Janet Street-Porter: Dirty, dysfunctional – but full of vitality

Click to follow
The Independent Online

According to The Economist, Britain ranks fifth in the world's economies, but we drop to 17th in the ranks of pleasant places to live. When it comes to people-related issues, like the behaviour of our young and the number of hospital beds per thousand of the population, we are way down the scale. I'm not surprised that our quality of life feels eroded.

After spending a week in southern France, I awoke at 6am in London to the unmistakeable sound of aircraft queuing to land at Heathrow. Walking through Piccadilly the night before was a depressing experience. The pavements were packed with armies of trudging commuters laden with rucksacks – the 21st-century equivalent of the Chinese warriors on display at the British Museum.

Our cities might not have the dog poo underfoot you encounter in France, but little patches of human urine every 10 yards around the back of Shaftesbury Avenue more than match the French for squalor. Our cities just feel grubby, over-used and under-resourced. Sitting outside is a dusty, smelly activity.

Last Friday night in the main square in Avignon, groups of young people seemed to be happy with just one beverage an hour in a popular café. Sure, there was the occasional irritating youth on a noisy motorbike, but there were no hen nights, no packs of kids fuelled up by a "happy hour" out to cause mischief in the name of having fun.

But I don't buy into the notion, tempting though it is, that the quality of life here is in terminal decline. When you visit rural France, you encounter village after village of mind-numbing ugliness, devoid of any signs of life outside the summer months. In the winter there are a handful of old people and foreign retirees, and that's it. The French have a real gift for building repulsive post-war architecture, thoroughly unattractive public gardens and civic centres. They specialise in ugly war memorials and bizarre street lighting. They install traffic calming humps that make Ken Livingstone's efforts seem user-friendly. France does the historic very well, imposing stringent planning restrictions on villages and small towns (from the colour of roof tiles to paintwork) giving an attractive cohesion not seen here outside the national parks. They also open up monuments and minimise ugly signage in a way that our government and lottery operators ought to copy.

It would be tempting to agree with The Economist and their carefully selected indicators – but in truth there's nowhere as challenging, stimulating and creative as this country. And although we have a problem with anti-social behaviour in city centres, there's nothing that can't be fixed. We still need to take down about 90 per cent of traffic signs and standardise litter bins. We need more police.

What makes a good quality of life isn't just statistics, it's the feel of a place. Avignon might have world-class historic papal palaces, a beautiful river and a trouble-free city centre, but it also has acres of unattractive suburbia and real poverty. Tourists and an international festival provide much needed lifeblood, but it hardly has the year-round vitality of Edinburgh or Bath. And, for every story of teenage gangs causing mayhem in our villages and small towns, there are plenty of other examples of thriving clubs, local festivals and year-round activities, all of which ensure that the countryside in Britain is a highly attractive and unique place to live.

Don't call Kathleen a martyr

Was it right of magistrates in Chester to throw out the case against 19-year-old student Kathleen Jenkins, accused of resting her feet on a train seat? It's true that she apologised and turned up at court to answer the charge. It helped that she was a cub scout leader who worked with disabled children. But at the risk of sounding like Ann Widdecombe, yobbish behaviour on trains is a serious issue bothering a lot of us, especially if travelling alone. The best way to deal with it would be by on-the-spot fines, using the kind of machines that are to be issued to police to deal with minor offences. Describing Kathleen as a martyr, as one newspaper did, is sexist. If she'd been a spotty teenage male, things would have been very different.

* Another day, another David Cameron big "idea": a proposal to move children from inner-city schools out to rural areas. The notion of rounding up a group of undisciplined teenagers, sticking them on a coach and bussing them anywhere is just plain dotty. Apart from the logistics, there's the misplaced assumption that rural areas are havens where kids behave well. Bad behaviour and under-achievement isn't just confined to cities. Dropping young people far away from their neighbourhood is stigmatising them by postcode. Schools should be intimately connected to a neighbourhood, and pupils should be able to use those facilities outside study hours for a whole range of activities. We need smaller schools, but we can't uproot kids from where they live and subject them to the hours of travelling, just like commuters. That's time when they should be learning, not staring out of a window at a traffic jam. I journeyed across London to school for four years, and it was a miserable experience.