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A Green Voice for Southwark

Eleanor Margolies is standing up for Camberwell and Peckham in 2018

This emergency is not a metaphor

child in air pollution mask

Lifeboats

Emergency food supplies

Emergency exits in theatres…

No one would think it was acceptable for these to be supplied only ‘if feasible’. But that is what Southwark Labour is saying in the motion proposed by the Cabinet member for Environment to Southwark Council assembly this evening.

I am delighted that a motion to declare a climate emergency is being put to the councillors. Acknowledging the climate emergency is the first step that will allow councils to take radical action to transform housing, transport and waste. It’s something that members of the Green Party and activists involved with Extinction Rebellion, Fossil Free and other groups have been asking for at council meetings around the country.

Bristol was first to agree a motion. A Green Party motion in our neighbouring borough, Lambeth, was passed in January. Soon after, the London Assembly declared a climate emergency. However, the Mayor failed to give any concrete budget commitments for a zero carbon plan. As Caroline Russell, Green Assembly Member, has written:

“We are facing 1.5 degrees of warming by 2030. The Mayor’s plans are working to 2050 and are out of date. Unless he updates his plan, he cannot tell government what London needs to tackle the climate crisis.

“This is no time for complacency. We don’t have 30 years. We have just over a decade to cut the risks that extreme heat, drought and flooding pose to the wellbeing of Londoners.”

Like the London Assembly declaration, Southwark’s declaration of a Climate Emergency will be empty words without a plan of action. The motion calls on the councillors who are members of the cabinet to:

‘Develop a strategy, working with local stakeholders, to ensure that the council becomes carbon neutral at a much more rapid pace than currently envisaged. This Carbon Reduction Strategy should aim to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 if feasible.’ [my emphasis]

I hope this motion is passed tonight. I’m glad to see that the council wants to work with local stakeholders. We have so much expertise in the borough already – from urban gardeners to beekeepers, cooks keeping food out of the waste stream, shopkeepers helping consumers avoid plastic, people delivering passengers and cargo by bike and helping others to cycle… A recent Peckham and Nunhead Community Council meeting brought together some of this expertise.

But in the motion as it stands there is no date for Carbon Reduction Strategy to be ready, let alone implemented, and no detail of how stakeholders will be involved. I would like to see the council use methods of citizens’ assembly or open space – ways of organising discussion that bring out the best from everyone rather than following an agenda prepared in advance.

The climate emergency is not a metaphor. And it is not a problem for the future. It is happening now. We have seen devastating floods this year: cyclone Idai affecting 2.5 million in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe with the loss of hundreds of lives, and potentially another 2 million hit by flooding in the central states of the US. In Southwark, the heatwave last summer caused a spike in deaths, asthma and lung disease is increasing and life expectancy is falling as we choke ourselves with exhaust fumes.

Where is the emergency plan?

Where is the information for citizens explaining the nature of the emergency and the steps we must take?

We already know how to reduce carbon consumption. We don’t have to wait for ‘new carbon reduction technologies as they develop’, as the motion suggests. While being open to technological developments, we mustn’t fool ourselves that commercial solar airplanes or carbon sequestration will be ready in the next five or ten years.

Among the changes councils could make very quickly, they could:

  • apply zero carbon standards to all new building applications in the borough
  • install more secure cycle parking so people who want to cycle can do so
  • increase recycling and composting by simplifying systems and informing people

Within a few months, they could change policies to:

  • install solar panels and insulation on all council properties
  • build many more cycle paths
  • plant more trees and pollution-filtering hedges
  • close school streets to through traffic

The reason for making these essential changes can  be communicated clearly to residents under the umbrella of the Climate Emergency. Cutting carbon emissions is not a ‘nice thing to do, if feasible’. It’s essential, life-saving action.

Last week I was backstage just before the doors were opened at a London theatre. I watched as a Front of House manager rehearsed the ushers on emergency procedure. He said something like: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, for your safety we need to stop the show at this point. Please leave the auditorium by the exits indicated.’ All the ushers then said aloud, in their own manner, ‘This way please’, pointing to the doorway they stood by. They practice this procedure before every performance. It means that if there is an emergency, the ushers won’t stumble over what to say or where to point. And they transmit their calm, purposeful manner to the public.

Please be brave, Southwark councillors. Refuse to say ‘if feasible’. Think of yourself as fire marshals, or theatre ushers if you prefer, calmly announcing what must be done for the sake of public safety.

 

 

 

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Put down the plastic

 

Ahead of the Southwark Green Party discussion about plastic with Plastic Free Peckham, I have been thinking about my own use of plastic. My main weekly veg shop comes thanks to Local Greens – a not-for-profit veg bag scheme. I pick it up on Thursday evenings on the way home from work, from a shed in the beer garden of my local pub (other collection points are available!). I like that the fruit and veg is sourced from farms as close to London as possible, and the system of collection points means fewer delivery van trips are required. Local Greens use reusable bags; some of the herbs and salad greens inside are packed in paper bags, but some are in plastic.

Two nylon shopping bags, one green one brown, printed with the words 'Local Greens'

I do pick up other fresh fruit that can’t be grown near London – citrus fruits, bananas – from supermarkets, but the vegetables usually cover my main meals for the week. This week, the bag included pak choi, purple sprouting broccoli and rocket, as well as carrots, parsnips and onions.

In the bathroom, I’ve got toothpaste in a jar and silk dental floss from Anything But Plastic – the floss is a revelation, being softer and more effective than the plastic version. There’s a bar of soap and a shampoo bar from Lush instead of shampoo in a plastic bottle. Refills of detergent, washing up liquid and surface cleaner come from Karavan Eco on Lordship Lane.

Bartley Shaw, a Nunhead resident, set up a hyper-local refill scheme with his neighbours that also had the benefit of bringing people together as a community: ‘Already, neighbours are positive about what else we can do and acknowledge the real benefits of such a simple shift in how we behave’.

And I’ve got a waterbottle, a reusable coffee cup and a spork for the work bag.

I haven’t tried to go plastic-free all at once, as Amelia Womack did (as she discusses with Jenny Jones in this great podcast about fast fashion and plastic). I’ve just tried to swap things over little by little – and once you’ve found an alternative that works, it’s easy to stick with it.

But I still end up with a bin full of this sort of flimsy food packaging that can’t even go into the recycling.

Photo of plastic food wrappers

I’m doing away with some of this by doing a monthly shop for staples with the Naked Larder in Herne Hill. You put in an order in advance and the stocks are ordered in bulk for people to weigh out themselves. The quality is really good and it’s just a ten-minute cycle from home.  Other local plastic-free shops include Bring Your Own in Nunhead who will be at the Southwark Greens social on Thursday.

But I’m still collecting ideas for low-stress alternatives to plastic-wrapped SNACKS (i.e. falling upon a packet of crisps when too hungry to think straight). On days when I’m organised, I manage to bring some almonds and dried apricots in a plastic pot. And yesterday my colleague produced these amazing home-made date and fruit snacks in reusable pot….

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London Green Party hustings

I wasn’t able to attend the full hustings on Saturday 16 March because I had a long-standing work commitment – but Caroline Russell, the chair, kindly read out statements from candidates who couldn’t attend. Below is my statement (with some added links) and there’s a windswept video here.

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I’m really sorry that I can’t be with you this afternoon. I’m just down the road at the Globe Theatre, where I’ll be describing costumes, sets, rude gestures and sword fights – for blind and partially-sighted people. Normally I’d be able to swap with a colleague, but Saturday 16 March is ‘Disabled Access Day’. There are inclusive events in practically every London theatre and museum – which is great! – but it means everyone I know is working today, so I couldn’t get away.

I’m also sorry because I enjoy taking part in hustings – well, most of the time! I like hearing unfamilar views and experiences, thinking on my feet, and having an opportunity to put across Green Party policies to non-members who might be hearing about the four-day week or basic income for the first time. Last April, as co-chair of Southwark Green Party, I spoke alongside other party leaders at a hustings in Southwark Cathedral – a beautiful, if rather intimidating, location.

So, why do I think I will make a good MEP? The current Green MEPs have an amazing reputation for hard work, detailed scrutiny of legislation and researching and writing reports that lead to action. For example, Sian Berry has said that a report called ‘Hothouses’ produced by Green MEPs fed directly into current London Assembly policy to insulate homes properly. My background in research and writing means I have the skills and the tenacity to make technical information understandable and to show how it relates to everyday life.

I’m writing this on Friday 15 March as images of school strikers are flooding in – not just in capital cities but in more than 2000 places across the world. It’s the duty of elected politicians to respond to the call from the students for rapid and genuine action on climate change. I’m looking to the European Parliament to do that. To avert catastrophic climate breakdown and tackle the power of the planet-eating monster corporations, we need to work together.

We know what we need to do. Ban fracking and coal mining – invest in solar and wind instead. No new runways – affordable long-distance trains instead. Ban toxic diesel and replace it with electric buses, cargo bikes, cycle networks and walkable, tree-lined streets. For London, this investment would mean creating thousands of new green jobs: insulating draughty homes and installing solar panels on every block of council flats, for starters. As a campaigner on air pollution, cycling and social housing, I’ve been inspired by seeing good ideas in action in cities across Europe and have brought them into the conversation in the UK. I promise to work hard in the coming months to tell the story of the EU’s successes and to show why we need Greens in the room! Please make me your first choice for the list.

 

 

Whose Business? #AOB

 

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I have a proposal for anyone who ever goes to a meeting. A meeting for work, for the parent-teacher association, the allotment association, the tenants and residents association. The friends of the local park or the local library, the conservation society, the local history society. A union, a professional association, a charity. Any meeting that has a formal agenda with ‘AOB’ or Any Other Business as the last item.

When you get to that last item, raise the topic of the climate emergency. (If you’re the person who writes the agenda, it’s even easier. Just put down the words ‘Climate Emergency’ after the number 1.)

Sometimes people have run out of energy by the time a meeting gets to AOB. But sometimes those last five minutes are the most creative, since all the ‘serious’ work has been done already. Sometimes an issue raised as an ‘AOB’ is too big to discuss in detail and has to be put on the agenda for the next meeting. That’s fine too.

What would a five-minute AOB on the climate emergency sound like? It might produce a proposal to turn down the office thermostat by a degree. It might mean talking about the students’ strike for climate and how parents and teachers should respond. It might mean a conversation about how you got to the meeting and working out how to share transport or change the location. A question about whether the organisation’s funds are invested in fossil fuels, and if so, why. A suggestion about planting the empty flowerbed in front of the building. An invitation to a free film screening about plastic.

This modest proposal to make good use of the #AOB could be a way of harnessing the energy of people who have good ideas about cutting emissions but don’t get invited to the facilities management meeting. A way of linking people who want to do more to tackle climate change but hesitate to raise it at work. A way of making this conversation daily and normal.

For too long the subjects that should be at the top of the agenda have not even made it onto the page. But anyone can put them there, using #AOB. Whose business is it? It’s All Our Business.

 

The kindness of woodlice

On New Year’s Day I turned out the compost. It’s in an old wheelie bin that a neighbour drilled with ventilation holes to create a compost bin. It’s still got their old house number painted on it. A few years ago, I wheeled it half a mile or so to the flats where I live, and it has been tolerated as an unofficial experiment in food waste composting.

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Two of us put our vegetable waste in there, along with occasional platters of fruit left over from events at the community centre. And we just leave it. If there’s a cloud of fruit flies in the summer, I sprinkle on a layer of soil, but that’s about it. Every six months or so, when it starts to get full, I open the shutter at the base and empty out some of the contents.

The top of the bin is full of recognisable scraps – just now, there are lots of parsnip tops and a green confetti made of the outer leaves from Brussels sprouts. But down at ground level, when I open the shutter, rich, crumbly brown compost spills out. It’s alive with woodlice doing their work of digesting. The next layer up is damper, mixed with onion skins and egg-shells that haven’t yet dissolved – they’ll go back into the bin for another season.

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I have a small caddy on the kitchen worktop to collect coffee grounds, onion skins, apple cores, potato and tangerine peel. A full one weighs about 2kg. At about one a week, that’s around 100 kg a year that doesn’t need to be collected by diesel-fuelled bin trucks. Food waste is collected from street addresses in Southwark, but blocks of flats have in the past been regarded as ‘too difficult’. This means that all the food waste from Southwark council estates is incinerated. But even better than food waste collection is composting on site, and most estates have corners that would be suitable for composting, particularly if semi-sealed ‘hotbin’ systems are used. With 750 flats on the East Dulwich Estate, even if only ten percent of households composted their food waste, thousands of kilos a year would no longer need to be collected.

Most importantly, the food that goes in the compost bin is no longer ‘waste’: the inedible is magically transformed into rich compost that can nourish the soil. This morning I dug out about 40 litres of compost. I’ll take it to the community garden in the next courtyard, where pumpkins and herbs were grown last year.

It turns out that opening up the compost bin is not a bad job for New Year’s Day. It was a chance to connect with soil on the first of Seven Days of Rest and Reflection. The UN has warned that the world’s soils are severely depleted and that we will have just 60 harvests left if we continue to degrade them as we are doing now. Thinking about soil matters even in the inner city – not least because that’s where most of the vegetable waste ends up. And it’s very satisfying to see last year’s rotten scraps turned into nourishment for this year’s plants, through the benevolent action of woodlice, bacteria and time.

For Southwark residents: buy a composting bin or wormery, or request a free one for a school or community garden.

 

 

Paying for a flight

A friend recently emailed a group of us to ask for support to make a six-hour flight for a four-day trip to do volunteer work supporting people from Central America seeking sanctuary in the United States. I felt conflicted: I wanted to help her do this important work, but not by helping to purchase a flight. One flight outweighs all the other fossil fuel most individuals burn in a year. The oil burnt by millions of flights a year is one of the causes of climate instability. So I was being invited to pay for something I regard as deeply harmful, like a carton of cigarettes for someone with lung disease.

But I didn’t just want to be silent in response to the request, especially because climate change is – and will increasingly be – a cause of migration. The two causes are linked.

I decided to write explaining why I wasn’t sending a donation. I said that I supported the cause an didn’t want to guilt-trip her about this particular flight, because we all make complicated decisions about what’s important. But could the migrant solidarity organisation bring some thinking about climate change into their work?

I know that travelling coast to coast across the United States by train or bus would take more than three days, but if a large group is travelling, could you rent a bus or book a whole railway carriage, and use the extra days of travel to train people up, or visit organisations with similar aims along the way?

I did this with Time to Cycle to get to COP 21 in Paris. It was an extraordinary five-day journey, meeting anti-fracking campaigners in Balcombe and schoolchildren in a school outside Paris, building friendships and sharing knowledge among the members of the group.

Another possibility would be including a carbon-offset element in the fundraiser (asking for the cost of the flight + the cost of planting some trees). Or joining a project locally to plant trees yourselves. Mentioning this on your fundraiser would help get climate change and the links to migration on the radar.

I believe that governments must take urgent action to transform transport to avoid climate breakdown, because individuals can’t make the infrastructure changes we need. But I believe in ‘being the change’ too – and as Peter Kalmus, among others, has found, the alternatives are often more satisfying and enjoyable. For me, that means I don’t fly within Europe, taking long-distance trains instead. I recognise there are strong reasons why people do fly. I don’t say that I’d never fly (outside Europe) again – but there would have to be a good justification. Rob Hopkins writes about thinking this through in one particular case here.

I’m in favour of carbon taxes that take into account the additional damage that flying does compared to other forms of transport (making flying more expensive, and investing in trains instead). The Green Party proposes a ‘frequent flyer levy‘ which would allow people one tax free return flight per year, with a levy on each subsequent flight.

Sorry to write at such length. I recently decided to talk more about how my personal decisions relate to the threat of climate breakdown, with more people, and you are a lucky recipient!

 

On deciding how to give to charity

A few years ago, I worked with Caroline Fiennes on her book It Ain’t What You Give, It’s The Way That You Give It. Though the book is mainly aimed at people deciding how to give rather large sums of money, the section on sponsorship is helpful when deciding whether to give donations to friends doing a charity run or cycle ride. Fiennes suggests that whatever the amount of money you have available, it’s a good idea to plan how you give to charity, so that you are sure the charities you support are ones that advance the causes most important to you, and in the most effective way. She advises setting aside a sum for spontaneous donations, when you want to rely on a friend’s personal choice of charity or just show your support for their efforts, regardless of the cause.

 

Would-be recyclers on a Southwark council estate

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About once a year we receive a card instructing us to leave our clear recycling bags out for collection, putting them out before 6am on a Wednesday morning. There isn’t room for recycling from the whole block to be stored during the week at ground level, so there is a ‘doorstep collection’. A few years ago we lobbied for containers to be provided as a back up, but they are always full by mid-week.

I often find that my bag is not collected, as do my neighbours. It seems that Veolia staff do not do any kind of collection of recycling from doorsteps, they simply empty the large bins. The estate cleaners bring down recycling bags through the week, as they work their way around the blocks.

This means that there’s lots of confusion about the right thing to do with clear bags, recycling rates are lower than they could be and heaps of bags pile up on walkways and at ground level through the week.

I go through spates of diligently reporting missed collections via the council website, in the interest of improving the reliability of the service. Sometime these result in someone coming to pick up my particular bag. Sometimes, if I haven’t reported the missed collection immediately, I get a reply like this:

6 Jan 2018: ‘Unfortunately we are not able to log a missed collection for you at the present as the next collection date is on Wednesday 10 January 2018.’

‘I need to inform you that due to the proximity of your request to the collection date a missed collection can not be raised.’

It becomes a bit tedious to report a missed collection every week, so at the end of February, I tried an alternative approach and simply left my clear recycling bag outside the door, labelled with the date. The photo shows a bag labelled 3 April resting on one from 28 February.

These bags accumulated for seven weeks.

I then reported this – with photo – to the Waste Contract & Strategy Manager for Southwark, and it was raised as a complaint. I am still waiting to hear the outcome.

As I’ve been delivering leaflets around Camberwell and Peckham and talking to residents, I’ve heard and seen lots more examples of clear recycling bags piling up (below from Stacey Path and Hull Court). Recycling materials are highly combustible and shouldn’t be accumulating on walkways or near staircases. The doorstep collection system is meant to work so that a bag is only outside a resident’s door for one night. But the collection system is clearly not working, on many estates across Southwark.

In some cases, residents have told us that they’ve been told to leave their recycling in an area at the top of the staircase – by the Resident Officer or by the cleaners. Whether this is accurate or not, it indicates the widespread confusion about the system.

Update: I had a very thorough reply from the ‘Waste Contract & Strategy Manager’ at the end of April. He notes two problems:

  1. Firstly in the reporting of problems with your collections – it is clear that this has not been a user friendly process, and it hasn’t been effective enough in ensuring that your notifications of service failures are quickly sent to our contractor, Veolia to be dealt with.  We have been recently working to streamline our computer systems so that the process for reporting is simpler, easier to understand, and actioned more quickly.  We expect there to be some short term improvements in the next couple of weeks with a few changes in the process, and in the slightly longer term we are developing new IT systems so that problems and service requests are sent much more quickly to our contractors to be completed.
  2. Secondly, I have taken the view that Veolia have not taken sufficient care to make sure that all collections are done, and have then not taken prompt action to deal with your complaints when they have been raised.  This has led to your own collections being missed for several weeks continuously, but I’m concerned that this is likely to mean that collections generally on the estate are likely to be unacceptably poor.

 

I’m glad to say the recycling has been collected every week since this email was received…

 

A Pesticide Free Southwark

Pesticide Free_London_SouthwarkI have joined the Pesticides Action Network (PAN UK) campaign for a pesticide-free Southwark. The evidence of the impact of pesticides on humans and wildlife is strong, and there are alternatives.

PAN UK writes:

The chemicals being used have been linked to an array of health problems including cancer, diabetes and neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s. Vulnerable groups such as children, pregnant women and old people are most affected.

Pesticides are also having devastating effects on London’s natural environment. Due to habitat loss and the large quantities of pesticides used in UK agriculture, wildlife such as bees, birds and hedgehogs are increasingly seeking refuge in our towns and cities. However, the overuse of pesticides is destroying many of the areas where they can forage for food and contaminating the natural resources they depend upon.

But urban pesticide use is unnecessary. There are lots of non-chemical alternatives available and hundreds of towns and cities around the world have already banned pesticides. Read more about some of the many towns and cities that have already gone pesticide-free here and here.

Spraying glyphosate on a housing estate in Southwark

glyphosate spraying in Southwark

Signs matter

Two new blocks of flats on the East Dulwich Estate were completed in 2017. When residents moved in, the signs on the blocks looked like this.

Southdown sign

The signs are a little larger than A3, with very low contrast between the brushed aluminium base and the black lettering. They are not illuminated at night.

Compare the signs on the adjacent block of flats. Both the original 1930s tile, and the more recent Southwark Council sign, use strong black and white contrast, and individual letters are two or three times as large as those on the 2017 sign.

older signage

Being able to find an address matters:

  • for the emergency services
  • for non-emergency but essential visits, with staff often working on very tight schedules: community nurses and midwives, ambulances taking people to hospital appointments, Dial-a-Ride drivers, carers, tradespeople carrying out repairs
  • for taxis and delivery services, from post office to pizza
  • for friends and relatives …

The importance of legible signage for residents’ safety was the main reason that I asked council officers to look at whether these signs were large and clear enough.

But signs speak of more than just a name.

I have no doubt that the brushed aluminium was chosen to look less ‘council estate’ than the white and turquoise Southwark sign pictured above. This follows the much vaunted aim of ‘tenure blind’ housing – that is, no one should be able to tell from the outside if a flat is owned by the council, a housing association or a private individual.

So far, so uncontroversial. But signs on blocks of flats should be as large and clear as signs on streets. When people can’t find their way, they get annoyed. At night, they can get anxious about being lost, or even about looking lost, in an unfamiliar place. Confusing layout, a lack of signs, a lack of landmarks, blocks that all look the same – these are long-standing complaints about council estates, and contribute to the cliché of ‘intimidating’ estates. Signs also tell a story about the social meaning of different types of housing. In this case, a superficial image (black on silver = classy residential) has been prioritised above legibility.

Analogue accessibility

Isn’t this irrelevant now everyone uses smartphones? Have a look.

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Google Maps does not give the names of the blocks of flats on the estate – they are simply shown as blank rectangles. The detail on Open Street Maps tends to be much richer:

Screenshot-2018-1-2 OpenStreetMap

And East Dulwich in particular has benefitted from the work of Tom Chance who labelled many of these blocks. Volunteers like Tom have made a vital, largely unsung, contribution to integrating social housing into the digital city. But neither of these online maps yet shows our two new blocks, Gatebeck and Southdown, despite them being fully occupied.

Even if the maps did show the names of all the blocks of flats, navigating by GPS/smartphone is not foolproof. Not everyone has a smartphone. Setting out from a railway station or bus stop with phone in hand is discouraged by the police. Data and charge can run out.

Nine months (and counting)

And so I asked about the signs at the East Dulwich Estate Regeneration Project Team meeting in March 2017. Council officers agreed that the signs were too small and should be replaced. I assumed that they would be. At monthly ‘project team’ meetings since then (in person or by email), I have asked about the progress in replacing them. At the end of September 2017, I was told that new signs were ‘going to be ordered’. But as I write, in January 2018, nothing’s changed.

So residents of these new blocks have now spent nine months without a legible sign showing visitors or emergency services where they live.

What the saga of the signs indicates to me is just how hard it is to get things fixed by Southwark Council – even when a repair or alteration has been agreed – when there are so many layers of outsourcing and sub-contracting. These two blocks were built for Southwark Council by Osborne, ‘one of the leading construction businesses in the UK’  with dozens of sub-contractors working under them. It’s long after the normal ‘snagging’ period. The contractors have moved off the site. As residents, we no longer have regular meetings with Osborne or with staff in the ‘direct delivery’ department of the council. Council officers still have the unenviable job of chasing contractors to finish the job properly, but seem to lack the time or will to do so.

If this repair is delayed long enough, the period of the contractor’s liability to ‘make good’ any defects will be over. In that case, either the illegible signs remain in place, causing inconvenience and potential risk to residents, or they are replaced by the council, at the taxpayers’ cost. Who benefits?

 

 

 

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