A clean sweep for Brum

Birmingham has shed its image of a decaying relic and been named Britain's cleanest city. Esther Oxford reports
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The Independent Culture
Fountains, usually a slimy mess neglected by cleaners but noticed by visitors, are said to sparkle in Birmingham. The public loos, museums, shopping malls and streets are spotless. Even graffiti rarely lasts more than a day.

Birmingham, the British Cleaning Council has just announced, is Britain's cleanest city. The much-maligned Brum has officially shaken off its image as a decaying, pollution-filled, concrete relic. Enter a new city with a face-lift, fine grooming and a touch of style. "We are Europe's meeting place," says Brian Seymour-Smith, spokesman for Birmingham City Council. "We need the city to be clean."

Forty of Britain's 57 cities entered the biennial contest. Previous winners include Canterbury, Plymouth and Aberdeen. According to the British Cleaning Council, Birmingham was chosen because it "made the best use of cleaning tools - a mixture of hi-tech machines and manual cleaners holding brushes. We judged the cities by their state of overall cleanliness. We were not interested in the suburbs or in how quickly rubbish was collected."

Westminster had been tipped to win the award. But the public building interiors "tended to let the side down a little", said the judges. First- time finalist Rochester in Kent was also tipped to win, and Bath, Chester, Carlisle, Derby, Nottingham, Hull, Portsmouth and Stoke-on-Trent were shortlisted.

Some cities didn't bother taking part, Lancaster and Southampton among them. "People's priorities were elsewhere," Joceline Tran, spokesperson for Southampton, says dismissively. "The competition didn't make it to the top of the pile - if you know what I mean."

To the chagrin of critics of the award, pollution levels and the number of environment-friendly initiatives were not taken into consideration in the nationwide search for the cleanest city. "Our officers judged by what they could see, not what they couldn't see," says a spokesman from the British Cleaning Council.

Not all were celebrating yesterday. A spokesperson from Birmingham Friends of the Earth, who wished to remain anonymous, said he'd just been for a walk through the city: "I thought to myself, 'If this is clean, I'd hate to see it dirty'.

"How do you define clean? I wouldn't say Birmingham in the suburbs or in the shopping centres outside the middle of town is particularly clean."

True, he says, the council's decision to make the city centre traffic- free has cut down on car pollution. "But what about all the dioxins from the waste disposal unit?" he asks. Instead of looking at how to clean up the city once it is dirty, Birmingham City Council should look at prevention: "What can be done to reduce waste? What about encouraging people to recycle? What about compost heaps?"

Still, he conceded, he enjoys the "Parisian" feel of the place: open- air cafs where people can drink coffee and listen to the city's buskers; restaurants with tables sprawling on to the pedestrianised city centre, where one can feel "European" without having to cross the Channel.

Birmingham insists it already has a fine record on environmental issues. "All our domestic waste is burnt and turned into energy," says Mr Seymour- Smith." We also have three pollution monitoring systems so that the city's asthmatics can be warned if the pollution level is high." But the image it is really trying to promote is the European one.

"Birmingham relies on getting party conferences to come here. If that means we have to spend £8m a year pulling chewing gum off the streets, cleaning off graffiti, tearing down fly posters and stopping dog fouling, then that is what we shall do."