Another fine mess……..

Given that I am, for the second month running, writing about local councils’ approaches to fining people for littering, you may think that I am waging a campaign against councils’ litter enforcement practices. I am pleased to say that that is not the case. I am, rather, advocating a more relaxed and, I think, a more “hearts and minds” approach to litter fines.

This month’s story isn’t about an act that is obviously a case of littering. It is about David Baker, a very public-spirited man in Stourbridge who lives in a flat in the town centre and goes out and picks up litter for at least an hour a day, seven days a week – without any remuneration. What a hero is David Baker !

But good old David allegedly made one vital mistake. As well as collecting sackloads of litter, he used to deposit pizza boxes and items of mail (with his name and address on them) in the street litter bin.

Now – how many of you know that it is illegal to place your domestic rubbish in a public litter bin ? You didn’t know that ? Well, I agree that it isn’t the most well-known of laws but you can see the point – councils have enough trouble keeping normally-used litter bins emptied on a regular basis without all of us putting our household rubbish in them as well.

Anyway, Dudley Council got wind of the fact that David Baker was placing pizza boxes and his own unwanted correspondence into a public litter bin. Apparently, the Council had a word with him about this and he continued to do it. So……they issued him with a £75 fine for littering.

Does that seem harsh to you ? Well, the Council’s Cabinet Member for the Environment (i.e. an elected councillor) did say at the time that they would be reviewing the fine and the good news is that common sense prevailed and, a few days later, the fine was rescinded. Phew !

What the press accounts of this episode don’t tell us, though, is exactly why David Baker kept putting his personal correspondence into the public bin (does that remind you of Oliver Letwin putting some confidential government papers into a bin in a London park last year – was he fined £75 ?) as it had been explained to him three times before that he shouldn’t be doing it. And, apparently, it wasn’t just junk mail he was depositing but also letters addresses to him from HSBC and the NHS.

And it wasn’t made clear, either, whether the pizza box in question was from a takeaway pizza or from a pizza that David Baker had cooked himself at home. If it was a takeaway pizza, presumably you can buy the pizza, eat it in the street and lawfully dispose of the box on your way home. But if you take it home to finish off, does the pizza box then automatically become domestic waste ?

Anyway, I would like to know why David Baker did what he did as it does seem a bit strange, even if it is clearly over the top to fine him without an extremely good reason.

In the same week, we also read the story of a boy in Tamworth who was playing Pooh-sticks and who was fined £80 for throwing a 2ft long branch into the river. Oh my goodness – has the world gone mad ?

The long and the short of all this is that, whatever you think of councils fining people for dropping litter, the training of the enforcers MUST involve training a degree of common sense (although you could be forgiven for thinking that sense is becoming less and less common as time goes on). And it should be noted that both the councils mentioned above use their own staff as enforcement officers, not incentivised contractors

Training must encourage the enforcement officers to educate, advise and warn people in those borderline cases where, if a trigger-happy enforcement officer instinctively reaches for their pad of fixed-penalty notices, the only conclusion that people will draw is that the law is an ass – and rightly so.

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