(Image Left) There are precious few welcoming smiles or friendly greetings for Mark Withers and Craig Dredge as they patrol the streets of Abertillery, a former coal-mining town in the Welsh valleys. Smokers nervously hang on to their cigarette ends, burger eaters cling tightly to their wrappers, dog walkers make sure their pets do not slip their leads.
Dressed in severe black uniforms bulked up by stab vests and equipped with video cameras, Withers and Dredge are civil enforcement officers employed by a private firm at the behest of the local authority to clean up these streets.
In the first six months of Blaenau Gwent's scheme, run in partnership with the London-based security group Xfor, a four-strong team has issued 1,400 fixed penalty notices (FPNs) at £75 a time to people who have been caught littering or walking their dogs in restricted areas. Last week 55 people who refused to pay were taken before magistrates in Abergavenny and ordered to pay fines of up to £400.
The zero tolerance campaign has pleased some residents and shopkeepers who believe the streets are looking better. But civil liberties campaigners worry that such public-private schemes, which are rapidly spreading to other parts of the country, mean public spaces are increasingly being policed by unaccountable officials keen to make as much money as possible for their unelected employers.
Twenty-nine-year-old Laura, who works in the opticians on Church Street in Abertillery, shook with anger as the enforcement officers passed by. "This is a way of bullying people who can least afford to pay and making money for those in power," she said. "We are living in one of the poorest areas in Wales. It's all about making money off people who already have very little." Laura was penalised for dropping a cigarette end. "This big burly fellow who looked as if he should have been on the door of a nightclub came and told me I was going to be fined. There was no bin and the cigarette was still on fire. What was I supposed to do with it? Put it in my pocket?
"They were so rude about it. If you are caught chucking a McDonald's wrapper out of a car, that's fair enough. But I've heard about people getting fined because a piece of cotton fell off a glove on to the pavement and another whose tissue fell out of her pocket. That's just ridiculous. An elderly gentleman who has probably been smoking for 60 years was fined. He didn't think of that cigarette end as rubbish. I just hope he doesn't freeze to death now because he can't afford to put his heating on. This is all about earning a cheap buck from a community already on its knees."
Petros Molgis, who runs a fish and chip shop and a coffee shop on Church Street, said there was less dog fouling but he had not seen a noticeable improvement in the amount of rubbish. "I've asked for a bin to be placed outside the shop. That would help more than anything – but they say there's not enough room." It is not just the residents of Abertillery who feel they are being targeted. Blaenau Gwent covers other settlements: Brynmawr, Ebbw Vale, Nantyglo, Blaina and Tredegar. Unemployment here runs at around 15%, easily the highest rate in Wales. The average gross weekly wage is £465.
Dog walker Tracey Grey, from Nantyglo, said she was issued with a fine for letting her dog off the lead for "10 seconds" in a field where she had walked it for years, but which is now a "dog exclusion zone". "I'm a single parent, there's no way I can afford to pay that," she said. "They'll have to take me to court and I'll end up with a criminal record."Shirley Ford, an independent councillor in Nantyglo, said she had seen officers patrolling outside an Asda and fining people as they dropped cigarette ends before going into the supermarket. Ford accepts that the scheme has changed some bad habits. "I make sure I am next to a bin when I smoke now," she said. "It has got people thinking."
But it is the nature of the relationship between the council and Xfor that makes some people uneasy. The four staff are all Xfor employees. The council pays Xfor £36 an hour for two of them, who focus on dog fouling. The whole £75 from FPNs issued by these two goes to the council. Xfor does not charge the council for the other two. It makes its money by pocketing £45 of the £75 FPN with the balance of £30 going to the council. These two concentrate on littering, the more profitable part of the operation with as many as 95% of the FPNs issued for this offence rather than dog fouling.
The council, which was run by independents when it brought in the policy, has so far made a small loss from the operation but hopes that within a few months it will break even. Xfor is believed to be making a decent profit. Andrew Long, the council's team leader on pollution, said the scheme had never been about making money for the council but was simply about cleaning up the streets at little or no cost to the taxpayer. He accepted Xfor was about making profits. "They are not doing it for charity," he said. Long argued that people could simply avoid getting a criminal record by paying the FPN. Andthe council had started taking into account concerns about ability to pay by giving people the chance to stump up a reduced amount – £50 – if they settled within two weeks.
Asked about the claim that someone had been penalised after a thread dropped from a glove, Long said a woman was issued with a FPN for removing a "piece of waste clothing material". This had been rescinded. He did not know about the alleged penalty linked to the tissue falling from a pocket. "The FPNs are only issued against individuals who deliberately deposit and leave litter," he claimed. Long was unrepentant that so many smokers had been fined (around 85% of the littering offences involve cigarette ends), arguing that a regular smoker could be dropping hundreds of butts in a week and claimed most people believed the scheme was making the area a better place to live and work.
Xfor, so called because many of its staff and managers are former forces personnel, is pleased with how the scheme is working in Blaenau Gwent. It is involved in similar projects in the Midlands, Essex, Kent and some London boroughs. Hillingdon in west London has just brought in Xfor to combat spitting on its streets. Michael Fisher, group operations director, said "dozens" more councils had shown an interest in following the lead of Blaenau Gwent.
Fisher said there was no pressure on officers to issue a certain number of FPNs a day to maximise profits. They were eligible for bonuses, but for factors such as punctuality and smartness as well as productivity. They were paid a salary rather than commission. The Manifesto Club, a civil liberties group, is not impressed. It has written to Blaenau Gwent to argue that some fines and prosecutions are not in the public interest. It said that dropping cigarette butts was "arguably one of the less serious forms of litter — a small biodegradable item, which would do substantially more damage if disposed of in a litter bin to which it could risk setting fire".
Josie Appleton, director of the Manifesto Club, said it was "very worrying" that the practice of local authorities contracting car park management out to private firms was spreading to new areas. She said: "When officials need to issue fines in order to get paid, this is a recipe for corruption. They will tend to punish the more trivial offences that are easiest to identify, rather than the genuine violations. "It is hard to justify fining someone who unwittingly entered a no-dog zone, or who dropped a piece of material by mistake. A warning would be a much better option.
"Litter fines should be proportionate and punish the more serious offenders.