Hove MP Mike Weatherley issued a largely overlooked press release earlier today, commenting on the success of a pilot scheme in Croydon which aims to provide sanctions against those who drop litter and leave mess. In the press release Weatherley states:
Following a recent anti-social behaviour crackdown by Croydon Council, Mike Weatherley, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Hove and Portslade, has praised the new initiative, which has seen up to 40 littering people a day receiving fines.
Mike was impressed when he learnt that Croydon Council has drafted in four Environment Enforcement Officers to enforce local by-laws in an exciting new trial. On-the-spot fines of £75 are issued to offenders who litter. Of this fine, the private company that provides the enforcement takes £45 and the remaining £30 goes straight to the local authority.
Given the problems of litter and dog-mess in Brighton & Hove, Mike would like to see a similar scheme introduced in the city. Mike has written to the Chief Executive of Brighton & Hove City Council to highlight schemes like this in the past and his Conservative colleagues on the council are watching the trial of the scheme with interest.
Commenting, Mike said: “This is an innovative solution to a perpetual problem across the country. It’s not right that taxpayers should have to pay to clear up after lazy litter bugs. One particularly laudable aspect of the scheme is that it doesn’t cost the taxpayer a penny. Clearly the enforcement officers need to exercise commonsense, but if it works properly, it’s a win-win for Croydon residents. If you need persuading, just look at our beaches after a hot weekend.”
It’s an announcement that comes at an opportune time. In recent months – since the summer’s refuse dispute – Brighton and Hove does appear to have become more squalid, with rubbish spilling out of communal bins in the city centre in particular. But a little research shows that the Croydon approach is potentially fraught with difficulty.
The Croydon scheme in theory falls foul of a fairly basic administrative principle – that you don’t cure problems by providing financial incentives for successful sanction, since the organisation doing the sanctioning has a clear financial interest in ensuring the problem continues. In the early 2000s there was briefly a vogue in Whitehall for using enforcement receipts to fund policing and traffic enforcement projects, on a model developed (unsurprisingly) by consultants, and it was abandoned when the drawbacks became clear. In this case, if people in Croydon actually stopped dropping litter or allowing dogs to foul the pavement, the business case for the private sector partner would disappear. If you’re serious about stopping littering, this just isn’t a rational or intelligent approach.
The problem gets worse when you look at the detail of the Croydon scheme that Weatherley praises so highly. As the Croydon Council cabinet paper recommending the pilot makes clear, the basis of the business model is that the private sector contractor will receive £45 for every fixed penalty notice issued. At the moment, according to local newspaper reports, a team of four security staff is issuing 40 tickets per day; ten each on average, with a bonus payment apparently available for high performance. Assuming 250 working days per year per member of staff, that’s an income of £100,000 per year for each member of staff going straight to the private contractor, but, as the Croydon Council cabinet paper recommending the pilot scheme makes clear, all the risk of collection falls on the council. There’s no transfer of risk at all; this is about a private sector contractor making a financial killing, with a powerful incentive to move against easy targets and perpetuate the litter problem. And if the rate of collection falls below 60% the Council starts to lose money, once again at no risk to the private sector contractor – as the cabinet paper makes clear.
Moreover, the Croydon cabinet paper makes it clear that the scheme can only be made to work effectively if the mitigation for early payment of fines is dropped – in other words, the fine for those who seek to pay quickly will effectively be increased. Not exactly an incentive for good citizenship, I would have thought.
Local civil liberties groups are already expressing concern at the consequences of a scheme in which the sole incentive for the contractors is to maximise the number of penalty notices issued. There is after all a principle that one is innocent until proven guilty; but also the risk that security staff will go after soft targets. In a city like Brighton, where many of those issued with notices will come from outside the city, the enforcement risk is greater – and it all falls on the Council.
In other words, Weatherley is recommending a scheme in which a private security company is empowered to conduct a hugely profitable trade in issuing statutory notices, without regard to the public interest and in which all the risk is borne by the council. This is not a scheme designed to tackle Brighton’s litter and dog-mess nuisance in a long-term, sustainable way, but to allow a private sector contractor to make profit, with that profitability increasing as the number of detectable offences rises; and with a powerful incentive to harass and strong-arm people into accepting fixed penalty notices in circumstances that would not survive judicial process. It’s got nothing to do with the long-term good of the city and everything to do with turning a sure buck for the private security industry.
And it’s a potent reminder of who the Tory Party – in Brighton and elsewhere – speaks for.