Hanging shoes

Ever wondered why people throw shoes over telephone lines?

I have to admit, it was not a thought that regularly crossed my mind until the pair in the picture above appeared on a road not far from where I live in South London.

According to Wikipedia, the shoe-tossing phenomenon is called “shoefiti”. Suggested explanations for it range from the shoes being used by drug dealers to mark the presence of a drug den, through to the means by which young Scottish men announce to their mates that they have lost their virginity!

Whatever the reason, the presence of the mysterious shoes got me thinking about the ‘broken windows’ theory, and about the challenge of facing the concept of the Big Society.

The broken windows theory was famously referenced in Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller The Tipping Point. In a nutshell, the theory suggests that small acts of vandalism – such as broken windows that are left unrepaired – encourage other larger acts of antisocial behaviour, because they send out the message that no one cares. However, by quickly repairing the damage, vandals are much less likely to break more windows or do further damage.

Although the theory has been challenged – most notably in another bestselling book, Freakanomics – there is common sense logic to it.

For me, the hanging shoes prompt a question: In the Big Society, whose job is it to take them down?

Until recently, the most likely answer would have been the local authority. After all, this was part of the service we expected in return for paying our taxes. But in today’s constrained economic environment, is that a reasonable expectation?

When you think about it, the costs involved in removing the shoes are not trivial. The people, equipment, and the appropriate vehicle would all cost money to deploy. How could the expenditure be justified when set against other needs?

You could argue that the telephone company on whose lines the shoes are hanging should remove them. They are responsible for the maintenance of the lines, so they have the responsibility to fix the problem. However, the company could respond that as long as services aren’t being affected, it’s not their job to remove shoes. After all, they don’t chase away the birds that perch on the lines.

The final answer suggested by the concept of the Big Society is that we, the citizen should do it. After all, it is our quality of life that is being affected, and if it happens in ‘our square mile’ we should mobilize to remove the eyesore. The problem is that few of us have the right apparatus (let alone the insurance cover) to enable us to get reach the shoes and bring them down. Herein lies one of the Big Society’s biggest challenges: How do you provide citizens with the tools they need in order to do deliver services that they would normally expect to be done by others?

One community in rural Devon did manage to find a way around this problem.

The good folks of Okehampton in Mid Devon were repeatedly told by BT that the majority of their homes would never have access to broadband because they lived too far from the exchange and it was too expensive to install.

It was a community with an unmet need that neither the public nor private sectors could justify solving.

However, despite being quoted at least £400,000 to build the facility required, by clubbing together and using new state-of-the-art technology, the village has been able to provide the service themselves.

According to the Okehampton People, the technology uses a line leased from BT that comes in through the local chapel in an underground cable, and is broadcast from the church tower via a radio signal. Houses with a receiver now get the speed they need.

It’s not a free solution. The article states:

The line costs £7,500 per year, distributed between the 150 households signed up to the service. Each pays £18 per month. The set up cost was £50,000, with £6,000 raised through community events such as curry nights, and much of the rest from a grant from Linking the Environment and Farming’s Dartmoor Fund. The group also had support from South Hams District Council.”

It’s a very small example, but it does demonstrate that the Big Society ethos can solve problems that would otherwise have been left undone if left to the public or private sector.

So what does this mean for that pair of shoes?

Well, they were still hanging on the line last time I checked. However, I’m willing to attempt to crowd source a solution.

So, if you have any bright ideas about how they could be removed safely and cost effectively, drop them into the comments box below and let’s see what happens…


16 thoughts on “The Big Society has Big Shoes to fill

  1. I’m thinking:

    – find some local yoofs with air rifles
    – local police taser practice
    – remote control model helicopter with a hook
    – wait for autumn winds

    But then, I’m just boringly practical… 😉

  2. Big Society is a nice idea but it’s not always the solution. When there are specialist shoe hanging removal companies who can perform the job better and without risking anyone’s health should they not be paid by the state to do it?

  3. Once the new service had been set up, BT kindly started lobbying for the exchange to be opened for competitors to use, claiming anti-competition rules if they refused. What a service.

    Re: getting rid of shoes, you could take a different approach and try to stop people throwing them up there in the first place by installing shoe-recycling bins around the area. Maybe showing people that their shoes can be used for the benefit of others might make them think twice about wasting them. Probably not though; where’s the fun in that?

  4. Thanks for the extra info on BT’s response. It underlines the challenge of trying to get private sector businesses to think differently about the Big Society too

  5. Technical solution: a very long pair of secateurs. To consider that more seriously; a tripod affair, one person holding a pole with secateurs on the end, two other people at the other two points of the triangle holding guiding poles: should solve the problem with a quick snip of the shoe laces.

    Other solutions: if one or other of the urban myths is true, we could prevent this happening by either legalising drugs, or improving sex education to the point where the public announcement of, er, establishing adulthood is no longer necessary. OK, I’m kidding, but I’m also half serious: problem solving often requires lateral thinking, and one of the key issues about the big society is getting people to think creatively about how situations can be dealt with rather than just taking whatever tools they happen to have in their box at the time.

  6. Well between we’ve got enough ideas to create a white paper and present to the Gov @markpack can you please deliver for us to your mate Vince C?

  7. Large Van will travel, the height of a large vehicle say removal van stop for no more then five minutes, climb to the top van, remove shoes, job done. Community in action.

    (PS. carry out task at night, less traffic to contend with)

  8. Bring back the street parties!!

    Why not organise a street party, where these shoes hang, hire open top double Decker bus (call it a theme ride). Problem solved!!

  9. Hmmm… but if they go around taking down these shoes won’t citizens be taking the sole out of the big society… and let’s remember that many of our neighbourhoods are already down-at-heel.

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