London 'cleanest capital in Europe': Minister defends result of a survey by the Tidy Britain Group that will surprise some, reports Helen Nowicka

LONDON is the cleanest capital city in Europe while Athens is the dirtiest, according to a survey published yesterday by the Tidy Britain Group.

In a result that will surprise many Londoners, the city was found to be better cared for than Paris, Amsterdam or Berne, winner of the last such study.

The survey's suggestion that Paris has the dirtiest shopping area was met with laughter at the office of the city's mayor, Jacques Chirac. A spokeswoman said: 'Last week we heard about another survey which said we were the cleanest city in Europe. We would rather believe that one.'

London finished on top after researchers for the Tidy Britain Group examined litter levels and environmental problems in tourist areas of nine European capitals, awarding points for cleanliness. In each city they compared conditions on a busy shopping street, around parliament buildings, in a major railway station with European destinations, and at an open-air tourist attraction.

They found less refuse around the Palace of Westminster than any of its Continental equivalents, while Victoria station and the surrounding area won the railway terminus category for cleanliness.

Trafalgar Square was named as joint second-cleanest tourist site, tying with Amsterdam's Dam Square and the Grosserstern roundabout in Berlin. First place went to the bear pit in Berne.

The Swiss capital also won the award for the cleanest shopping area, Bahnhof Platz, with Oxford Street west of Oxford Circus a close second. In general, London was praised for the general absence of fly-posting, dog fouling and overflowing bins - factors which proved decisive in the city narrowly surpassing Berne to claim first place overall.

By contrast, Athens had the grimiest railway station, the most rubbish around its parliamentary complex and the dirtiest tourist attraction - Syntagma Square.

The shopping street containing the most litter was the Boulevard Haussman in Paris, while Amsterdam had the worst incidence of graffiti and Madrid the highest level of dog fouling.

Announcing the results, Professor Graham Ashworth, director- general of the Tidy Britain Group, acknowledged the study had only examined 'visitors' London' and conceded Britain is far from litter- free. 'There are still significant problems which we continue to address. However, the survey does show that we are cleaner than our European neighbours,' he said.

Yesterday, a random sample of Londoners and visitors to the city were sceptical that pristine conditions around tourist sites were representative of the capital.

Shawn Bowmen, a security guard who works opposite the House of Commons, said: 'I start at 6am and there are always a couple of cleaning patrols in the morning. Where I live, in Stepney Green in east London, it's a different situation - it's just a mess.'

Carole Ennis, a civil servant of Tonbridge in Kent, agreed that the area around Whitehall was well maintained. 'But you don't have to go far before it changes, if you walk up the Strand or along to Victoria there's a lot more litter.'

However, Jutta Jaenecke, an artist who divides her time between Berlin and London, thought the British city a worthy winner. 'Berlin is a lot more scruffy, I'm not surprised London came first,' she said.

John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment and the minister with responsibility for London, said people who were reluctant to believe the survey's findings were being unfair.

'It is our habit to believe that we are not as good as other people. It is time we took the view which other cities have and praise our successes,' he said. 'This has finally scotched the idea that London is a dirtier place than other major European cities. That idea grew up because we were much less clean than we are now.'

The rankings for the nine cleanest cities, in descending order, are: London, Berne, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Brussels, Rome, Madrid and Athens.

(Photograph omitted)