearing efforts, from paths to school playgrounds and I was struck by how much people who took part said they enjoyed it. Physical work in the fresh air. The team work. The visible evidence of the effort made.  And since those two years, the council now has a network of volunteer snow wardens (although it has hardly properly snowed since).

The same applies to leaf clearing. Over the last 2-3 years a team of local volunteers has litter-picked and cleared leaves off the Caledonian Railway Path in Shandon, to avoid it returning to the deep muddy state from which it was rescued. Just this week one of my neighbours, Dave from Cowan Road, has done a sterling job of clearing up leaves from around Craiglockhart Primary School.  And I know that similar community efforts are being made across the city.

This is normal.  When I speak to people from other northern European countries (countries where local government is always much more local and has much greater autonomy over finance than in Scotland) they generally say that it is assumed that communities themselves will take ownership of tasks such as leaf and snow clearing.

I know that some will see this as shrinking of the state.  It isn’t.  I want our council to educate my kids, care for our older people, provide libraries and swimming pools, light the streets, nurture our parks and greenspaces, house homeless people and a thousand other things that need serious investment and professional expertise.  But I also want a state that taps into the energy of residents, the pride people want to feel in where they live and allows neighbourhoods to take ownership of some tasks that can easily and best be handled at very local level.

So pass me a brush and bags.