Published: 05:00, 15 November 2021
| Updated: 15:50, 15 November 2021
Controversial litter wardens hired by a local authority in the summer as rubbish piled up across a district’s beaches and parks are dishing out 96% of fines to people dropping cigarette butts.
But figures released by the council show that of the 272 fines issued in the first nine weeks of the pilot, 260 were to people discarding cigarette butts.
Only one person was hit with a penalty notice for any other kind of littering – for dropping chewing gum – while the remaining 11 fines were for dog offences and spitting.
The findings have led to claims the wardens are targeting smokers as “easy pickings”, rather than concentrating on areas regularly blighted by a build-up of rubbish.
Since the trial began in August, 21 complaints have been made about the enforcement officers, including suggestions they are spying on people smoking to see if they discard cigarette butts.
Last week, KentOnline saw a warden in action at the city's bus station.
A warden speaking with a litterer who had dropped a cigarette butt
An officer saw a smoker discard his cigarette on the pavement and approached the offender. He spoke with him but did not issue a fine.
Our reporter then approached the offender, who said: “It was just a cigarette butt.
"I picked it up and I usually keep rubbish in my pockets. I admit it was probably wrong.”
Kingdom was subject to similar accusations when it was contracted by the city council from 2014 to 2016.
Its wardens were branded over-zealous in their pursuit of smokers, and infamously fined a retired couple who dropped cherry pips in the city centre.
In the wake of the penalty notice figures being published, Cllr Dave Wilson, leader of the Labour group on the city council, has hit out at the decision to re-hire Kingdom, and called for a change in policy.
“It’s disappointing, but predictable,” he said.
“We told the council this would happen as Kingdom did it last time. They do the nice and easy thing of solely focussing on the easy targets – they’ve got a reputation of doing this.
“It doesn’t do anything to address the littering problem, and it’s not about changing behaviour.
“It’d be great if [the service] was addressing the litter which blows down the verges, or the rubbish which gets thrown at bins and not in them, but it doesn’t – the policy is a mess.
“I’m not saying a solution is easy, but there needs to be a longer-term approach.”
Cllr Ashley Clark, the lead member on enforcement, has defended the amount of fines dished out for dropping cigarette butts, highlighting how common the offence is.
“If you went to photograph birds, you’d get lots of pictures of sparrows as they are the most common, and not get a lot of red kites or golden eagles,” the Conservative said.
“Catching people littering cigarette butts is the easiest thing to spot, so of course you’re going to have a greater number of them over other offences.
“It’s a lot harder to get people dumping bottles and cans as they typically take place in the evening and hours of darkness.”
Cllr Clark also says tackling the beach litter problem proved to be a tough ask for Kingdom wardens, as the three-month trial was mostly carried out in the autumn when dumped waste is not a big issue.
“If the litter wardens are operating next summer, I’d imagine the variety would be much greater,” he said.
“We want more attention on our beaches, and in the summer we will be able to deploy them there to catch offenders.”
With fines for dropping a cigarette butt being £150, more than £15,500 of income has so far been received from offenders coughing up since the trial began.
A large chunk, 70%, of the cash goes to Kingdom, with the city council receiving 30%.
The authority says hiring the enforcement firm has freed up its own staff to concentrate on more serious matters, such as fly-tipping, illegal waste carrying and illegal scrap metal collectors.
In total, 139 fines were dished out in Northgate, 109 in Westgate, eight in Tankerton, seven in Herne and Broomfield, five in Sturry, three in Wincheap, and just one in Reculver.
Of the 272 penalties, just 109 have been paid so far.
The council’s community committee will discuss the three-month trial on Wednesday, and determine whether to pursue a full-time contract with a private security company. If agreed upon, as recommended by council officers, the service would be put out for tender.
In a report, council enforcement manager Lacy Dixon further defended the primary focus on targeting cigarette butt litterers.
“While some may think this seems like ‘easy pickings’, it should be noted that cigarette filters are the most commonly littered item in England, making up 68% of all littered items and it costs UK local authorities around £40 million per year to clear them up,” she said.
“The vast majority of cigarette butts are single-use plastic and contain hundreds of toxic chemicals once smoked.”