Saving Your Local Town

So your town is a dump. Too much traffic, too many empty shops and charity stores, lots of pollution, litter, dog poo, and vandalism everywhere you look, poor public transport, drunks and petty crime? Well try these techniques and you might save it.

First off, there's the problem of the dying town centre (usually dealt a nigh mortal blow by the out of town shopping centre). Out of town shopping centres were always going to damage town centre retail, but they sprang up all over the place in the 1980s due to that heady symbiotic cocktail of the ignorant councillor planner and the plain brown envelope. The internet has also changed shopping patterns, and both retailers and planners have been slow to react.

If your town centre is suffering, set up a multi-trader delivery system so that anything purchased in your town by its residents will be delivered to their door. Share the costs and make the fees as low as they can be, with no charge for pensioners and the disabled. This makes it even easier to shop in the town centre than in the out-of-town stores, and means people don't have to use their cars to transport their shopping, so they can walk to and from the town centre. This reduces traffic congestion, airborne pollution, and gets your residents some exercise. Laziness, an excessive reliance on the motor vehicle, and obesity have this knack of going together. Reduce the cost of parking a car in town centre car parks if it contains 4 or more people. Triple the cost if it contains fewer than four people. This encourages car sharing and makes people think twice about using their cars. For pensioners, those who live in rural locations, or the disabled, reduce the fees.

Most town centres were badly planned, or not planned at all. If you have empty spaces in the centre of towns, offer incentives to pull in retailers sited in fringe locations, and redesignate their previous retail locations as 'residential'. Concentrate your retail so people don't have to walk so far, and zone your town, so similar retailers (food, estate agents) are located near each other. Make sure you have some outdoor seating for cafes and for eating takeaways on sunny days. Plant as much greenery as you can in your town centre and maintain it properly. Make sure all covered public areas are non-smoking, and try to ensure that their are non-smoking zoned areas wherever you have tables for eating, and at least one non-smoking eatery if not more. Provision for vegetarian/vegan diets is beneficial too. A vibrant town centre can support a full range of such venues. And keep the place clean and tidy.

A regular market helps a town centre stay vibrant. Make sure it complements local retailers rather than taking trade from them. Farmers' markets are popular. If your town is surrounded by farms, mark them, their names, and farm shops on your town map, and bring the farmers and their local produce into the town centre, into the market or into shops, to speak to their customers. An antiques market is a good theme to pursue. The more vendors you have, the more popular the market, as all the items are unique and there is no economic conflict. Regular job fairs are also beneficial.

At night your town centre should be a happy, relaxed, safe place for families and individuals. The biggest problem here is drunkenness. Binge drinking by groups leads to an intimidatory atmosphere, conflict, and vandalism, and kills the potential for a town to have nightlife. Nightlife doesn't involve being publicly drunk. Forget lowlife Brits-abroad. Sweep the town regularly and arrest everybody who is publicly drunk or causing any form of disturbance. The police will not want to do this. As a council you have to demand it under the threat of an embarrassing court action by the council against the police for loss of amenity for their failure to act. Ensure that anyone publicly drunk in your town goes straight to the cells in a police van, gets fined enough to cover all public costs, and goes home next morning with some explaining to do, a hole in their bank balance, and aware that next time the fine will be higher. Close any pub that repeatedly allows its customers to become drunk to the point of causing a nuisance. Create a safe family-friendly atmosphere in your local town, day and night, and repeatedly prosecute anyone who disturbs it. Hand out court orders like confetti, and make your town a lowlife-free zone.

Health and safety is important. Fund additional regular checks on all town centre eateries. Don't expect Trading Standards to do this adequately, for funding reasons they don't check regularly enough. Be tough and close any retailer that doesn't get an entirely clean bill of health. This is public health, and there is no room for leniency. Do the same with food retailers. This gives your town a good reputation as a safe and healthy place to eat out.

Rubbish, dog poo, and general vandalism are a real problem and need to be sorted quickly. Most councils outsource their waste management, which means that the people running the service don't care, and can't be naffed to do it properly. Don't take this out on the individuals actually doing the work-the fault is in management. Make a lot of public noise about how much of a mess the place is, and find out who is responsible. Make sure their names keep appearing in the local paper alongside the word 'incompetent'. Try to find ways of pushing the council to review the contract of the outsourced waste collection company, so they get their act together. If waste management is handled by district or borough councils, get your town council to take out full page adverts in the local paper condemning the quality of service. Take photos of local rubbish and put them in the paper, and on a website. Publish the names and works contact numbers and e-mail addresses of those responsible for the service, so members of the public can directly contact them if they have a problem. Test 'hotlines'.

Your town will go downhill if it looks like a dump, so this is an important issue. People only take care of an area that looks neat and tidy. If the place looks like a tip, people will feel that one more piece of rubbish won't make a difference. Try and instill into people the fact that cleaning up your immediate enviornment is about self-respect and community. The attitude that 'I didn't drop it so I'm not going to pick it up' is all about selfish, arrogant, hyper-individualism, and is common in unpleasant, lazy people. You won't convince these people to get off their lazy backsides to pick rubbish up, so you will have to make sure that the council's services do work.

Ultimately, your local council may need to be taken to court to force them to tidy up an area on health and safety ground. A local council can do this with a recalcitrant district or county council.

Make sure that all dumped cars are removed speedily, and remove cars that are parked in your streets merely as a forecourt for a mobile-phone based spiv selling cars. Punish fly-tippers, and fly-posters without mercy. Vandals (or their parents) should be prosecuted for the full costs of legal action and the consequent clean-up. Use videocameras and CCTV to identify offenders, either with direct stake-outs or by lending equipment to residents.

Public transport is a problem since bus deregulation and rail privatisation. In both cases service quality has degraded. In the case of buses, supply town maps to bus users and non-bus users and ask them to pinpoint where they would like to use buses to go from and to, and when. Collate this data using software (or a map and a felt tip pen) and plan your routes and bus stop sites accordingly. Make sure your bus stops have covered, transparent-sided shelters and seats, and police them for vandalism/indigents. Note that bus stops are often used at night as pick-up points and sales venues for drug deals. Try to employ bus drivers with customer-friendly personalities. It should be part of the job description.

A local station is vital for a town. If you have a derelict one shut down by Beeching, and can feasibly reopen it, try to. If you have (as many towns do) an existing station in poor repair, inadequately staffed, with poor facilities, and regarded as unsafe at night (or even during the day), then this needs sorting as a matter of urgency.

Attempt to buy your local station for a nominal sum from Network Rail, offering to staff it, maintain it, and operate it as a community resource under charitable trust status. Or it will just carry on going downhill. A properly managed station, with good security, full staffing, attractive buildings, clean toilets and waiting areas, and a food and drinks outlet is vital to any community. The privatised rail network is so bad, that this is now the only way to do it.

Open a single town-centre help-point for council services and advice, and ensure that you never say 'that isn't within our remit, you have to speak to the district/borough/county council department about that'. The demarcation in responsibility for local services is a good example of how something can make sense to a bureaucrat on paper but simply doesn't work in practice (you will find many similar examples in government, local and national).

In all cases, go beyond your remit to provide the service that is requested. If a resident has a problem with something that is the district council's responsibility, the help-point should immediately make the necessary call to the appropriate person to sort the issue out.

Failures of service (say in waste management, drain clearance, streetlight fixing etc) need sorting immediately. If you are a town council and you are not getting an adequate service from your district or county council, for each problem, on behalf of your resident, drag the failing council into the small claims court to request a 50 payment plus costs settlement to the resident for 'loss of amenity'. Keep a big pile of blank forms ready for this, and make sure that if you don't get the service you should, your local councillors and their sub-contractors can expect to be spending a lot of their time in the local small claims court apologising for how crap their service is. Publicise this. You'd be amazed how many people, locally, will be happy to point out your local council's failings, and how quickly all your local problems get fixed when it becomes clear to your district/county councillors that it is more expensive and aggravating for them to ignore your problems than to fix them.

Drains are important. In fact all of the local infrastructure is important. Your residents ought to know this, but they don't as most people have a fairly narrow and shallow cognitive arena. To some extent they shouldn't need to think about drains as they pay their council tax for others to maintain them in excellent working order. Make sure they are. Every drain, every street light, and every other aspect of the built-environment, especially road signs. Note too that you can get a darker sky and better lighting by placing 'hats' on top of all street lights. It reduces light pollution, is safer, and is better for the environment.

One problem that causes increasing distress is the inappropriate siting of security lights, many of which are far too bright, and may breach H&S guidelines. When these shine above the level of exterior boundaries (most do, its an ignorance/machismo thing) they cause annoyance. When they shine too brightly, for too long, or in the wrong places, they become insecurity lights, as residents can no longer see when they hear suspicious noises and look out of their windows at night, without being blinded by the 'security' lights. Finally, when they shine into oncoming traffic, they can cause accidents.

Large trees are becoming less prevalent in towns. Fear about what the roots do has lead to a terrible reduction in the civic planting of large trees. This is a tragedy for the environment, local wildlife and birdlife, and a terrible legacy to leave to future generations. Street trees eat pollution and improve the quality of life for residents. Plant new ones each year, young and mature (mature trees are more resistant to vandalism). Make sure newly planted trees are regularly watered for the first year. Don't give permission for trees to be cut down without really good reasons. Map all of your local trees so you have an audit of your major fauna. And make sure that council tree surgery, usually outsourced, is done well. In most cases it is variable to terrible. Where contractors damage the roots of a tree, keep an eye on it. If it dies (slowly) as a result, sue them for the costs of a mature replacement.

Be wary of councils who blow their entire environmental budget in an annual 'Britain in Bloom' competition, leaving the place to look like a dump for the rest of the year. It is better to have a good environment all year round than a huge number of hanging baskets for 2 weeks during judging. In a properly managed town, any rubbish visible to the naked eye should be an unusual sight.

Use ASBOs to cut crime. This is a serious problem in a local community. Public parks need to be safe places for families to take their children, and for joggers and walkers, free from intimidating gangs of teenagers swigging from bottles, broken glass, and dog crap. Hand out court orders like confetti to make it so.

Prosecute people who don't clear-up after their dogs using covert surveillance, wipe out feral cat populations to protect domestic cat populations from the diseases they carry, and to protect local wildlife, and encourage cat-owners to keep their pets indoors at night when they pose the greatest risk to local wildlife.

Develop thorough town guides, printed and online, and keep them up to date. Produce a Senior Pack for pensioners that details (in large print and direct language) all the benefits they are entitled too, and the contact numbers of those organisations that exist to provide support. If you can get ADSL, publicise this. It can help to attract homeworkers, and that means less pollution. Ensure you have a proper kerbside recycling scheme, and manage it properly, so that emptied recycling boxes are not dumped on the pavement or on peoples' gardens. Urge people to pack the boxes with some care, to stop their waste from blowing around. Encourage the use of shredders for personal documents to prevent dumpster-diving crime, and offer special deals on composters, shredders, and CO2 detectors. Offer regular, in-house electric blanket testing. Sell smoke alarms at a low cost, and install them for free in the homes of pensioners, those on low incomes, and the disabled. Loan out CCTV systems free of charge to residents with neighbour problems and then prosecute vigorously with the evidence collected.

Whenever prosecution is used, make sure it happens rapidly (for example the issue of neighbours-from-hell). 24 hours is a long time to live next door to a problem neighbour, never mind 3 months waiting for a case to crawl to court. Use the courts vigorously, and don't allow cases to drag on. In interim periods, get a court order to prevent potential problems. Don't rely on the police. They don't enjoy the paperwork on what they see as 'minor' criminality, and however willing the individual officers are, they are failed by their own operational procedures. It is much quicker getting a direct order from a court. Do whatever works.

CCTV cameras can assist in the prevention and prosecution of crime (as long as they work properly). Hidden speed cameras are vital to make an area safe. Install as many as you can. Telling people where speed cameras are is like telling them 'slow down to a legal speed here, or you'll get nicked, but past here you can drive as fast as you think you safely can, however fast that is, and you won't get nicked-you might clip the odd kid, but hey, thats just a dead kid, and the world isn't exactly short of children, so don't worry too much. Isn't it wonderful that they paint them yellow, too, so you can see them even when you are drunk!'

Too often, when people climb into their cars they become Captain Kirk at the helm of the Enterprise. Their sense of responsibility goes out the window and they become arrogant cretins who feel any legal limitations are shocking impositions on their freedom. Well people who speed, talk on their mobile phones whilst driving, and drink drive are dangerous and need to be removed from the roads. Once caught, they should be yellow-carded for a first offence, and given a life-ban from driving for a second (red-card) offence. Society may still regard someone who drives a little too fast, after just one drink too many, and accidentally clips a child, killing them, and someone who abducts and kills a child, differently, but the child is just as dead, and the perpetrator just as responsible. Don't drink at all if you are going to drive. People only want to know where speed cameras are so they can get away with a crime that may lead to the death of an innocent person. Such people are scum: beneath contempt. Those who publicly offer information on the location of speed cameras might ask themselves next time they hear of a traffic accident, whether they played their part in it.

Generally, even if there is a will to do many of these things, local councils are notorious for their complete lack of speed. It can take six months to order paper clips in local government, and then you probably end up with drawing pins. The only way all of this works is if you build up a momentum, and create a buzz. Do things quickly, so people can link the problem, the complaint, and the solution and see that things are happening. Once you have stabilised your town centre, and set up a safe, clean, friendly, welcoming, and crime-free environment, then you can watch it blossom, and start to expand the development of additional services upon a sure foundation, without spending all your revenue picking up the pieces from drunken vandalism, and all of your time trying to stem the tide of decay. Social environments do not remain static: they tend to spiral upwards or downwards. By default, they will decay. So get stuck in.

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