London's 'Capital clean-up'

The pre-Olympic 'clean up' is well underway in London, with homeless people, sex-workers and other marginal groups being managed and, sometimes violently, concealed. Far from exceptional circumstance, this initiative in the capital is worryingly indicative of a trend of wider authoritarian measures being implemented in London and across the UK. 

Sarah Boyes
13 June 2012

This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.

In the run up to the London 2012 Olympics, officials have co-ordinated a 'clean up' of the capital. While there's nothing wrong with sprucing up the city, local authorities have begun seeing urban life – sandwich board men, the homeless, touts - as 'mess' to be 'cleaned' through the imposition of bans and fines.

The mayor-backed campaign 'Capital clean-up' aims to improve London by organising local litter picks and tidying up the banks of the Thames. But it recently become associated with a patronising attitude to Londoners when partner Procter and Gamble ran an advert reading: 'You know when your mum's coming round to your flat and you give the place a quick tidy? Well, our “flat” is London and our “mum” is the rest of the world coming round...come on! Make your mum proud.”

For some local authorities, this is not just about scrubbing walls or planting flowers. The notion of 'cleaning-up' belies a worrying impulse to interfere more directly with urban life. How people use urban spaces is being reorganized, with impenetrable bureaucracy, around vain ideas about an area's 'image'.

It is the one-dimensional redefinition of homeless people as a 'blight' on the cityscape that raises a clear problem. In February 2009, London Mayor Boris Johnson pledged to end the practice of sleeping rough by 2012, but many have been critical of heavy-handed methods used to get rough sleepers off the streets in time.

In particular, the programme 'Operation Poncho' has been denounced for spraying favourite haunts with high-powered water jets to prevent return after asking homeless to move on. This practice of 'wetting down' is particularly uncivilised and demonstrates harassment difficult to reconcile with the remit of offering help. Rough sleepers similarly report an increase in being hassled in the run up to the Olympics through the imposition of 'no sleep zones' and the confiscation of alcohol.

An increase in raids of illegal sex shops in Soho, coupled with the rough treatment of those who work there in order to 'clean up' the area for 2012, presents another worrisome case. Those involved with Soho's hallmark sex industry are being simply redefined as an unpalatable 'mess' to be tidied from view. While Soho may not be to everyone's taste, the casual equation of sex shop owners and prostitutes with stray crisp wrappers is disturbing in its own right.

Meanwhile, a 'dispersal zone' has been declared around the Olympic Village, where police have powers to stop, search and move on anybody found engaging in so-called 'anti-social behaviour'. In reality, this involves activities such as having a drink with friends in a public space or smoking in the wrong place. Journalists already report a group of teenagers being searched for standing too near to some push bikes. The casual redefinition of ordinary social activities as petty crimes – which has been completed over the last decade or so by successive governments - is seeing increased application around these Games.

Indeed, serving out fines against forms of social activity considered problematic is an established trend across the UK, and is simply being concretised in the name of 'cleaning-up' for 2012. Alongside the violent process of relabeling, there are a number of equally perturbing instances of banning social activity from around the capital.

Brick Lane in Tower Hamlets was previously a busy street packed with curry houses and the smell of bagels, trendy bars and people wandering around till the early hours. One proprietor describes how it has recently become 'like a ghost-town'. This is because the street's touts, who used to call out to passers-by to show off their menus, have recently been banned by local authorities from standing on the pavement - on pain of a £20,000 fine. Rather, touts are legally obliged to stand in their doorways to talk to passers-by.

In 2008, one tout received an ASBO for continuing to stand on the pavement to entice passers-by inside his restaurant. By 2011, four restaurants were punished for flouting the ban by having their alcohol licenses revoked for three months. Think about what this means: officials are effectively dictating who is allowed to use public space, where they are allowed to stand and who they are allowed to talk to. This interference doesn't concern genuine crimes, but is about ordinary kinds of social activity that have long been at the centre of city life. Touts are doing nothing 'wrong'; moreover, they are precisely what bring a sense of place and friendliness to Brick Lane.

In a similar vein, Westminster Council has recently banned the use of sandwich boards in their borough's busy commercial Oxford Street and nearby Covent Garden, derisively dubbing them 'cheap and ugly'. Anybody caught faces up to a £2,500 fine. Around the West End, new laws have been proposed to curb the behaviour of stall sellers, who the local authority dismissively described as 'old timers selling bits of nothing'.  

This clean up operation reflects a much deeper trend of officials managing everyday behavior in public spaces - be they urban streets or suburban parks. What we see in London today is not so much coercive new powers being called into being for the Olympics but rather an extension of the use of fines, zones and bans to modify people's behavior. These ‘regulators’ are getting rid of precisely the activities and people that define an area and draw people to it. 

More widely, the official view of public space makes it nearly impossible to conceive as a site of interaction and shared activity. Rather, people and the things they do are redefined as static, passive and isolated pieces of 'mess' akin to a stray crisp packet or coke can. Precisely the quality of shared negotiation (which includes disagreements) that defines public space – and which also animates everyday freedoms  – is increasingly seen as a trouble or a threat in need of official say-so.

This is why the idea of cleaning up our 'flat' of London for our 'mum' the rest of the world is so perturbing. This notion rests on the tacit assumption that we all 'know really' that how we and others use urban spaces is somehow 'wrong'. But the public voice continues to make itself heard: we should not face bans and fines or be forced to seek official permission to use urban spaces as we see fit. 

To find out more about the Manifesto Club, and to report an incident regarding the encroachment of public space, visit their website

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