The answer to rubbish left on Port Meadow is not officiousness from council or police but more bins.
This time of year always brings parties on Port Meadow. Some are sedate affairs with chilled wine and sandwiches on warm afternoons. Others involve hordes of young people with plastic bags full of cheap plonk and beer, enjoying themselves and each other in the grass until dawn when they tramp noisily back into town.
In a heavily-regulated age, where most outdoor entertainment is corporate or state-sponsored, they are an outpost of freedom – freedom from exams, from parents and from authority. Ten years of Blair has seen a shift from the British idea that everything is allowed which is not prohibited to a world where official permission is needed for everything, with a fee to pay to a functionary – an insidious erosion of freedom which is cumulatively quite as damaging as Blair’s more defined attacks on liberty.
Freedom always comes at a price, even without repressive government. The price is responsibility, at least to the extent of leaving a place as you found it. Most Port Meadow parties leave little mark beyond impressions in the grass to show where young Emily and her virginity parted company. I doubt that each party-goer virtuously takes away what they brought, the tidying up usually falling on a small group of boys and girls more responsible than the rest.
Other parties, however, involve more serious lapses of responsibility – trees destroyed to make fires, broken glass where dogs and cattle walk or, at the least, piles of rubbish for someone else to clear up. Since that someone else is quite often me, I have strong views on the subject. This is not just what you might expect – middle-aged harrumphing about the standards of modern youth – but a fear that this year’s rubbish will be next year’s officious little runt trying to ban or control the parties, and a belief that Oxford City Council could do more to meet the party-goers half-way on the subject of clearing up.
I am not so idealistic as to expect every drunken youth to carry off his or her tins and bottles – I know they should, and I appreciate it when they do, but many will not. This is not just human nature or, rather it is human nature but human nature as it has been modified by nannying government. The interventionists who have held power for a decade have as their central creed that government knows best, that every aspect of our lives is best left to officials paid from our taxes and qualified to do our thinking – and our clearing up – for us.
Whatever one’s view on the theory, the practice is best illustrated by taking an interventionist minister – the deeply useless Patricia Hewitt for example – and the last civil servant or council official you came across – a whiny-voiced automaton with a clip-on tie perhaps – and realise that the New Labour scheme of things means that people of this calibre purport to tell you how to run your life. The result, in every area of personal conduct, is that people actually do surrender responsibility for their actions. It is the state’s job, they think, to look after their babies, to dictate what they eat, to protect them from life’s vicissitudes – and to clear up after them. That’s what we pay our taxes for, isn’t it?
The problem with this, apart from the dehumanising effect, is that the state is useless at performing these functions, whether in big things like managing the NHS or small ones like collecting the litter. The Port Meadow parties are to Oxford City Council what snow and leaves are to Network Rail – they come up every year, at about the same time of year, and yet are always a surprise to those in charge.
What would you do, if you were the Chief Rubbish Officer for Oxford? You know that on warm Friday and Saturday nights in June, hundreds of young people will stream out onto the Meadow with bags of booze in cans and bottles. They will drink it all. The more offensive of them will smash bottles into their fires; the more responsible among them will take home at least as much as they brought out and perhaps more. Many will just wander off home, not deliberately leaving litter but not consciously collecting it either.
In the morning, the few little bins will be full of and surrounded by rubbish, most of it in bags, and Port Meadow and Burgess Field will have large patches of litter on them. Some Meadow users will collect a lot of this – tutting no doubt, but they will do it. Some of last night’s party-goers will come back and do a bit. Some will be left for council staff to collect. How would you cut down the amount left behind?
The simple answer, surely, is to put out more bins. Not just at the exit points, but out there in the middle of the field and at the gate to Burgess Field, in the places where observation tells you the crowds like to gather. On Monday, go and collect them up again.
Supplement this with a few notices. I hate notices because sticking up notices is the council pen-pusher’s universal answer to everything – it saves him having to think about real issues, is generally just a tangible way of showing that he has done something, and is so over-used as a means of transmitting official rules that no-one reads them any more. Nevertheless, if council officers put up a few temporary notices (get someone else to draft them, of course), they might, just, prompt people to remember what ought to be obvious. This generation has a reasonably well-developed sense of what is right, coupled with the focus and attention-span of goldfish. The combination of a well-drafted notice and an easy place to dispose of the rubbish might work a treat.
It will be objected that this costs money for which there is no budget. Well, one answer to that is that these events come round with sufficient regularity for someone to remember them at budget-time. It also costs money to clear up the scattered litter. Oh, and the parents of these children are paying ever-higher amounts in Council Tax for ever-diminishing services.
Litter is not the only problem. Residents complain about the noise made by returning revellers which last week included fireworks at 1:30am. Some are heard to say that the police should be called.
I am an enthusiastic hanger and flogger by nature. Show me the person who left a broken bottle in the middle of a path used by dog-walkers, or those who stripped down young trees for firewood last year, and I would have a rope slung over a sturdy bough in no time with a yob at the end of it. I would not now, however, call out the police to break up a party on the Meadow. I might have done ten years ago, but not now.
Depending on your point of view, the police are 1) fine chaps badly served by their masters, who have enough serious crime to be dealing with and inadequate resources to do it with or 2) idlers cowering behind CCTV screens filling in forms or 3) heavy-handed oafs who are likely to pick on the innocent and treat a teenagers’ party as if it were a terrorist gathering. I personally won’t call them out since seeing a party organiser last year in the back of a police car with hand-cuffs on. I have no idea what he did, only that the site of his party had already been meticulously cleaned.
I loathe heavy-handed officials very much more than I loathe rubbish. I don’t trust either the police or council officials to get the right targets or to care if they were the right targets. At least the rubbish can be collected. We can’t rebottle official powers.