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Street Furniture (Graffiti)

Volume 405: debated on Tuesday 13 May 2003

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12.34 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for local authorities to remove graffiti from street furniture owned by statutory undertakers; to enable local authorities to recover costs from the statutory undertakers; and for connected purposes.
I have come to the House on numerous occasions to talk about graffiti. Yesterday, I searched the parliamentary intranet and found that 272 parliamentary documents listed under my name contained the word "graffiti". I am beginning to feel a bit like an anorak or obsessive or, to put it more elegantly, the parliamentary queen of graffiti. There is a reason for that—however much I detest graffiti, my constituents detest it far more. I have lost count of the number of surgery visits, letters, telephone calls and e-mails that I have received from people whose homes, streets and local surroundings are persistently blighted by graffiti vandals. Not only does graffiti visibly drag a community down and corrode the morale of local people, it increases tangibly the fear of crime in a community.

My constituents want tougher measures against the people who commit antisocial crimes. They will welcome the new Anti-Social Behaviour Bill, which will introduce fixed penalties for people who spray graffiti, but they also want more done to clear up the mess left behind. It is vital to punish the perpetrators of these antisocial crimes and to be seen to being doing so. However, my Bill is designed to tackle the second part of the dual approach to graffiti—removing the eyesore from the streets.

Local authorities are working fantastically hard to remove graffiti. In my borough of Merton, dealing with incidents of graffiti has become increasingly challenging over the past few years. According to a report last year by the Greater London Assembly's graffiti investigative committee, local authorities in London spend about £7 million a year removing graffiti. Despite all that expenditure, paid for by council tax payers, survey after survey shows that people are still not satisfied. According to the Association of London Government, more than three quarters of Londoners list graffiti as a quality of life concern. Indeed, it is among the top three concerns of the residents of St. Helier and Cricket Green, two wards in my constituency that are part of a nationwide pilot on police reassurance.

Last year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs undertook a consultation on measures that could help to improve the environment called "Living Places—Powers, Rights, Responsibilities". Launching it, the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life said:
"we want to ensure that those who are responsible for ensuring that our public spaces are clean and safe have the powers that they need … We need everyone from businesses to community groups and individuals to share a common sense of pride and respect for our shared spaces."
That is precisely what I am attempting to do in the Bill. Indeed, one of the proposals in "Living Places" is the creation of a new duty on the owners of street furniture to keep their property clear of graffiti, and extend the powers of local authorities to intervene and deal with graffiti. At present, some of the biggest eyesores appear on street furniture, including cable TV boxes, phone boxes, railway bridges and electricity substations belonging to telecommunications companies, the utilities, or other large multi-million pound companies—the so-called statutory undertakers. However, local councils often find that they cannot remove such graffiti without the agreement of those companies or recover the cost of removing it.

My Bill is designed to overcome those difficulties and ensure that the proposals in "Living Places" are realised. It is relatively simple, but I shall briefly run through it. Clause 1 deals with removal notices for graffiti. Local authorities will be able to serve notice on statutory undertakers and telecoms companies to remove graffiti from street furniture within 14 days. If they fail to do so, the Bill gives local authorities the right to remove the graffiti themselves and claim "expenses reasonably incurred" from the owners. Clause 2 is concerned with an owner's right to appeal against the notice. I am not sure about the extent of that right, but I do not want to appear unreasonable. I do not want to penalise firms that are already victims of crime, but the multi-million pound businesses referred to in the Bill, like most people, do not want graffiti on their property. It undermines their image and makes them look unattractive to their customers, which is why clause 3 gives statutory undertakers the opportunity to have graffiti removed by local authorities as long as they cover the expenses involved.

For many companies, their standing within the community is a key aspect of their corporate social responsibility or CSR, which has now become a massive industry, with major corporations using it to demonstrate their commitment to the world that they live in. Companies understand the public relations value of contributing to the world around them, as it improves their reputation. It is therefore surprising that some companies with big PR budgets for lobbying are still unwilling to do something that would have a massive positive impact on local communities—removing graffiti from street furniture.

Telewest, for instance, is only too happy to invite people like me to receptions at party conferences, but when Merton council wanted to remove some graffiti from Telewest's cable boxes, the company threatened to sue. Indeed, so bad has Telewest been at tackling the issue that the 11 London boroughs that make up South West London against Graffiti have agreed a joint campaign to demand attendance from Telewest at their next meeting to explain their policies. I hope that I get an invitation.

Railtrack, whose PR budget extended to advertising in The House Magazine, which is aimed at people like us, was recently named and shamed by Merton council for not removing graffiti from its property, even though graffiti is so dispiriting for people who live in the area or use the train. I understand that, as a result of that pressure Railtrack, or Network Rail as it is now, has improved its approach. However, those two massive companies are not alone. The Bill will ensure that they will no longer be able to get away with turning a blind eye to their obligations to the communities in which they operate. They will have to clean up their property or pay for local authorities to do it for them, without hard-pressed council tax payers having to foot the bill.

I do not want people to think that all is doom and gloom. There are many examples of progress being made in tackling graffiti. Many local councils have made a major impact. In my area, for instance, Merton council is making great strides. The innovative FLAG project, which covers fly tipping, abandoned cars and graffiti, and has involved publicity campaigns about these issues, has led to reductions in the incidence of graffiti and improvements in its removal. The Anti-Social Behaviour Bill will introduce fixed penalties for people who vandalise their communities with their graffiti.

That Bill will also make it an offence to sell spray paint to under-18s, which is an extremely positive step. With much fanfare, 26 shops in Merton recently launched a voluntary scheme, promising not to sell spray paint to under-18s. However, when council officers went back to the shops a few weeks later, they found that nine of the shops were still selling cans of spray paint to people as young as 13, so it is clear that. even when the intentions are good, the law needs toughening to prevent access to the materials used for tagging or other graffiti, and to punish the perpetrators.

My Bill will tackle the other side of the equation: removing the culprits' handiwork from our streets. It will make it easier for good businesses to seek the help of councils to remove graffiti from their property, and make it easier for local people to have graffiti removed from furniture that is owned by companies that do not really care about their corporate social responsibilities. For the sake of my constituents in Mitcham, Morden and Colliers Wood who want something done about antisocial crimes such as graffiti, which blight the streets and open spaces around their homes, I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Siobhain McDonagh, Laura Moffatt, Barbara Follett, Mr. Barry Gardiner, Jeff Ennis, Mr. Bob Blizzard, Mr. Tom Watson, Jonathan Shaw, John Mann, Geraint Davies, Mr. Gareth Thomas and Shona Mclsaac.