07:42PM, Wednesday 11 November 2020
Councillors had an impassioned debate about the Royal Borough’s new environmental crime officers at a fiery council meeting on Tuesday.
In the five weeks since the enforcement was introduced (since October 5), councillors have heard many complaints from residents in their wards about the District Environmental Crime Officers (DECOs).
Officers from the District Enforcement company have dished out 649 fines in five weeks – 476 of which were cigarette related.
Councillors at a communities overview and scrutiny panel heard from resident John Webb, who said he felt the officers’ modus operandi was to ‘lay in wait’ for smokers and ‘pounce on them’ rather than patrol for random acts of littering.
Councillor David Cannon, lead member for public protection and parking, said he ‘took umbrage’ at this comment.
“We have seen no evidence of this,” he said. “Anyone taking their evidence from Facebook I would suggest is unwise.”
Councillor Helen Price (TBF, Clewer & Dedworth East) voiced her concern about an ‘entrapment approach’ residents have reported, describing claims that officers hide from view and appear only when people drop litter.
“We have had councillors reporting things that bear no resemblance to the truth because they have been misled by the residents reporting,” said Cllr Cannon.
“If you want this scheme to work, the last thing we need is antagonism from councillors.”
Cllr Price had concerns that the Royal Borough was not following best advice from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which takes an ‘explain, engage, educate’ approach before enforcement.
Though many councillors voiced their support for a warning system instead, others stressed there were no means to check if someone has previously received a verbal warning.
Cllr Price and Councillor Carole Da Costa (WWRA, Clewer & Dedworth East) both flagged up examples of people who could not afford their fine – including a resident who is purportedly now being supported by a foodbank as a result of receiving one.
“£75 is a significant amount of money for some residents. For cigarette butts, is the punishment fitting for the crime? I don’t believe it is,” said Cllr Da Costa.
“If someone litters, they deserve a fine but they do not deserve to be intimidated or forced into a position where they can’t afford to buy food for their family.”
Regarding worries about the officers coming onto private land, the meeting was told that technically private car parks count as public space, thus the officers are within their rights to do so – unless asked not to by landowners.
Cllr Cannon advised landowners against this.
“If residents know they are going onto land where they can freely litter, these landowners would be creating a problem for themselves,” he said.
A student from Maidenhead who suspects she was spiked with a needle on a night out after waking up in hospital the next day has urged people to report similar incidents to the police.