Multiple A-boards on the footway on Goodge Street, Fitzrovia, London.
A-boards on the footway along Goodge Street create an obstacle course for people getting about. Photo: Centre for London.

Central London is lagging behind its global rivals when it comes to dealing “street clutter”, a think tank has warned. And Goodge Street in Fitzrovia has been held up as a prime example of the problem.

In a new report, the Centre for London says that streets in the heart of the capital are strewn with “poorly-placed or redundant objects”, including disused phone boxes, dumped e-bikes and advertising A-boards.

The paper’s authors argue that the problem is making London a worse place to live, travel, visit and work in.

As well as affecting footfall to London’s businesses, the city’s cluttered streets are also making the capital less accessible to people with mobility issues, the think tank says.

The Department for Transport recommends that pavements be a minimum of two metres wide to ensure accessibility for all, but the report found that many of central London’s footways are narrower in places.

Researchers assessed Goodge Street in W1, Charing Cross Road in WC2 and Belvedere Road in SE1.

Of the three streets assessed, Goodge Street in Fitzrovia was the most cluttered — and is featured on the front cover of the 30 page report.

“Goodge Street, which runs between Westminster and Camden and therefore forms part of a borough boundary, is a popular street for shopping and dining in Fitzrovia,” stated the authors of the report who surveyed the street at 2pm on Friday 2 June 2023.

“The majority of restaurants and pubs have outdoor dining on the pavements, an ongoing legacy of the pandemic [restrictions]. The eastern end of the street is single direction, one-lane traffic, but it widens on the intersection with Charlotte Street into two lanes. There are very high levels of pedestrian footfall and the footway is mostly over 2m wide.

“On the 400m [sic] stretch of Goodge Street that was assessed, we found that: 49 percent of the objects on the street were clutter; The vast majority (89 percent) of the clutter was transient; 33 percent of the clutter was classed as ‘moderate’, 15 per cent was classed as ‘severe’.”

The most common obstacles on Goodge Street were A-boards, commercial refuse, outdoor seating, and traffic cones.

“On Goodge Street, we found 18 A-boards that could be classed as clutter. This is driven by the high density of shops and restaurants, each competing with one another for customers.”

The problem is particularly bad because several businesses had dumped multiple A-boards on the street.

“The A-boards varied in size and were often found clustered together. Along with reducing the accessibility of the footway, A-boards can cause serious risks to people with visual impairments and make it harder to navigate through the street,” said the report authors.

Commercial waste was also found strewn about causing a stinking and slippery barrier for people walking and wheeling.

Orange and white rubbish bags on the footway on Goodge Street, Fitzrovia, London.
Commercial waste is one of the most common obstacles on the footway on Goodge Street. Photo: Centre for London.

“Like much of central London, Goodge Street doesn’t have dedicated infrastructure for collecting commercial waste. As a result, accepted practice is that waste is placed in the street for collection.

“These bags were found to take up large areas of the pavement, reducing the accessibility of the street, and also reducing the desirability of walking in this area,” stated the report.

The researchers found in all three locations that A-boards — placed on pavements by businesses to draw customers in — were the most common form of street clutter.

They also concluded that nearly half — 47 percent — of all street clutter had a “moderate” or “severe” impact on the walkability of pavements.

Millie Mitchell, one of the report’s authors, said: “London is a fantastic global city, but it isn’t going far enough in ensuring everyone can enjoy walking in its city centre equally.”

She added that street clutter is “stopping people from walking to where they need to be, and the knock-on impacts are worrying for businesses, for London’s net-zero targets, and for disabled Londoners.”

The report was praised by Alexander Jan, a Fitzrovia resident and non-executive chair at the Central District Alliance — a Business Improvement District encompassing Holborn, Clerkenwell, Farringdon, Bloomsbury, and St Giles.

He said: “At a time when New York and others are marching ahead with investment in street waste management systems and the wholesale removal of phone-boxes, our government at all levels — as well as statutory regulators and utility providers — together need to up their game urgently to tackle long standing problems that damage too much of London’s public realm.”

On street advertising boards, known as A-boards, the report points to the example of Edinburgh, where the council introduced a city-wide ban of the objects in 2018. The only exception is during the annual fringe festival.

The think tank recommends that mayor Sadiq Khan introduce a similar ban across Greater London.

It says: “There are already some local bans in place, for example in Hackney and the City of London. TfL have also banned them on their road network.

“But many of central London’s main streets run through borough boundaries. Persuading businesses to accept and comply with a ban that only applies to one half of a street is difficult.

“If the ban were to be city-wide, then the playing field for businesses would be level, and all of London could benefit from reduced pavement clutter.”

On the subject of e-bike dumping — another issue raised by the report — London’s walking and cycling commissioner Will Norman said: “The mayor and I want as many Londoners as possible to choose more sustainable ways to get around the capital like walking and cycling, and everyone should be able to use the pavements without fear of tripping over a poorly parked e-bike.

“Dockless e-bike rental is currently unregulated and organised locally between individual e-bike operators and individual boroughs.

“We are working with the operators, London Councils and London boroughs to increase the quality, safety and sustainability of e-bikes — and improve parking facilities — but we really need the Government to urgently devolve the powers to cities to regulate e-bikes and e-scooters themselves.”

The report also recommends that borough councils develop their own “decluttering strategies” and that the Government should give councils “the power to remove redundant street furniture, such as redundant phone kiosks, with very limited grounds for appeal, subject to prior notice”.

Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg, cabinet member for city management and air quality at Westminster Council, said: “Street clutter can cause serious problems for people getting around the city, particularly for those who are disabled or are visually impaired.

“Westminster City Council is doing everything it can to keep street clutter to a minimum. We have recently introduced a network of parking bays for hire e-bikes to keep bikes off the pavement, and we have also stepped up our efforts to catch people who illegally dump rubbish on the street. We are also looking at the issue of disused and neglected telephone boxes, which can cause obstructions.

“Pedicabs blocking pavements have long been a plague on the West End, but unfortunately the council lacks the powers to tackle the issue. This is why we are pushing government to introduce new legislation in a Transport Bill, so councils can properly regulate pedicabs and keep them off the pavement.

“We want residents and visitors to be able to get around safely, so we are ensuring our streets are kept clear and accessible for everyone,” he said.

Councillor Adam Harrison, cabinet member for a sustainable Camden, said: “It is vital that our streets remain safe and accessible for people walking around our borough, especially for those with mobility issues and for people who are blind or partially sighted.

“Currently, the council stipulates that a minimum of 1.8 metres of clear space must be maintained on our pavements to ensure that people can walk freely; and in busier parts of the borough, we increase this requirement.

“The recent removal of 19 redundant phone boxes on Tottenham Court Road demonstrates how we are being proactive on this issue. We are not willing to stand by and allow our streets to be blighted by street clutter that serves no purpose and we will continue to consider what further action we can take, including whether to introduce a full ban on A-boards,” he said.

Reducing Street Clutter in Central London, by Claire Harding, Oriane Nermond, Millie Mitchell. Published 17 October 2023 by the Centre for London.

Additional reporting by Linus Rees.