How penalties for dropping rubbish are being driven by profit, writes Sandrine Ceurstemont
Earlier this year I received a litter fine in Walthamstow when I accidentally dropped a receipt after doing some shopping.
I was charged £150, which is the maximum amount for an on-the-spot fine. If I didn’t pay promptly, it was set to increase to £2,500 with the risk of a criminal conviction.
As a science journalist who often covers environmental issues, I support efforts to clean up the area. But with numerous cases of fly-tipping and intentional littering, it didn’t seem right that I had been given a hefty penalty for something so trivial. Furthermore, these fines can’t be appealed, although there is an email address for complaints.
After digging deeper, I realised that the scheme isn’t run by Waltham Forest Council itself; it is outsourced to a private company called Kingdom Services Group. This could explain the rigid approach taken by officers.
Although the council claims to have “zero tolerance” for littering, their interpretation of this and the values behind it seem to clash with Kingdom, which has a bad reputation. The company’s tactics have been questioned by the press, where they are suspected to seek out easy targets such as elderly people who are likely to pay up. The firm also makes a share of the profit, which can vary from 50% to 100% in different areas, so officers have an incentive to collect more fines. A recent investigation by The Guardian reported that Kingdom collected £1.4million in fines over a period of eight months in one area where they operate.
Profits do seem to be overshadowing reason. In other cases, Kingdom has dished out penalties for unintentionally dropping a bookmark and even feeding the birds. The officer that stopped me didn’t use any discretion when I explained that it was a genuine mistake and wanted to pick up the receipt and keep it for my records. Instead he kept pointing to the bodycam he was wearing, saying that he had filmed me committing the offence and was just doing his job.
The complaint process didn’t seem to be impartial, either. When I emailed to explain my case, I received a reply from Kingdom over a month later, saying that they were confident the penalty had been issued correctly. It quoted the law, saying that even dropping something by accident was an offence.
The council does seem to have a different attitude. Determined to fight my case, I emailed them directly and got a reply a few days later. My fine was cancelled. I was told that the council wanted to target people who deliberately drop litter, making the area untidy, and not accidents such as in my case.
Councils using private companies for such schemes can be a money-saving tactic. Kingdom guarantees no cost to the local authority, because it recovers its costs from penalty fines issued. But the power they are given risks being abused when their ultimate goal isn’t to look out for the public good.