Despite the social isolation, the boredom and in some unfortunate cases, the loneliness of lockdown many city-centre residents will have had no difficulty in listing the benefits. Above all perhaps there is the kindness and good humour of strangers in the streets, the quietness, the cleanliness, the fresher air. Of course, much of this is due to the scarcity of people, both residents and visitors, and of traffic. For better or worse this will not last long. Without people and everything they bring, both good and bad, a city serves no purpose and will not long survive. But is there something we can learn from the benefits of lockdown? One undoubted benefit has been the marked decline this spring in the annual migration to the city of breeding gulls. Evidence is anecdotal in advance of the results of the council’s census of breeding pairs but many residents are noting that, compared with recent years, there are very few gulls about and with their absence has gone the raucous noise, the mess on our streets and the risk to health and safety. They seem to have left us in large numbers.
The annual migration of gulls to Bath is caused by the abundance, especially in the city centre, of nesting opportunities on inaccessible and undefended roofs and the generous food supply. There is no reason to think that nesting opportunities have declined but what happened to the food? This is largely provided deliberately by the thoughtless dumping on our streets of litter, particularly of fast food and the containers in which it is provided, and by the presence on our streets of residential and commercial rubbish waiting to be collected. Competing to find food waste, gulls attack the containers in which rubbish is left, scattering debris all over our streets which on windy days finds its way into every corner of the city centre. During the pandemic, residents have been in lockdown but many, including 90% of TARA members, live in apartment buildings where the rubbish collection is centralized. Businesses, on the other hand, have been mostly closed. It seems plausible to argue, therefore, that the retreat of the gulls has been due to the absence of pedestrian litterers on our streets and of the piles of commercial rubbish, particularly food waste from fast food businesses, pubs and restaurants, left on pavements for collection.
If this is so, what can be done? Why are the problems of litter and commercial waste management so damaging to the appearance of our city-centre in normal times?
Collection and removal of commercial waste are the responsibility of the Council and the BID (Business Improvement District). The arrangements in place are complex and, in some respects, poorly conceived and ineffective. For example, although the Council and the BID, which regulate and partially provide collection, removal and disposal services, stipulate that both domestic and trade waste be left out for collection only at certain specified times, morning and evening shortly before collection, these stipulations are often ignored. As a result, significant amounts of waste are left out overnight and attacked by gulls in the early hours of the morning. In addition to timing regulations both the Council and the BID require, and to some extent provide, supposedly suitable packaging in the form of bins and gull and rodent-proof bags. These packaging rules are also routinely ignored. Gull proof bags are easily opened. Bins are overflowing and lids are not closed. Extra, unapproved containers, bags and boxes including supermarket plastic bags are used widely and even the council and the BID appear to be issuing flimsy plastic bags.
The Council’s policy of refusing to collect waste that has not been correctly packaged, while well-intentioned, means that unless and until rubbish is returned to storage scavenging pests are free to attack and scatter it so that it becomes street litter. Both residents and businesses often lack the space to accommodate uncollected waste as well as the various re-cycling containers required. Finally, the many independent contractors used by businesses, so many that it has been difficult to obtain the exact number, often seem like a law unto themselves, frequently showing up too early, too late, or not at all.
Litter, the collection of waste and the gull menace. All of these issues, and the links between them, have been exhaustively rehearsed in recent years, not least in the useful and thorough survey reported by the Chronicle in July 2019. As so often in Bath the problem seems to be not so much with the regulations as with enforcement. So far as waste management is concerned, in its survey last year the Chronicle reported ‘a significant fall in the number of offences by businesses,’ over the past three years. This turned out to refer to the number of fixed penalty notices issued and may reflect a reduced effort by the council rather than improved compliance by businesses. Given the limited resources available it is painful to watch the trouble that has to be taken before action is possible on a single infraction of the regulations for putting out commercial waste. Rubbish must be painstakingly gone through and photographed to identify the culprit. Standards for packaging and for the number and timing of collections need to be reviewed; two collections per week of food waste is inadequate in the commercial heart of the city. More effort is needed, not only to identify businesses flouting the rules and ensure they do not get away with it but also to monitoring and improving the performance of independent contractors. And why does the BID allow permanent waste dumps, in George Street for example, which are a magnet for scavengers both human and animal and remove any incentive for commercial premises to improve their management of trade waste?
As far as residential waste is concerned it makes no sense that the council allows this to be left out overnight where it is open to attack by gulls and rats.
And then there is litter, an issue on which Bath is gaining an unfortunate reputation. Are we doing enough? In normal summers, having started at 6.00 am our heroic five-man city centre team is often still struggling to remove piles of overnight litter mid-morning by which time the streets are crowded with visitors and shoppers. The council should review the funding and organization of litter collection and removal in the city centre and replace the cancelled 3GS contract that brought in £200,000 in £150 fines in ten months with something more thought-through and less controversial.
The gulls seem to have arrived in their usual numbers in late March and gradually retreated as Covid19 indirectly eliminated most of their food supply. Is it possible that if we can at least reduce this food supply in future years we might have the makings of a solution to a problem which has been plaguing Bath for years and attracting critical comment in local and national media?